Cyclist as Prey
This year is different at the LaPosa West LTVA. This year, the animal hazard I have to be concerned about is unleashed dogs. Motorcycles can pass them by at low speed without a second look, but bicycles seem to kick in their “chase and bring it down” instinct. I’ve had two attempted attacks in as many weeks while biking down this campground’s main trail, and my deference in treating them as someone’s pet instead of what they are – animal attacks – is wearing thin.
The first was a smallish mutt with legs too short to do much more than 15 MPH, which allowed me to throttle up the Aurora e-bike and keep the dog just alongside the Ibex trailer on the dirt and gravel trail. But it did manage to stay there for a good quarter mile, while some lady jumped out of her motorhome and tried in vain to call it back. That camp is a potential problem because there seem to be three other dogs, a pit bull, one that resembles a mastiff, and one that’s just as large but is a mutt or some breed I can’t identify. Oddly, the pit bull is the only one who doesn’t seem to care when I pass by – if he’s the only one staked out. It seems bored. The others charge their leashes, and it will too if the others are outside at the same time. Pack mentality.
The second episode, a mile from the main area, involved the silent type and just appeared, only barking and growling as it pulled alongside a hundred yards or so past where its owner camped. The owner had been outside with it as I rode by and, from what I could tell, did nothing but watch with amusement. This one was an undersize tan and black shepherd mix (a slightly smaller version of what’s in the photo above) and posed a problem as I returned from another campsite just after sunset. It was a two-pronged problem, the first being that it could outrun me as
the Evelo topped out at just under 18 on the rocky dirt. The second problem being that wailing up a dirt road at that speed with rocks, wash crossings and patches of deep sand and gravel is not something you want to do once dark has set in. Fortunately for me, this dog was uncertain about charging in and planting its teeth in my leg, since it seemed be uneasy about the banging trailer that would be just in back of it. This uncertainty made it give up sooner.
Yes, the BLM requires all pets to be leashed, kenneled or caged at all times, and this year has instituted a limit on the number of pets allowed in the LVTAs because of some sad case last year that set up camp with 15 pit bulls on site, which spooked a lot of folks in this rather dense area. But as many of you know, some dog owners have a problem with rules and authority, and see tethering their animals as kowtowing to The Man. Others see leashing as an affront against nature and how things should be in an ideal world. As the alternative to leashing, even having some degree of command and control over one’s dog seems to in some way violate personal principles on the face of it, but in reality it comes much closer to being too weak-willed to assert oneself as the pack leader/master, too selfish, too lazy, and too squeamish about taking responsibility for a string of inactions.
Loose dogs are the bane of road cyclists, and have long been considered the most frequent and most frightening problem bicyclists face. Of my own several episodes over the years, there are only two that still stick in my memory. Both involved rural farm dogs. In one, a friend and I yet again went past a farm where a fairly small dog loved to chase passing cyclists, a habit which was dampened when my friend, on his single-speed middleweight bike loaded with at least 20 pounds of slot car track in its dual rear wire baskets, hit his patience limit and somehow went into counter-attack mode. Once the dog closed in, he turned the bike abruptly toward the dog and tried to chase it down as if to run over it. Both dodged and darted this way and that for awhile, the dog snarling and trying to get off to one side of him to resume its attack. Didn’t happen. The dog eventually gave up the chase and ran back to its house, while I was left amazed by my pissed-off friend’s ability to violently weave and hop such an overloaded bike around in tight quarters.
The other encounter wasn’t even a chase, fortunately. It was simply me, cycling down a lonely rural road in the middle of nowhere. I was blithely taking in the Midwest farm country vista when I gazed over toward a farm house perhaps an eighth of a mile or more off the road. I thought it remarkable that the farm kept a lone pony beside or just in back of the house, as horses are seldom kept in pure corn country. Impressive! As I kept looking at it, I slowly realized that the pony was in fact a very large farm dog, and I whether I had its attention at that distance was hard to tell, but it looked to be so. At that distance, an effort to accelerate out of its territory appeared to be the preferred choice, and I took it, not even wanting to look back for fear of losing my concentration for pouring on maximum power. Nothing I could do about it anyway. For all I knew, it never moved.
