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Mixing It Up With Dogs -- 2005

    We love dogs but they can be a menace to cyclists. We have no sure-fired solution for dealing with aggressive dogs when cycling but have an assortment of strategies we use. We haven't tried the spray dog repellents as we've heard from letter carrier's that they aren't effective. In brief, here are the things we try:
    -quietly or quickly slipping past a dog before we are noticed
    -passing by as far from the dog's turf as road conditions allow
    -'sweet talking' chattering directed at the dog in the high pitched, squeaky voice dogs love
    -growling in a loud but well-practiced low tone like a reprimanding momma dog
    -dismounting, removing our helmets and making a cage around us with our frames to the outside as we walk past the dog
    -tossing food and sprinting
    -gesturing to hit the dog with a stick or stone, depending upon what the local people do
That's it--that's all that we've figured out to try.

2008 Update--The Bastoncino's

The Mediterranean region is where we have the most difficulty with dogs and Sicily was no exception. In Sicily however the problem wasn't with stray dogs or herders but with unrestrained household guard dogs. An open gate to a short driveway on the main road made it easy for aggressive household dogs to charge us with little warning in Sicily. It happened infrequently enough that carrying a stash of rocks to throw was too inconvenient but the occasional episode was with dogs aggressive enough warrant a rapid retort.

Barb practicing with her bastoncino.

We finally settled on rigging up 'hostlers' for our telescoping walking sticks. Bill normally carried both "bastoncino's, as they are know in Italian, bound together on the back of his panniers. We separated the pair and removed the rubbery baskets near the tip. Removing the baskets gave us a smooth stick which could quickly be withdrawn from the grip of a securing pannier strap.

Bill was able to keep his stick where the pair had been stashed, which was under a fabric 'trunk' he'd sewn and filled with our lunch, his water bag, and other day supplies. I adjusted the top strap on my left pannier so that the stick would easily slide out with the tug of 1 hand and without looking back.

My stick wasn't as reliably held as Bill's, so I used a pair of carabineers to clip the stick strap to the pannier D ring. Unclipping a carabineer-to-carbineer connection was easier to do by feel with 1 hand than removing a single carabineer from either the leather strap or plastic D ring. Clipping my stick in place meant that I couldn't pull it out as quickly as Bill could his but it eliminated the very real risk of it either falling off or being left behind during the day when I got into my pannier. I do ride with the bastoncino unclipped when we sense we are at greater risk for an attack.

2 carabineers make for an easy, single-handed release.

Growling as we usually do and quickly lifting our sticks as though to poise for a harsh blow did the trick with most dogs. Most aggressive dogs have seen the gesture before, know what comes next, and back off to avoid the confrontation. Only once when the dog had already gotten too close did we find ourselves poking and jabbing towards the dog as he ran along side us.

We always say that luxury items we carry must have more than 1 use to travel with us and the bastoncino's secured their position with this their third function. We treasure them as walking staffs on loose terrain when hiking and they are frequently employed for hanging laundry in difficult situations. But finally having a reliable way to repel aggressive dogs moves them from the luxury item category to that of a necessity for our lifestyle. 

2008 Update--The Pastou's of the Pyrenees
    While we were in the French Pyrenees, Bill picked up brochure about the "guarding dogs" or "pastou" that accompany the flocks of sheep and the brochure had very specific recommendations which I've summarized:
    If while hiking you come upon a flock of sheep, make a wide detour without disturbing the fuzzy ones; don't feed, pet or photo the sheep or dogs as your gestures may be construed as an attack by the dog; be calm and passive if confronted by the dog and slowly turn away. If on a bike, dismount before coming close to the flock. (We've also found that removing our helmets makes us more recognizable as ordinary people to guard dogs.) These mostly white, long-haired guard dogs are similar looking to Golden Retrievers, though larger. Watch for signs announcing their presence in the area.

     The following is a travel update from June of 2002 that we emailed to friends before we had our webpage. It describes our worst encounter with a series of vicious dogs in a single day. The wild ride unfolded in the area east of Ankara, Turkey as we made our pilgrimage to the ancient Hittite site of  Hattusa.

Hero’s Quest
  We were heading to Hattusa, capital of the ancient Hittite empire, a place kind of in the ‘boondocks’ of Turkey, with limited public transportation, especially for those of us with bikes. The visit was a follow-up to one of the touring exhibits we saw last year in Bonn, Germany—a chance to go beyond the pictures. Little did we know that this detour to the last ancient site on our list in the country would soon feel like a hero’s quest, like the search for the Golden Fleece, as we met our challenges in the form of really big dogs. 

