Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Psychology Of Dog-Cyclist Encounters

The human instinct to fear when something on four legs chases you down on a pathway is natural. The speed, ferocity and the sound of animal paws smacking the ground as it tries to catch up behind us sends us scrambling for escape responses. Getting caught up in this moment to save your own butt could be all too easy.

What about the dog? Are all cyclist-dog encounters dangerous for riders? This is the interesting question for today.

I have never had very troublesome dog encounters but I did have a few close ones which I managed perfectly fine by just increasing my velocity. That response wasn't hard to gather. I find it somewhat odd when people talk about carrying sticks of dog spray and other ammunition on their backs as if preparing for some kind of surprise ambush like those between highwaymen and money wagons in western movies.

Maybe you'd have a different perspective and we can surely disagree.

In this post, we take a look at the ingredient of dog sprays and then try to understand the mind of a dog during a dog chase. We think we know animals, but we might actually be surprised by how much we don't. What's the source of the dog chase and what's the best course of action from a cyclist? Read on...


Its become a sort of fashion these days to go with the "Point and Spray" method without a furnishing a second thought. Besides giving the user of the spray an inflated sense of security, there's probably some degree of thrill involved in knowing that you'll be spraying nasty crap into someone's eyes. I did wonder a few times whether people stop and think about what this crap really is.

Bite into a piece of hot pepper and one quickly realizes the complex reactions involved in the body to flush out this irritant heat. If that's not enough for you, try some of the interesting hot sauces out there. People make a living through marketing this stuff and gaining notoriety for the "heat in the bottle". The more, the better.

I was once offered a bloody little drop of Dave's Insanity Sauce to try as relish by a friend. Just a tiny drop about 0.5 inches in diameter on the palm of my hand.

How did it go? Well, let's say I was too saucy in my overconfidence to begin with. The moment the wretched stuff hit my tongue, my eyes started watering streams and my throat, mouth and ears felt like they were lit on fire by a propane torch. Wow. Its relieving to just say that it was something I tried, in past tense.

You'd think this is the hottest stuff around that you had in your mouth but the gurus of spice will wave you off and tell you otherwise. For perspective, inspect the table below. This gives the Scoville Rating, which is basically the piquancy spectrum, for peppers. The unit of measurement is Scoville Heat Unit or SHU for short.

The Scoville Scale of peppers. Click to zoom.

The predominant ingredient in dog spray is oleoresin capsicum (OC). Take your canister and inspect it. It might even say something like "contains capsaicin and capsaicinoids", which is true as the extracts of OC contain capsaicin. Capsaicin causes neurogenic inflammation.

The hotness of OC is directly related to the amount of capsaicin in it, which varies significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer. The more capsaicin content the OC has, the hotter and more effective the spray will be.

While Dave's Insanity Sauce has about 250,000 to 500,000 SHU's, commercial grade self-defense sprays such as dog spray, mace and pepper spray have a minimum of 2 million SHU's and beyond. That's 4 to 8 times the strength of Insanity Sauce.

Now imagine if someone who didn't like you took the same Insanity Sauce and squirted a bit in your eyes. Good luck, my friend. You may see your bum through your head.

When you spray 2 million SHU's or more on someone's face, into their nose and eyes, you bet its going to hurt real bad. Humans could easily get help and get nursed with water in the event this happens. What's a blinded dog to do in the middle of the road? I'm not sure.


Many times I have wondered what causes a dog to chase a cyclist. What's the motivating factor for ticking a well domesticated animal, sending it scuttling behind something else it spotted on the road? What's the psychology of a dog's mind during this scenario?

I don't profess to be a dog expert. That's why I posed this troubling question to Alexandra Horowitz, a famous professor of psychology and cognitive scientist with Barnard College. She's probably one of the few in the U.S who leads a dog cognition lab which studies dog behavior.

Her recent book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, describes recent discoveries of the fields of dog cognition, behavior, and biology in order to better imagine what it is like to be a dog. Just last week, her work was featured in a well written article in Time Magazine titled The Secrets Inside Your Dog's Mind.

Since she understands dogs better than most of us, I asked her to unravel for me the psychology behind the dog chase, from the dog's perspective. She was, in a way, the perfect person to ask because apart from being a scientist, she also happens to be a runner and recreational cyclist.