Dog attacks are a combination of territorial and chase responses. Most chases involve smaller dogs, and stop once the animals consider that the outside limit of their turf has been reached. Those who do it for sport do so (usually) with ears and tails up, barking plentifully. When the dog comes in with true hustle, ears back and tail down, the cyclist is in for a battle. There are just two responses available to the hapless cyclist: sprint, or stop and take a stand. The sprint is an attempt to get outside the dog’s perceived territory before intercept. This works in “fun” chases, where a squirt from a water bottle, ammonia & water solution, or Halt defensive spray can be employed as necessary. A whack on the nose from the rare frame-mounted air pump is sometimes employed, and many dogs with chronic bad behavior can be intimidated back merely by waving one – despite the fact that current frame pumps are actually small, lightweight spindles of plastic and aluminum. but the dog doesn’t know that. This whole procedure in itself is a serious challenge to the cyclist, who must keep strictly to path and somehow aim accurately with one hand on the handlebars. It’s a good way to go off the road, crash, or swerve into traffic. It’s not uncommon for urban cyclists to be injured or killed by passing traffic in the course of a dog attack.
Stopping to take a stand interrupts the chase aspect and converts it into a territorial dispute. The goal here is to try to keep the bike in between yourself and the dog, using it as a shield while you slowly walk out of the dog’s perceived territory. It feels very counterintuitive to the cyclist, but often works. Many dogs can be ordered back authoritatively, which can break their assumptions about the cyclist as prey. Failing that, it’s not uncommon to have to lift the bike and use it as a weapon of sorts, to either intimidate the dog or try to pin it to the ground. This tactic of bike as weapon usually works as well, however harrowing it may be.
Now and then, given a medium or large dog whose intent is a genuine attack – or given more than one dog – the situation becomes serious. The bike as a weapon becomes nearly moot, and even Halt spray can have little effect on some dogs. Given the right dog(s) with the right intent, you have now left the realm of nuisance attack and entered a situation where you will be very lucky to emerge intact and/or alive. Here, the dog’s goal is not to bite you and drive you away. It’s to take you down and start tearing. Attempting to stave off a German Shepherd or Malamute with one’s bare hands is an unlikely victory at best, and the general advice here is to attempt to pin it with your bike so you can hopefully jamb said frame pump or even your hand down its throat to choke it. Good luck on that.
Unfortunately for me, riding an e-bike pares the defensive options down considerably. Getting that much mass and rolling resistance significantly above its powered 20 MPH maximum won’t happen on the flats, and 20 MPH is easy for most dogs to close on. A stationary defense is more of an issue. Instead of a 30-pound aluminum bike to lift and intimidate with, we’re talking about trying to lift a 65-pound, tail-heavy anchor to wield effectively. Not going to happen, at least for me. Add the trailer in back, and you now have a stationary barrier. It boils down to projected authority, agility (also in short supply), and having an effective defensive weapon available.
I remember seeing a clip on TV years ago. Middle-aged woman walking her unleashed dog in a town park. Nearby child playing on a low jungle gym structure. Dog suddenly breaks for the child, who has to literally run for his life, dodging and scrambling back and forth between a tree and the structure in an attempt to escape. Its owner stands stationary in the background, shouting the dog’s name and saying “No, no!” Police officer arrives very quickly and shoots the dog, who lies motionless for a moment before springing up to go after the child again. A moment later, another shot. Another moment later, rinse and repeat twice more. (Yes, it just happened to be a pit bull, though I have also seen gentle and kindly ones.) That kid was having to resume scrambling for his life each time, with that snarling dog not a yard behind, and I can hardly imagine how his nights or days go even today. I’ll let you think about the owner what you will, but this type of owner is all too common.
To them, their dog is like a very hairy child, basically pure in heart, capable of being reasoned with, and having a form of moral goodness to guide its basic behavior. I’m at a loss to explain this dog-as-loving-child belief, since anyone who has raised any assortment of kids knows full well that none of these traits apply to young children. Children need guidance, sometimes firm guidance, to have a chance to reach adulthood as an adult rather than as a 170-pound aging child. They need civilizing, basically. Fail that, and you fail them. Undisciplined children can quickly become selfish, obnoxious, hurtful, cruel, exclusionary and prone to conflict. And worse. Raise a fanged predator without both guidance and authority, and you have a semi-domesticated incident on the clock. No controls, no handles. Adorable, until the right situation kicks off the veneer of domestication. The owner typically adores the dog, but not in any way that will do the dog any good as far as behavior goes.