The Problem Unfolds
    ‘Tis the season for final exams, and we feel like we have just taken our final practicum in “Dog Defense.” Biking to Kayseri a few days earlier gave us 2 encounters with dogs: one brush was with a pair of the white mixed-breed sheep dogs and the other was with a dog that looked reminiscent of a German shepherd. We were lucky with both encounters: we were on a slight downhill with a tailwind and were easily able to out run them, but we knew we couldn’t count on that fortunate combination to elude dogs again. The really disappointing observation was that the shepherd-like dog had passed by his owner to chase us and the owner did nothing at all to discourage the dog—we’ve been on the receiving end of that in the US but expected better of these sociable Turks.
    The encounter with the mixed breed sheep dogs was instructive and alarming. It was the first time we had gotten a close enough look at one of these wolf-killing dogs to see that part of their self-defense equipment was a menacing looking collar with 3-4” twisted, nail-like spikes radiating out from it—no doubt to protect his neck when going for the throat. We were horrified because it confirmed that even if these were not the king-sized, pure-bred Kangal dogs, that these guys were indeed tough enough to tangle with wolves and win. These dogs that we nick-named “Spike,” made any other dogs that have hassled-us in the past look like pitiful amateurs. They are the thugs of the dog world.

The New Plan
    We dearly wanted to avoid meeting any such dogs again, but also felt like we needed to up our dog-defense tactics: there is never any way of knowing when we will encounter these or any other aggressive dog. Our first defense was information. Since learning from the internet of a Dutch couple’s troubles with the Kangal dogs in eastern Turkey, we have been asking and asking about dogs before we set out on a road. Each time the answer is the same: “The Kangal dogs are in Sivas (a hundred or more miles east of here) and that the dogs on your road are not a problem.” The dogs we see are apparently a mixed breed of the Kangal and it is also harder to get information about them. Before setting out to ride from Yozgat to Bogazkale, next to the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa, we again inquired with the local residents about the dogs, and were again reassured there would be no problem on our route.
    In fact, the discussion of dogs kept getting sidetracked by the concerns that we couldn’t possibly bike that far on that road. No English was spoken with the small, eager-to-help crowd of men, but Bill was speaking German to one man. Finally, the man seemed to offer an argument in Turkish in our defensive: “If they had biked all the way from Germany, they could probably make the 25 mile ride.” Hardly a true statement, but he was on the right track and we decided to leave it at that and extract ourselves from the crowd.
    Reassured, but not convinced, we reviewed our newly revised plan which involved:
        -riding in tighter formation for more rapid and reliable communication
        -pedaling hard and fast if we could clearly out run the dogs
        -immediately stopping if speed was not on our side to avoid provoking the dogs
        -promptly removing our helmets to be more recognizable as people
        -standing side-by-side, using our bikes and panniers as a protective cage
        -slowly walking past the dog’s territory when the situation permitted
        -keeping our throwing rocks in easy reach
        -having my new can of Raid accessible with one hand from my pannier top
        -and, as a last resort, Bill kept a knife in a makeshift, PVC sheath on his handlebars
        -flagging down a passing motorists and asking them to shield us with their car as we traversed the dog’s territory
             would be our final exit plan if we were in a stalemate
    We came up with this new strategy after debriefing our most recent encounters and reviewing what we had learned as dog owners. First of all, most young dogs reflexively chase whatever moves, so we thought we might be less provocative if we stopped and then proceeded by walking, instead of speeding by the dogs and becoming ‘chase’ objects. We remembered that our neighbor’s donning of a rare hat was enough to turn her from a friend into a foe in the eyes of our dog, which made us think of removing our helmets. Then there was the notion of ‘fear biting,’ or that dogs bite out of fear at what they don’t know. Turkish dogs have little experience with bicycles and absolutely none with people in helmets, so removing the helmets seemed like it would make us more familiar as people and less threatening as unknown beings.  We decided that we would focus on being less stimulating and less threatening to the dog’s territory by becoming helmet-less, though barricaded, walkers instead of speeding aliens on metal.
      Walking also would make the gesture of reaching down to scoop up a rock easier to manage than when on a bike. Our most recent experience with the white dogs had verified how effective that gesture is when Bill tested it out. Actually throwing a rock in your hand probably isn’t as effective as the even more familiar scooping up a rock from the ground—just like in Athens, where dogs were accustomed to being threatened with a stick, though were probably rarely hit with a stick. But in case the rock gesture wasn’t enough, we would have our ready stash of rocks to back it up.
    Then there was my can Raid insect spray: my poor substitute for pepper spray or “Dog Dazer”. Even though it doesn’t have much range, I figured it would have a potent surprise effect if the dog got close enough to get a dose in his face. Since leaving Goreme, I had been practicing sliding the can out from under my front pannier cover with one hand, even when riding up hill. And the very last resort that would be a very desperate measure: the knife blade on Bill’s Leatherman, which was open and stashed on his handlebars.
    So, armed with a new strategy and our latest low-tech weapons, we headed out hoping for the promised, uneventful dog-day. Just for good measure, we stayed on high alert, in ‘scan’ mode. I calibrated my active, observing mind/eyes off of “tourist mode” and on to “white object/movement” mode. And we had gradually been learning the markers for these guard dogs: isolated settlements of one or a couple buildings or sheep or cows on the horizon. We were also noting when the land use shifted from cultivated fields to grazing land. Anytime we thought we saw a flicker of something white moving or were approaching a dwelling or livestock, we slowed down and focused all of our collective attention on searching for the slightest sign or sound of a dog: not being caught-off guard was the key to our new approach.