Ms. Horowitz's best explanation to me went along these lines. Consider the visual system of dogs. The visual system of canids evolved over the course of many years to notice quick movements, like fleeing prey.

As hunters, dogs and their forebears developed a very high sensitivity to motion, dogs became much quicker to notice a small motion in their peripheral vision than we are. This is adaptive for an animal which chases moving prey.

Not all dogs chase bikes, of course. But for those that do, they see the smooth, quick motion of the bike and it triggers their prey instinct to chase the "animal". In our case, the "animal" to the dog is the cyclist. The cyclist is the source of the problem.

She also pointed out to me that this isn't the same as saying dogs see cyclists or runners as "prey" because after all, they never consume you as you dismount. But they do get very excited and their nervous system just riles up for the chase.

What would her approach be as a cyclist? The best way to stop a dog is to simply stop the illusion of the prey, i.e, stop the bike. A dog may still bark and stay riled up, but does this only for a short time, as their nervous energy subsides. It may be impractical to stop if you're on a long ride, but keep in mind that the dog is just excited and can be calmed by stopping the bicycle.

Of course, this is easier said than done as this seems a counter-intuitive step for a majority of us. But since the dog psychology in dog-cyclist encounters makes sense, the response from a cyclist countering exactly that psychology may also make sense.

I also asked her if owners could train their dogs in such a way that they learn not to do what their instinct tells them to do on seeing a cyclist on the road. According to her, the training itself might be intensive, but something like this is certainly possible. A dog can be trained to notice, but not act on these cues. Unless an owner specifically trains their dog to be still when a bike comes by, it is not something dogs with this visual tendency will do on their own.

Ms. Horowitz believes, like I would also like to, that in most case scenarios, there is no pressing need to spray a dog with a canister of a million SHU's. In fact, she believes this could really up the ante and "cause" a secondary response in the animal.

Do you have a dog chase story to share? What are your thoughts on dog behavior? Please join the discussion if you know you have specific experience as a cyclist, dog owner or as researcher involved in animal behavior.


Guide To Chile Heat
Health Hazards Of Pepper Spray
Scoville Scale Chart For Hot Sauce And Hot Peppers
The Secrets Inside Your Dog's Mind (Time Magazine, 21 September 2009)

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Jo Ann Dombeck said...

So I was doing the counter-intuitive thing all along, and I thought I was just a chicken who knew I couldn't outrun the dog. I've used pepper spray twice and would do it again in the same situations. I was stopped once and had the dog circling me. It was the only way to get rid of him. I have no sympathy for animals that fly out at you into the road.

Ron said...

I guess I was trying to say that pepper spray should be used as a last resort, and not on every single circumstance since a dog running towards you is not always with the intent to bite.

Look, if a rabid dog is after you, you have to intimidate the dog through extremes (most people would kill it since rabies has no human cure). We're going to assume that the dogs we're talking about here are domesticated dogs, vaccinated and clean. You can try things like accelerating or dropping squirting some bottled water. Pepper spray is not always safe to the cyclist either. If you have a 10 mph side wind and you spray into the wind, you're going to get it in your face. Ugly.

The conversation I had with Alexandra was interesting because she gave me a new perspective from the dog's side on why it chases down "prey". It does make you sympathize with the animal. This is just another side of the coin, so it doesn't mean you have to stop doing what you think is defending yourself if you really think your life is in danger.

Jo Ann Dombeck said...

Let me say that I don't even have a can of Halt on my bike right now. I really don't have a issue with the dogs. It's more with the owners. A dog needs to be contained on its property. That's why most cities have leash laws. It should be the same out in the country. I've been bit once. I've had dogs almost end up under the front wheel of the TT bike at 25 mph. I've had dogs charge across highways to get me. I've only pepper sprayed twice in all that. Most of the time, there is no time to react. I understand that I'm prey and that dogs are territorial animals. I report repeat offenders to the town clerk office and let the dog control officers deal with the owner. The only thing worst than a dog that chases cyclists is an owner who thinks it's the cyclist fault for being out on the road.

energetich20 said...

Out on tour in Eastern CO I got chased by a super fast Aussie cattle dog and finally figured out what to do, if this doesn't work, pepper spray probably won't either.

