There's nothing like the feel of dog breath on a cyclist's
ankles to ignite a sprint. Remember the character Eddie in the early
Kevin Costner movie "American Flyers," who helped two brothers train for
a big bike race by charging across his yard on all fours, ears back, teeth
bared, as they pedaled by at top speed?
Carol Goodrow of Sturbridge credits one particular German shepherd for "how I learned to ride fast." The dog always chased her, and she always hammered past its home, fueled by fear. After a kindly neighbor informed the dog's owners of the problem, the dog was leashed, "but I continued to ride as fast as I could when I passed their house," Goodrow said.
Of course, depending on the breed and terrain, outrunning a dog is not always an option.
Donna Badner of Grafton, the veterinarian at Webster Lake Veterinary Hospital in Webster, has stopped cycling on Joe Jinney Road on her way home from work because of a German shepherd that chased her too close to an oncoming car at the crest of a hill.
"I wasn't bitten but I was really scared," she said. "And it's not like you can go to the house and confront the owner -- the dog won't let you near the house."
"It's really the owner's fault, not the dog's fault. Dogs do it because they're very territorial, and they have a certain radius or zone they'll protect naturally. But the owners are supposed to keep them tied," she said.
A loose dog "is really frustrating, because it dictates my rides," Badner said. "I won't go home on Joe Jinney Road any more."
Badner doesn't like to take her hands off the handlebars when a dog is chasing, for fear of losing momentum and losing her balance. But she has no ethical objection to other riders using a temporarily disabling pepper-like spray such as Halt! "It's not going to cause long-term damage, and if you're a good shot, more power to you."
Steve Taylor of Auburn, on a ride in Sterling last month, hit a canine target square in the face with Halt! and was impressed with the speedy results. "It stopped him right in his tracks. Not a sound out of him. He quickly retreated to the side of the road."
Stephen Firmes, who lives in Douglas, a town without a leash law, carries Halt! in his shirt pocket when he and his wife, Kris, ride their tandem. "But by the time we see or hear the dog, there is no time to get the spray, aim it and fire," he said. Now that the Firmes family rides with their tots in a bike trailer, they just try to avoid the known dogs' turf.
A squirt in the face from a water bottle also can stop a dog in its tracks long enough for a cyclist to make a getaway. "Timing is everything," said cyclist Wally Teto of Templeton. "If I wait until he is pretty close to the bike, a shot of water right between Rover's eyes has always done the trick."
"Any distraction can work. Sometimes I throw dog biscuits, and that's worked on a lot of dogs," said Badner, owner of a mild-mannered terrier mix.
Some dogs will back off when they hear a firm command, such as "Stay" or "No" or "Go home!" If a rider has the lung power and thinks the owner is within earshot, she might also yell, "You ought to be on a leash!"
Most towns have leash laws, and they are good for dogs, Badner said, adding that it's not cyclists who need to get this message, it's dog owners. The vast majority of injured or sick dogs taken to the vet need medical attention because of something that happened when they were running loose, she said. "They got hit by a car, bitten by another dog, shot at, or they ate a toxin," she said.
"If they're not leashed and they see something they want, they're going to run after it; all the rules are off," Badner said. "It's like leaving a 2-year-old child unsupervised in the yard."
Badner hasn't determined if the troublesome dog on Joe Jinney Road lives in Oxford or Webster, but once she does, she intends to alert the town's animal control officer. Dog owners tend to get defensive if someone complains, and say their pet has never misbehaved before. But if a cyclist -- or the mail carrier or anyone else, for that matter -- does get bitten or knocked down, and there is a record of previous aggression on the dog's part, the owner's argument is flawed.
Dogs also pose a danger -- to cyclists and to themselves -- when they ride unharnessed in the back of a pickup truck. Besides the startle factor of an unanticipated, close-range bark when the truck passes the cyclist, enough in itself to knock the rider off balance, there is nothing to prevent the dog from lunging.
Carrying an animal in a vehicle in a manner that might endanger it is illegal in Massachusetts, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals points out. In a 1988 survey, 71 percent of veterinarians in the state reported treating animals (mostly dogs) injured as a result of riding unsecured in open-bed vehicles, and the vets reported 700 dogs killed by falling from pickups or jumping into traffic, according to the MSPCA.
"When I worked in Springfield I saw lots of dogs with spinal fractures -- broken necks, mostly -- from falling or jumping out of open trucks," Badner said. "I'd see about one a week, and 99 percent of them had to be euthanized."
Badner also cringes to see ads for a spring-like bike attachment made for having a dog run alongside the bike. "It's totally unsafe for the cyclist and the dog," she said. "It appears to be designed to keep the dog from running into the bike. But if you had to veer off because of a car and you fell, you'd squish your dog. And the concept of making your dog run as many miles as you bike is totally abusive."
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