    The good and the bad news is that we had highly educational encounters with a record-breaking dozen dogs on this purported-dog-free 25 mile stretch of road, plus a handful of restrained or contained ‘barkers’. By the end of the day, we felt like Harry Potter traversing a series of trials, each requiring a new set of skills or charms to progress to the next test in his hero’s quest.
    Our first test was a perfect situation: a single white dog that didn’t seem as fierce as we remembered the other big white dogs. We decided he probably wasn’t one of “the” white dogs—not a ‘Spike,’ but didn’t want to take any chances. And regardless, he would be a good opportunity to practice our new strategy and timing our teamwork. So, we stopped pedaling and got off our bikes as soon as we spotted him. We boxed ourselves in the cage made of the space between our 2 side-by-side bikes and removed our helmets, watching him all the time. Then we waited, talking to him sweetly in the high, squeaky voice that some dogs love. He returned our watchful eye, then carefully marked his territory and retreated down his side of the hill. We were stunned. At least with this dog our strategy had worked: the dog was able to assert his territory by marking and yet walk away from a confrontation. Whether the big white dogs would be so docile was still a question, but without a doubt, our new approach would help de-escalate the situation with a lot of other dogs.
    Our second trial began with the spotting of another German shepherd-like dog that trotted out and placed himself atop a bank that our road was cut through. His position reminded me of the well-selected ambush positions on TV westerns and it was going to be tricky to pass with confidence. I was still squinting to confirm that what I had seen was a dog when my heart sunk:  2 unmistakable, big white dogs appeared on the roadway edge between us and the other dog. We stopped in a flash. All the dogs had spotted us, but none were barking or advancing. We quickly assembled our bike-cage, removed our helmets and armed ourselves: Bill with his rocks and me with my can of Raid. We couldn’t tell for sure that even these were ‘the’ dogs, but the ones we feared most always travel in pairs and we had a pair here before us. We stood still waited and then waited some more. The white dogs circled around in their clearing a few times, lifted a leg to mark and then retreated back to their territory. We were again stunned that being passive without being submissive was so effective in moderating the situation. Clearly, stopping quickly, before becoming overly provocative to the dogs was working to our advantage.
    “Two down, one to go.” But these German-shepherd-like dogs were starting to look like pussycats compared to the white dogs, so we were not as concerned about the remaining dog. We slowly walked forward on the road approaching him and carefully scanning the area where the white ones had made their exit: “So far, so good.” The last dog was looking more relaxed, came down from his watch post, started trotting around his area and paused for a sip of water. We felt like the situation was calming down quickly. We picked up our pace a bit, though still walking in readiness in our cage, and moved out of the dog’s territory. We kept looking back as we rode off, with no sign or sound of any of the dogs. We were thrilled with our new dog-strategy and had another, more difficult trial behind us. We hoped this would be our last.
    We had time to debrief and recover from our 3-dog encounter when we spotted a half dozen sheep on the road ahead: sirens went off in my head. “Where are the dogs?” was screaming in my head--“There must be dogs here.” We slowed and sure enough, there was a menacing looking “Spike” dog just ahead. We then saw a man walking with the flock of a 100 or more sheep and the second white dog near him. The dominant dog was alone on the right side of the road.  I wanted to wait--wait until the ‘Spike’ dog had taken his sweet-time to stroll over to the left, where everyone else was. (We had learned in Portland never to even get between a dog and the baby stroller he was accompanying, as that can be received as a threat, and figured that the sheep would qualify for the same protective response.)
    Bill wanted to go before the flock filled the road and the shepherd seemed to agree, gesturing that we should pass on by. Still uneasy, we slowly crept forward in our bike cage with helmets off. Our eyes darted between the man, watching him for reassurance and any change in instructions, and Spike. This big, lean, fierce-looking dog with his all-too characteristic nail-spiked collar reluctantly started towards his owner, his eyes fixed on us. Spike walked with that stiff gait of a dog ready to for action, a dog ready to act on his most primitive instincts. He was 10’ away from us when reflexes prevailed over training and he lurched towards us, snarling. We didn’t even have time to react and the shepherd quickly made-good on his promise of safe passage by threatening the dog with a few words and a forcefully raised stick. The dog was back under his control in a flash. We didn’t want to think of how else that situation might have resolved. We stealthily walked a long ways down the road, not wanting to stimulate the dog, with many over-the-shoulder glances backs before riding again. We didn’t take the time to don our helmets, but first got more space between us and the dogs.
    That had been a close call, but we realized that though we had been reliant on the shepherd to control the dog, we would have handled the situation very differently if the dogs had been unattended. If it had been up to us, we would have waited as long as it took for the dog and sheep to move off the road so we could pass without challenging the dog’s authority or his flock. We left the situation relieved but not overly shook-up: our strategies that we hoped never to test-out appeared to be sound and we were headed for an “A” on our final exam. The only question was: “When will this exam be over?”
    This encounter added more data to our rapidly-filling data banks: once again, these dogs do appear in pairs (2 are probably needed to take down a cunning wolf); there is always 1 clearly dominant dog and the second dog is always totally passive in these escapades; and these dogs are often attended, probably because they are so valuable. (Perhaps they cannot afford to have them stolen, killed by neighbors, or risk the social consequences if their dogs hurt people.) 
    The doggie-break wasn’t long enough when I thought I spotted the silhouette of 2 people on the low ridge straight ahead. We slowed and listened: there was the barely perceivable sound of a dog barking up and to our left and the dull clank of sheep or goat bells. We were reassured by the sight of people but were not relishing yet another test in our quest of reaching Hattusa. What would the challenges be this time?
