They may be man’s best friend but dogs can be a serious threat when cycle touring. Even when only playing they can cause a crash or damage equipment. They can also carry rabies and cause serious or fatal injury.
Luckily serious attacks are rare but if you cycle tour a lot you will probably encounter aggressive dogs so it’s important to know how to deal with them.
Why do dogs attack cyclists?
- Dogs are essentially wolves and retain the instinct to chase large moving prey. A bike with rider and panniers is visually close enough to trigger that instinct. They may just chase the bike for fun but often they will nip at your heels or panniers which could be enough to bring you down.
- Some dogs are trained to defend an area.
- Dogs are territorial. They may see the road as part of their territory.
- Some places have many stray dogs, which could be starving. They may see you as something to eat!
- In some countries dogs can have rabies making them aggressive.
- Some dogs aren’t well trained and are highly aggressive by nature.
It’s impossible to give advice that will work for every dog. Each situation is different and there are no guarantees that what works in one will work in another.
The most common advice is that you should stop cycling and dismount. The rationale for this is that you have little chance of outpacing the dog so you might as well discourage it from chasing you, otherwise it could cause a crash. Stopping and dismounting will most likely calm the dog down. You can then walk your bike away to safety.
Generally this is good advice for dogs that are just chasing you instinctively or for fun. However, if a dog looks highly aggressive, rabid, a stray, or if you encounter a group of dogs, I would argue against stopping. If an attack is likely whether you stop or not you probably have a better chance cycling away. A moving bike with panniers has a fair amount of inertia and won’t be easy to bring down. Stay focused on the road ahead and cycle fast and steady. Kicking isn’t recommended unless a dog is nipping your heels. It will slow you down and could cause a crash.
If you do stop and the dog carries on being aggressive don’t overreact. Just because the dog is barking aggressively doesn’t mean it will attack. There is an old saying that a barking dog never bites, the logic being that if the dog wanted to bite you it would do so rather than wasting its energy. I wouldn’t trust in this saying too much but generally a barking dog will not attack so long as you don’t overreact or threaten it.
Remember that dogs are highly aware and will pick up on your body language and manner.
Don’t act dominantly and try and face down the dog. Stand sideways to it and avoid eye contact. Don’t run as this will encourage an attack and you have no hope of outrunning the dog. Don’t smile as showing your teeth could be taken as aggression.
Put the bike between yourself and the dog. Call for the dog’s owner.
Move off at walking pace – try and get away from its territory.
If a dog continues to be aggressive or looks ready to attack you may need to try other strategies.
Throw some food
You could try carrying some bits of dried meat and giving them to dogs that bother you. That may just encourage the dogs to follow you, however.
Shout at the dog
Shout ‘stop’ and ‘go home’. It might not have much effect on the dog but if you make a lot of noise it may attract help.
Try picking up stones and pretend to throw them at the dog. If that doesn’t work actually throw them at the dog. If there are no stones pretend to pick up stones and throw them. You could even carry some stones in your pocket for such occasions.
Use a sonic dog scarer
The efficacy of sonic dog repellents is contested. Some say they work well, others that they have no effect and can even make the dog more aggressive.
Squirt soapy water
Squirting water from your bottle may discourage a dog. A more extreme measure is to put a little washing up liquid in the water and squirt it in the dog’s eyes (obviously you would need to carry a second water bottle). Chilli powder is another alternative. This should be pretty uncomfortable for the dog, presuming you can hit the eyes. On the other hand it may just make the dog angry. You could even carry a water pistol for this purpose though it might be considered an offensive weapon! You can also use the soapy water for cleaning.
Use a pepper spray
In many countries pepper sprays are illegal but in countries that allow them it’s a good idea to carry one. Be careful though that it doesn’t blow back into your own face.
Carry a walking pole or heavy pump
A pump won’t be a very effective weapon but may help to occupy a dog’s jaws allowing you fend off its attack. A better weapon is a walking pole kept somewhere near to hand (some will fit on a pump mount). Wave the pump or stick at the dog to show you intend to use it.
Remember that although a dog is fast and has very powerful jaws, humans are generally bigger and stronger and with a weapon can inflict serious damage. Show the dog it has a good chance of being hurt. If an attack seems imminent intimidation may be your best chance of stopping it.
If the Dog Actually Attacks
Try not to panic and run. This will encourage the attack and make you more vulnerable.
Call for help. Your best chance may come from getting help so make a lot of noise. Shout at the dog to stop. Don’t scream as this will encourage the attack.
Use whatever you have to hand to protect yourself and distract or attack the dog.
Use the bike as a shield and as an offensive weapon – unfortunately a loaded touring bike is usually too heavy to thump a dog with but if you can keep it between you and the dog it may give up the attack. Toppling the bike on top of the dog may pin it down long enough for you to get to safety.
A walking pole makes a decent weapon and some can be carried on a frame using a pump holder. The tip is extremely hard and quite sharp. Swing it at the dog to let it know you intend to use it. Hold it in front of you with the tip forward so the dog jumps into it when it attacks. Try to get the dog to grab the end of the stick and ram it into the dog’s throat.
A dog has no other weapon apart from its jaws. If you can stop it biting it can’t do much damage. Offer it something to bite to keep its jaws occupied – a pump, water bottle, jacket, bar bag, pannier. Once the dog has a hold of it try to pull up its head and kick it hard in the chest. Alternatively, wrap something like a jacket round your weaker arm to protect it and fend off the dog. If you don’t have time to wrap it properly try to smother it over the dog’s face. Then use your good arm for attack, preferably with some sort of weapon – screwdriver, pen – go for its eyes, nose, throat and chest.
Use your weight to hurt the dog. Drop onto its chest with your knee. If you get the chance (which admittedly isn’t all that likely) grab its front legs and pull them apart very hard – a dog’s legs are weak in that direction and it will struggle to continue the attack if you break them.
Of course, it’s easy to type these things and to read them. To actually do them when being attacked is an entirely different matter. Your instinct will likely be to run and go to ground. Try to fight this. Your best bet is probably to protect yourself as best you can, make a lot of noise and hope someone comes to help. On the other hand you may find your own survival instinct is to attack. Don’t get carried away, just use the necessary force required to fend off the dog and ensure your safety.
If you are bitten get medical help immediately, no matter how slight the wound.
It’s very rare that cyclists have to fend off a full-on dog attack. Most dogs are simply acting aggressively because they have been trained to defend a certain area or because they are following their chase instinct. At the same time cyclists shouldn’t have to put up with being menaced by a potentially deadly animal. It is not acceptable to be menaced by a human – which is equivalent to the assault part in assault and battery – and neither is it acceptable to be menaced by a dog. After all, farmers have the right to shoot dogs that menace their livestock.
If you are in a country where it is illegal for a dog to menace people, such as the UK, you should make an effort to report it, though this can be difficult on tour. Once you are out of harm’s way try and get a photo of the dog, or at least make a note of what it looks like, and note the location and address if possible. Notify the police of the incident. After all, the next person the dog menaces may be less fortunate.