You hear and maybe see the dog coming and don't respond at all. Hold your speed and let the dog get close. When the dog is essentially on you, in your biggest meanest voice yell your favorite big mean scary make dog go away words. You will startle the crap out of the dog and it'll back off. Its worked for me quite a few times. The key is waiting for the dog to get close to lash out and show that you are bigger meaner and not to be messed with.

Of course carrying a frame pump that can be readily pulled from under the top tube isn't a bad option for dogs that decide to try and bite your ankles. I'd much rather hit a dog in the snoot with a frame pump as a last resort than spray it with pepper spray.

Either way, if someone has a dog that likes to chase cars or bikes, they need to keep their dog under control. The dog will probably end up under a car tire one day and thats worse then anything a cyclist will do to keep the dog away.

Anonymous said...

since when did dog's rights become greater than that of cyclists?

Scott said...

I've found that often yelling a strong "no" as soon as you see them start to chase will work. It's a word that they usually understand.

Rick Fie said...

i have two premises behind what i do. one is, dogs are very territorial; they will rarely if ever chase someone outside their property (and its pretty easy to outride a dog over that distance). the other is, on the whole, its a dog's life to please human beings and though they are being protective, they also respond well to authority and praise.

i find saying "good dog, good dog" works really well.

Rick Fie said...

ron, i used to lead cycling tours, have taught cycling at an outdoor ed center, have spent thousands of wonderful miles training and racing as well as commuting. one of the things im mindful of is that cyclists arent always looked at with acceptance by the rest of the non-cycling world and that when we're riding, we do well to not go out of our way to set ourselves all the more at at odds with that world.

so if im a dog owner and i see some yahoo spray my dog with water, or worse, a chemical spray, ), then im disliking cyclists even more.

at the same time, ive grown up around and with dogs all my life and personally, even though i count myself a cyclist, id be pretty hacked off if anyone squirted my dog with anything; so how much more then if the dog's owner is already in enmity with a rider---especially when he (the dog) is doing what he's supposed to be doing (protecting me and the property).

lastly---although spraying a dog (or maybe even yelling harshly at one) may not be cruel, or maybe doesnt even border on being cruel, its certainly not "good" and in my experiences, has never been close to necessary.

C. Walker said...

Bicycle magazine did a piece on this several years ago. One absurd thing they suggested that I’ve tried that seems to work is to make high-pitched screeching noises that imitate an injured rabbit (this does not fit my riding style or personality but it is kind of fun to hear your buddies do this). Another suggestion is to yell at the dog “GO HOME!!” in a deep aggressive master’s voice. This is my style and it does work but frightens fellow riders. Except for the psychotic dog, I’ve found that talking nicely to them works, e.g., “Hi there boy. Come on. Chase me…..you can do it.” Many moons ago, as the story is told, a nameless rider discovered a very effective way to deal with a violent psychotic dog: shoot it!

Anonymous said...

I believe you should be able to do whatever you feel keeps you safe. If at any time you feel unsafe on a public road, you're justified in taking any action you deem appropriate at the time. An animal (dog, cat, bear, or baby bunny) should never put a human at risk. They are simply animals... I'm not saying you'd mace a child on the side of the road... but a dog--definitely.

Creakinator said...

My biggest problem is that I take my two dogs out for a run while I'm on my recumbent tricycle. My dogs are very well behaved and they'd have to pull really hard to get me off the bike or over on my side. The problem is with a dog in the neighborhood. The people let him out of their house to roam the neighborhood and he will charge us if he sees us. My dogs won't go after him. So far I've been able to warn him off with my voice, stopping and walking past him. I worry about the day when that no longer works or he attacks one of my dogs as they will fight him.

I've talked to the neighbor and they say "he gets out of the door and we can't catch him." I'm ready to call animal control as this happens weekly.

Anonymous said...

I carry pepper spray when I ride a route known to have dogs that chase me into the road. Mostly I just turn around and chase the dog for a short distance--this works very well and gives a bit of satisfaction to turn the tables. Only once have I sprayed a dog, one that ran into the road every time I came past so it became annoying. Shooting the pepper spray at it reminded me of the old WWII fighter battles..the drops of spray flying out like bullets. Hit the dog square in the face and it veered off into the ditch just like the fighter planes after being hit. Dog has never come into the road again. If owners would restrain the animals this would not be necessary.

Anonymous said...