I’ve owned or resided with some eight dogs in my life, ranging from being happy-go-lucky, welcome-the-burglar types, to posing a guaranteed threat to children. I once owned a forty-pound dog which was highly territorial and all too prone to attack. Aware of its foibles, I was careful to keep it locked away from workmen puttering around the house, and carefully introduced it to friends and other occasional visitors as accepted “friendlies” who it would then quickly befriend in the cloying way that such dogs often reverse their behavior with. It took some doing, but I managed to establish myself as pack leader, so to speak. The house’s rear deck at one time was broached for awhile by destructive opossums nearly as weighty as this dog, and he’d often detect and attack the unwelcome visitor on his final walk in the dark. Not to brag (yeah, sure), but I could easily break off his attack, or prevent it if I knew the critter was present before he got to it. He obeyed and backed off on command, even in the heat of battle, simply because he viewed me as leader of the pack, nothing more, and nothing less. This was no accidental perception. This, and the fact that I knew enough not to trust him around unfamiliar people kept him out of trouble – at least when I was the one who was home with him.
Dogs require more than an owner. Kindly and loving, or not so much, dogs require a master, a leader. Every dog alive knows this, yet we humans prefer a more egalitarian approach. Letting a dog be itself, without a sense of service and submission to a leader, is a good thing in too many people’s minds. And on those occasions where reality then intrudes, they tend to either sidestep responsibility, blame the victim for tempting their dog, or perceive the resulting situation as an unavoidable mystery. But the reality is that the combination of an untethered and undisciplined canine is a hazard to both people and itself. Its natural urge to sink its incisors into its newfound prey will have one of three consequences: an aborted attack, damaged or dead prey, or a damaged or dead dog.
In the case of chasing down and attacking a pedestrian or cyclist, those same consequences will follow, and the choice is up to the owner. Leaving the choice up to the dog is unfair and simply underscores moral limpness. Fortunately for bad dog owners, the BLM has a policy which prohibits the discharge of firearms in the LTVA areas, which are also subject to local and state laws. In Arizona, as elsewhere, there are laws that make it illegal to fire a gun within the limits of any town. The LTVAs are within the town limits of Quartzsite, so you can’t just go around shooting campers’ misbehaving pets just because they might be noisy or you don’t like them, and that’s a good thing. The legal exception: having to defend yourself against an animal attack, or the imminent threat of one. So, shrugging your shoulders as your dog chooses to go after a human being can impose an aspect of Nature that you did not anticipate: legal self-defense. As for me, I’m sure I’d feel terrible shooting someone’s pet and making it suffer but, then again, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so if it appeared dedicated to a true attack. If I were equipped with only a sidearm instead of a can of Halt or bear spray, and push came to shove, I’d vote for me. And I wouldn’t think highly of its owner.
In one encounter I know of, Nature itself, or perhaps simple physics, intervened. A friend who had run a camp in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula had a German Shepherd who took the “one-man dog” manta seriously. That usually made life interesting for a few of the dog lovers in the 100-plus people who visited each summer. When the dog was nowhere to be seen one year, I asked. It had been loose in the bed of his pickup, and decided to either lean or jump out to attack a cyclist riding along the side of the road. Unfortunately for the dog, the vehicle had been moving at highway speed, and it suffered fatal injuries upon landing. He had loved that dog, but not quite enough. He had ascribed to it a discernment that it did not have.
Each year, I seem to come across dogs that are for some reason separated from their owners, clearly lost and in trouble in the dry desert, or deceased after a very unpleasant death. Do these things “just happen”, or is it a failed owner who will see it as a sad event before hitting the animal shelter for a replacement family member to coo over and blog about? That’s the thing about love. One kind of love does what is needed to do right by the loved one, often at the cost of inconvenience or personal sacrifice. Another kind of love does just the opposite, and you read about those in the paper, usually some estranged boyfriend who brutally murders the woman he “loves”. It’s all about me.
That works with dogs, too. Some people would rather watch their suffering, terminally ill pets die an agonizing death by inches rather than euthanize them, because they “love” them too much to let them go. Some people think that catering to their dog’s stronger will is an expression of love. They turn it loose, and lament that it sometimes just seems to ignore their control. Then, they do nothing to either correct this or work around it by leashing them. Oh well. This was what kept TV shows like The Dog Whisperer on the air with a bulging backlog of clueless clients. Clients who had no idea about how a dog thinks or what it needs, since they see it more as a furry child than as a domesticated animal with substantially different perceptions of the world embedded in its DNA. You can ookey-poo over them and let them run the show as pack leader all you want, but please, don’t call that love. Call it what it is. When you’re willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of your pet’s welfare and the welfare of surrounding pets and people, then we’re talking love.
Now I realize that mine is not the only perception out there, and I will appreciate any comments by any of you three or four readers. Have at it!