Confounding the Canines

JOHN NAYLOR discusses new ways and old for the cyclist to avoid becoming a dog's dinner

You're wheeling along happily when you spot something black and unspeakable coming up at you fast. Yes, it's someone's beloved family pet 'gone bush'. You are some strange kind of centaur, a meal on wheels, and he's going to get you.

Just as you are wondering whether you have paid your life insurance premium an angel appears. It's a balding one in wellies, manure fork in hand. And the angel speaks: "Come on Prince, you bad lad! Here boy. There's a good doggy," (pat pat). The ravening wolf reverts into pure pooch. The gardener-angel resumes his digging, and peace is upon us once again.

There seems to be something about a moving cyclist which excites an otherwise placid animal. Maybe it's the sound of swishing wheels that 'drives them nuts'; maybe it's an instinct to chase running prey. Yet hardly any attack is a serious threat to life or limb. In thousands of miles of cycling in several countries over several years, I've been run at by dogs many, many times, but not one of these has been a serious assault.

The dog problem goes back as long as cycling itself. In the 1840s a 14-year-old French youth, who regularly toured Paris on a hobby horse, used a coachman's whip to keep marauding dogs at bay. Correspondents to early club magazines exchanged tips and advice on the matter. They suggested wielding lead-weighted sticks, spraying pepper, squirting ammonia, throwing stones and scattering tacks. The most spectacular deterrent, marketed at the turn of the century, was the exploding petard, a gunpowder-filled pellet designed to scare rather than harm.

Many of these techniques are time-honoured favourites but of doubtful value when confronted by half a hundredweight of hungry Rottweiler. Most modern experts agree that the best way to deal with a menacing dog is to stand still and 'play statues'. Dr Roger Mugford, of the Animal Behaviour Centre in Surrey, advises cyclists to stop, dismount and put the bike between self and dog. Don't look into its eyes (this is a challenge in doggy language), don't move - especially don't raise your arms - and keep quiet. If it keeps coming, throw something away from you, preferably something edible. The animal's main motivation is to play and chase, not to kill; but excessive challenges can cause an ugly change of behaviour in some dogs.

Fortunately today's cyclist can leave catapult and rolling pin at home, for there are sonic deterrents available. But these devices don't work on all dogs. My favourite method is a quick squirt in the face from the water bottle. It stops dogs in their tracks as they suddenly can't see, and it doesn't do any real harm.

In general the law is on your side, although charges of cruelty could be brought against anyone who is unduly violent towards the dog.

Education is the long-term solution, says Dr Mugford, especially of owners. Dogs can be trained not to chase people. However, if you are attacked and actually bitten, try to find out who the owner is, tell him or her about the attack and inform the police. Seek medical attention immediately, especially if you are in a country where rabies is present.