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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  2/1/2024

Bikes and Dogs

How can it be that I’ve written 295 of these columns over the past 25 years and have never done one about those sketchy encounters between cyclists and the dogs that love to chase them?

I have mentioned the classic bike-dog interface a couple of times. In one of my earliest columns—Living Dangerously—I cited a statistic that 8% of all bike accidents involve dogs. And in a 2003 column, I recounted a spectacular crash of my own caused by a dog. But aside from that, nothing, and certainly no single column devoted just to these all-too-common occurances.

DogI cannot now recall where I dug up that 8% figure for dog-bike crashes. And now, 25 years later, I have to wonder if it’s still even accurate; if it still represents the current state of affairs. Because it seems to me I have fewer encounters with dogs than I used to have, thanks, presumably, to better enforcement of leash laws and to a general shift in society’s attitude toward loose dogs. 

It’s a bit like the paradigm shift we experienced with smoking: look back at all those classic movies, where the ritual of lighting up and puffing out smoke rings was an essential, unquestioned facet of everyday life. It was that way when I was growing up. I can recall my father lighting up an after-dinner cigar…in an upscale restaurant…in the 1970s. Now? The poor nicotine addicts have to huddle in doorways, like street people, to get their fix.

When I was a kid, on the suburban fringe of Portland, dogs were absolutely free-range. They roamed everywhere, often in packs. Some were friendly but others were downright frightening. My own dog—a Siberian husky—chased down a cyclist right in front of our house and knocked him off his bike. The dog ended up with a dislocated shoulder. Did that teach her a lesson? All it did was bank a fire of hatred and vengeance for that poor paper boy, so that she chased him every time she saw him. Did we tie her up or put her in her kennel? Some of the time we did; other times she was loose. No one thought anything of loose dogs or of dogs chasing bikes or the milk man or the garbage man or the mail man. That was just the way it was.

Now, just about any loose dog is cause for upset and censure. People will catch them and take them to the dog pound—excuse me: the animal shelter—or call the pound to come and get them…put them on the pound’s equivalent of Death Row unless the owners can be found (and fined).

I can’t prove this with any hard numbers, but my subjective impression is that we don’t have nearly as many of the potentially ugly encounters with our canine companions as we used to have…incidents like the one I described in that 2003 piece.

But I’ve been riding adult road bikes since 1966 and tooling around Sonoma County since 1983, and that is long enough ago that loose dogs were still the rule, rather than the exception. I have only ever had that one really violent crash caused by a dog—the one recounted in that 2003 column—and that wasn’t even a case of the dog chasing or attacking me. 

If you don’t click on the link above, I’ll give you the thumbnail account of it. I was out riding with my teen-age son. I had just finished saying to him, “Sooner or later, you will have a run-in with a dog, etc.”…when I came around a fast, downhill corner and a big golden lab shot out through a gap in a roadside hedge and went right under my front wheel. Big front somersault and all sorts of extravagant mayhem. (My son was behind me and had a front-row seat for the whole fandango.) In spite of how bad it must have looked, I was almost entirely unhurt. Just one small patch of road rash and a busted helmet that saved my noggin. My new bike was trashed but we followed the dog home—he appeared unhurt—and his people’s homeowner’s insurance more or less paid for a new bike.

DogI’ve had many other encounters with dogs that were not so blameless as the one in that collision…dogs that had malicious intent…dogs that either wanted to rip me apart or simply wanted to chase me away from their turf: some sort of guard-dog imperative. Under that heading, I can say I was once bitten by a big dog, enough to draw blood. But I was trespassing at the time—riding a private road—and I don’t hold it against the dog for doing his job as he felt it needed to be done. But many other dogs, out on public roads? No…not acceptable.

Some of the dog-sagas have been more humorous than anything else. There used to be a Jack Russell terrier that would race down his driveway to chase us every time we went by (on a road we used often so this happened over and over). The problem (for the feisty little dog) was that he was on a chain that stretched to just about the foot of the driveway. He’d come pelting down the drive at full speed…then hit the end of the chain and just about pop his head off when the chain went taut. Time after time, he never seemed to learn…the furious dash, the chain pulled tight, and four little paws flying in the air. He’s gone now. The driveway is empty. Perhaps he lived out his full span of years or perhaps he finally broke his little neck with one charge too many.

Some dogs live up to the mythic image of the courageous fighter, saving their people from a bear or a wild boar or a cougar. But others are gutless cowards. If you try to outrun them, they’ll chase you. But if you go at them, they back down. I recall one big hound up on Westside Road: I could see him setting us up as our group of riders approached, getting the angle of attack just right. So I jumped out of the saddle and sprinted right at him, barking like the biggest, baddest dog in town. He was so astonished! He tucked his tail down and took off as fast as his legs would carry him. The guys I was riding with were quite impressed. I guessed lucky that time. With another dog on another day, who knows?

I was chased once by a very determined pit bull. I did not confront that one. I sprinted off at the best pace I could manage, heading into a mild uphill. That damn dog just would not quit, I could hear him behind me, huffing and puffing and growling, the paws slapping the pavement. I was absolutely maxxed out, with him just a few feet behind me, halfway up a half-mile hill. I was considering hopping off and smashing him over the head with my bike when he finally gave up and went back home. I’ve had several other dogs run with me uphill, not to catch me but just to lollop along beside me…”Hey! Hey! Hey! Isn’t this fun?” 

The stories are endless, but for me at least, they do seem to be mostly in the past (knock wood). I hope this is the case and not just my subjective but perhaps mistaken observation. I hope my old stat of 8% is now down to 5% or so. Even 1% is too much, but as long as folks keep having dogs—man’s best friend—we can expect the occasional close encounter of the canine kind. Just not so many, okay?

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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