I live in dog heaven and have had close calls with vicious dogs wanting to bite me. They bite pedestrians. They chase cars. Yes, their owners are the main problem, but I don't care. If a dog is trying to hurt me, I will hurt him first. I speak from experience. One tried to grab my leg, got between wheels, and I ended up over the bars, doing a face plant on the pavement. I was knocked unconscious for a minute or so despite wearing a lid. The owners and neighbors didn't even call the ambulance. I had to do it when I came to and could see again through the blood.

You had better believe that I will do what has to be done to keep a dog away from me and my bike, and frankly, I don't care if it hurts the dog.

Anonymous said...

Once on a country road in Wisconsin I had a dog run after me for two miles. Went from being upset to worried that the animal would have a hard time finding his home. It's quite disturbing when they attempt to nip the ankles for that long of time.

A continual problem with dogs (even when fenced in) is how they bark incessantly when cycling by which triggers other dogs to start barking. Bad owners means bad dogs.

Anonymous said...

I tried the whole dismount thing with a dog that was waiting in the middle of the road for me at the top of a hill and I got bit on the leg. Now, if I do not think I can get away by riding, I carry pebbles in my jersey pocket that I find on the side of the road. Just one handful in the direction of the dog makes it pause for long enough to get away. I don't know if it is the sound of the rocks on the pavement, or the rocks hitting the dogs but it seems to work.

crispy said...

In my experience, a direct spray to the face with a water bottle will delay a dog for about 5 seconds. If you are moving at a decent clip, this is usually enough time to get far enough away that the dog will not continue to chase. The only time this didn't work was at the base of a very steep road, (non-state maintained, in excess of 15% grade), where I was "double teamed" by 2 dogs. I sprayed one and the other took over, sprayed dog 2 and by that point dog 1 had recovered. Repeat ad nauseum.

The risk with trying to out-run a dog is if you fail, the consequences of a collision at 30 mph are much more severe than a collision at 17 mph. Having said that, I normally elect to accelerate when a dog begins to chase, and re-evaluate if the dog is still closing when I'm going about 28-30 mph. If he is, other options must be considered, unless I'm feeling strong enough to jump harder and do an all-out end of the race type sprint.

Most dogs, in my experience, are not out for blood. My main concern when being chased is that the dog will miscalculate his approach and end up under my wheels, or get run over by oncoming traffic.

If the dog is truly in "prey drive" mode, you will not hear him coming. It is these dogs you should worry the most about. Usually, these are also the fast dogs (Dobermans, German Shepherds, etc). These dogs are also not as likely to be dissuaded by a water bottle spray. Your only audible cue might be the clicking of paws on the pavement as he closes. Dogs such as Dobermans and in-shape Shepherds can typically sprint about as fast as a cyclist (approaching 40 mph), so unless you have a good lead and are very confident in your jump, don't try. A dog can accelerate from a standing start to top speed in about 3 strides. My preferred option with these dogs is a very, very loud yell or roar when the dog gets within a couple of feet. Couple this with an aggressive lunge towards the dog if possible to get the animal out of prey drive mode. You don't really have to say anything meaningful, just make a lot of aggressive, deep, loud noise. If done properly, you wont' be able to talk right the rest of the day. Whatever you do, keep spinning your legs - it makes it harder for the dog to get a good bite into you.

I am not a fan of pepper spray or any type of spray. It's just one more thing to carry, and the last thing I want to do when being chased by a dog is take one hand off the bars, reach into a jersey pocket, and then try to ride one-handed and aim at a moving target while riding down the road at 25 mph.

crispy said...

oh holy crap that turned out to be long! :-)

Ron said...

Crispy : You're welcome to talk as long as you want. :) Whether you want to cap it or ramble on is upto you. It's all getting a good read from me eitherway.

Fritz : Valuable observations from you, and I'm sure you've more experience in getting chased by dogs than I do. I take it that Dr. Horowitz is reading these comments and may or may not choose to reply, but if some of them are true, surely she'll revise some of the notions she has about dog-human encounters. You shouldn't be farther from the truth, especially if you're an animal researcher.

Anonymous said...

Some have commented here that spraying the aggressive dog caused little response and they continued on the cyclist's path. I'm curious whether some breeds of dogs have lesser substance P and pain neutransmitters in their system than others dogs. If this is the case, then spraying a dog will cause little response.