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Booby Traps

Ferocious Fidos

By David L. Hough

I stopped to talk with the owner of a large dog the other day. I'd been riding along a quiet wooded back road on the way home, when I observed a big yellow Labrador sprinting through the trees on an intercept course with my motorcycle. Apparently his plan was to leap off the bank next to the road and try for a carrier landing on the deck of the bike. I squeezed on a little front brake to heat up the disk and then did a quick stop just short of where I figured Fido would make his landing. Sure enough, Fido vaulted off a roadside stump, flew through the air at about handlebar height looking for the bike, and made a four-paw touchdown on the pavement in front of me, right where he had calculated I should have been.

This particular "Fido" wasn't really aggressive, just bored and looking for some fun. But I didn't want to play the game. I figured I could make it up to the owner's door without losing any flesh. Knock Knock.

"Hello, is that big yellow Lab your dog? Well, he just about knocked me off my motorcycle. I'd encourage you to either train him not to chase people, or tie him up before he causes an accident. If he knocks me off my motorcycle, it's going to cost someone a lot of money."

"Well, he's a pretty good dog. He doesn't chase cars. He only chases UPS trucks and motorcycles. We just don't have the heart to tie him up."

"Would you mind giving me the name of your insurance agent? I want to make sure you've got enough coverage to pay for hospitalization, motorcycle repairs and lost time from my job if your dog manages to get me next time." Apparently the owner took my suggestions to heart. I never saw the dog again.

Over the years I've had a considerable number of encounters with canines and their masters. I've noticed that dogs tend to mirror the personalities of their owners. A well-behaved dog usually means a responsible owner. An untrained dog means the owner just isn't paying enough attention. An aggressive dog is most likely the result of a mean owner. Some dogs chase motorcycles, some prefer fire trucks. Others get a kick out of chasing joggers or snarling at the postman. Whatever the target, most dogs seem to enjoy chasing something. It works, too. If the dog chases a motorcycle, it soon goes away.

If you happen to have a snarling pit bull closing fast on your shin, it may seem that the biggest problem with dogs is becoming lunch. But the bigger problem is dropping the bike. Even a small dog can upset a motorcycle. If you've had any dog encounters, you may have noticed that dogs seem to head for the front wheel. This may be some leftover instinct on bringing a deer or antelope to earth. Fido may be trying to "round up" the motorcycle for the kill. He probably isn't considering the future consequences of diving under a half-ton bike.

Veteran motorcyclists understand the importance of never allowing a dog to get close to the front wheel. Most of the time that simply means being a little smarter than Fido. We don't really know how dogs think, but we can observe their behavior and take advantage of it.

Just like motorcyclists, there are vast differences between dogs. Some dogs are merely playful, others are defending a territory that happens to include the street, and some mistreated or untrained dogs are aggressive enough to be a serious threat to anyone passing by. A vicious dog can be a serious adversary if you happen to find yourself in a confrontation. Those snarling teeth and belly-growls are the real thing, and a vicious canine can inflict serious wounds and the potential for rabies later. Let's ramble through some ideas about dog behavior and then consider some tactics for not getting bit or knocked off the bike.

First of all, dogs seem to have a very sensitive attitude about their territorial boundaries, but very little ability to reason. They seem to act out of instinct. An unrestrained dog can have a general turf as large as it wants to defend, a threat territorial zone of about 20 feet, and a critical territorial zone of about 8 feet.

Dogs have developed behavior patterns to communicate arousal, dominance, aggression, fear and submission to each other. Fortunately, we can read some of this "body language" to help predict what a dog might do next. If a dog stands erect and barks a lot with his tongue out and his tail wagging, that's a clue he probably just wants to play. If he drops his head low to the ground with his eyes averted, ears back with his tail down, he is being submissive. But if you enter his critical territorial zone, he might get apprehensive, and snap at you out of fear. The indicators are pulling his ears back and tucking his tail in.