    We spotted the German shepherd-like dog on the hillside that was chasing a run-away donkey our way. We were alarmed as the donkey dropped down off the bank and circled behind us, taking refuge by aligning with us. We feared the dog would continue to follow and shift his attention from the donkey to us. But the dog stopped his chase and headed back, apparently called by a man on the bank. All of a sudden, we had acquired a donkey ally as we headed into the battle zone. The more jumbled situation started coming into view: there where a couple of young boys headed our way and 2 big white dogs holding their ground behind the boys. I was concerned about the break in our focus that the predictable interaction with the boys would present, but Bill thought making friends with them might sell well with the dogs. Normally, we take-on the turfy dogs with our rocks and Raid in hand, but this time we also had a donkey and 2 little boys in the mix.
    The men above us had the German shepherd under voice control up on the bank and to our left (and they do look like sweet, gentle dogs by comparison). A teenage boy seemed to have been instructed to grab hold of “Spike,” the big white dog with the wicked collar, and held him at the side of the road. So, with the little boys still giggling and in tow, the truant donkey as an escort, the German shepherd looking down on us, and the second white dog barking and riveted on us, we slowly walked through this gauntlet in our bike/pannier cage. The teen was able to contain Spike, which was our first concern. Our second concern was if any one of the extra players made a jarring change and upset the uneasy peace that had barely been established, we could be in real trouble. Again, we walked a long way past the dogs before mounting our bikes as inconspicuously as possible. We kept looking back to make sure Spike didn’t decide to give chase, as he would have the advantage here.
    By this time, we felt like we had got the lesson and it was time to release us from this series of trials. Just how many more dogs could there be on this scenic and beautiful “no-problem road.” As we started a descent, we spotted a homestead and soon heard the cacophony of what turned out to be 4 barking dogs. “Screech,” and we brought our bikes to a sudden stop. Three dogs came into view and no people in sight—we were on our own this time.
    Two really hungry-looking, medium sized, brown dogs charged towards us, but the big white dog stood his ground by the house. We were quickly in our cage formation with our helmets off, rocks and Raid in our hands.
    The dogs wasted little time and circled around behind us, barking continuously. This approach-from-behind was a twist we hadn’t encountered since Athens and hadn’t planned for specifically. We used our low, growling voices to discourage their further advance as Bill gestured threateningly with his rock. We quickly established an uneasy balance of power with them. I would continue my growling noises, occasionally substituting instructions to Bill to watch alone as I slowly looked back at the big white dog. He must have been tied up, as he never advanced. I could hear but not see a fourth dog and decided he was locked up in the building—we would only have to deal with the 2 dogs for now.
    These medium-sized dogs were reassuringly smaller, but still menacing in their postures. But they looked young and hungry and not so lethal, which probably helped an earlier piece of Turkish advice bubble-up: “Throw dogs bread.” Throwing bread at the Kangal-mix had seemed like a provocative insult so we hadn’t bothered carrying bread, but these guys might go for it. Minutes earlier during a between-dogs-break, Bill had stuffed a bag of almonds in his handlebar bag. Our dog had loved nuts (along with almost anything else), so I thought it might be worth trying to distract these dogs with the almonds, though I wished we had something more certain to thrill them. Still interacting with each other in low, growling tones directed menacingly at the dogs, we discussed the best direction to toss the almonds. Our eye contact was never with each other, only with the dogs.
    With a flick, the almonds were scattered in the road shoulder gravel, on the same side of the road as their house. The dogs recoiled a little, probably assuming we had thrown a rock. The second dog wasted no time in snooping out the almonds and the lead dog quickly joined in. These too-lean, barking dogs transformed into looking like happy kids on an Easter egg hunt. We couldn’t believe our good fortune—they no longer gave us a second look.
    We reassessed the situation with the tied up, big white dog and kept looking at our almond-hunters: it was time to make a break. We had an awesome downhill at our feet and figured that we would pick-up speed so fast that it didn’t matter if the scavengers that were now behind us took off after us. We rolled ahead a little, just to test their reaction and they didn’t even look up. I loaded up my pocket with more almonds and left them 2 more scatterings on our exit route to keep them occupied while Bill kept his rock in readiness. Our get-away worked, the white dog could only watch and bark and the brown dogs were busy hunting widely scattered almonds as we flew down the hill.
    We were under no illusion that the wolf-killing white dogs would let meager, bloodless morsels like almonds slow them down when fresh meat was in their scope, but it also confirmed that every situation with a dog is different and even our old stand-by of talking in a squeaky voice still works on some dogs. I’ve always wondered about carrying something more attractive to dogs, like jerky or meaty dog treats, but have been afraid that yummy things like that would attract an unwelcome crowd of dogs. Bread is bulky and hard to manage and keep handy, but almonds are definitely a possibility for future dog deflections. 
    We did manage to traverse the rest of our dog gauntlet with another, lesser dog or 2 without throwing a rock, spritzing my Raid, or drawing the knife. We rode away from our trials pleased with our new strategies and grateful for the help of the owners of the fiercest dogs we encountered. We hope never to need these skills again, but also feel like I will handle the ordinary nuisance-dog encounters with a new confidence: I have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C….already to go. And, as soon as I am able, I will buy some “Dog Dazer” pepper spray to replace my trusty can of Raid. It definitely will be harder for a dog to intimidate me in the future, even though we probably never met a Kangal dog. These Kangal-mix, ‘spiked’ dogs set a new standard: they are in a league I never imagined contending with from a bike.

Reflecting on the Escapade
    We were very aware that our Turkish “Dog Defense” course had been well-laid out—though by chance. We had been alerted to the problem when reading a sentence or 2 of another cyclist’s doggie encounters in Eastern Turkey, which accelerated our surveillance, inquiring, and problem solving. Then, our first encounters were with less ferocious, but big dogs, in relatively easily managed situations. By the time we got to our ‘final exam,’ we had crammed the night before and come up with a new multi-step, highly refined strategy for dog encounters.
    ‘Exam day’ too presented us with the easiest dog situations first, so we were able to field-test our new theories before getting to the big one. By the time we faced-off with the most ferocious dogs of the day in the most confined situations, we were practiced and ready. We were then literally able to walk-away from the dog situations unscathed, both physically and emotionally. Had we blundered into our final exam unprepared, the day would have ended very differently, the very least being emotionally traumatized.
    The other piece of wisdom that we take away with us is that we are done with cycling in central Turkey—too dangerous. We had heard that eastern Turkey was the problem, but we are drawing our line farther west. This transition region with the transition, mixed breed dogs is more than we want to take-on again.
    Dealing with dogs is one of the many subjects we tried to ‘bone-up on’ before heading out on this adventure and one of the topics we never felt very satisfied with our research results. We now feel like we could write at least a couple of chapters in the book: “Dogs: Bike Riding with Confidence.” And never will we look at almonds the same. As Bill reached over for a handful this morning he said “I think I’ll have some dog treats.”


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