A dominant dog, intent on defending turf, will raise his upper body high, with ears forward and tail up. He will caution you of his authority by staring you down with unblinking eyes, and warn you of his seriousness with a deep chest growl. If there is a challenge to his dominance, an aggressive dog will prepare to defend his "turf." He plants his feet on the ground, pulls back his upper lip to reveal teeth, points his ears and nose farther forward, stiffens and raises his hackles (the hair on the back of his neck). If he averts his eyes, that's an opportunity for you to back off without a fight, and you really ought to accept.

If you understand that an aggressive dog is just defending turf, and you don't need to be there, consider leaving the vicinity. If you encounter a large, aggressive dog on the street, you are advised to avoid eye contact, remain quiet and slink away backwards with head lowered, if possible. Sure, you're a Big Dog rider, and Fido is just a dumb animal, but don't escalate a confrontation unless you're prepared to lick your wounds.

Just Playing

To fun-seeking dogs, apparently there isn't much sport in chasing something that is too easy to catch. The game is to calculate the speed of the approaching vehicle, wait until the timing is right and then dash out to intercept it. Dogs typically have very good eyesight and hearing, so Fido often waits in the yard behind a bush or parked car, calculating a perfect intercept that he can reach if he sprints at top speed.

When Fido catches you at the intercept point, you might be able to get in a lucky kick with your boot, but the odds are that the dog has better reflexes than the motorcyclist. And if this dog happens to be aggressively defending his territory, it's best to avoid offering any fresh meat, even if you think your leathers could protect you against snarling fangs.

One good tactic for outsmarting Fido is to change speed unexpectedly. Most dogs have a maximum speed of only about 30 mph, so it is easy to outrun them on a motorcycle. Fido enjoys the chase, so he will be calculating just when he needs to sprint toward the intercept point. Then, just as Fido gets up and starts dashing towards the intercept point, screw on some throttle and accelerate out of range. Poor Fido gets left in the dust.

This is an acceptable tactic for keeping dogs away from the front wheel, with a few caveats:

First, you have to spot the dog, which means being aware that there are loose dogs in that community, and watching carefully for dogs lurking in the shadows.

Second, if you are one of the following riders in a group, this slow/fast technique will make you the prime target. The lead rider may outdistance Fido, but not the second rider.

Third, if you pull this same trick day after day to outrun the same dog in your neighborhood, it won't be long before Fido cracks the code and learns to start the intercept sooner.

If you encounter a problem dog more than once, you'll have to decide whether to slink away submissively and never come back, try to reason with the owner, talk animal control into getting the dog locked up, or take the war into your own hands.

Repellents

If you continue to have too many dog confrontations in your community or on your travels, take a tip from the postman. Carry some dog repellent with you. There are dog repellents available in small pressurized spray canisters. There are also electronic repellers that emit a very high pitch scream that dogs prefer to avoid. To find a source, check with your postman, your local utility company or with a kennel equipment supplier.

Some motorcyclists report success in keeping aggressive dogs at bay using ordinary household ammonia. They carry a plastic squeeze bottle of a water-ammonia solution, and squirt a trail of the smelly stuff on the pavement as they pass by. That works because dogs mark their territory by urinating, and urine contains ammonia. So to the dog, the motorcyclist is marking the street as his "turf." A submissive dog may agree to comply with your demand. But a really tough dog will just urinate over the top of your ammonia as a threat for you to back off, and you'll have to decide how far you're willing to retreat.

Aggressive dogs are sometimes rabid, and a bite can infect you with rabies. Trust me here, you want to avoid getting bit by any dog. The treatment for rabies is no joke. If you should happen to get bit by an animal, don't waste any time. Immediately get medical attention and report the incident to the authorities who may quarantine the dog until rabies tests are completed.

Dogs are not a universal problem for motorcyclists. Different communities have different tolerances for pets running loose, and different laws. In those areas where pets are allowed to roam, it is assumed the pet is harmless, at least until after the first bite. This means that Animal Control is probably not going to pick up a dog just because it snarled at you or ran into the street. But if you have a problem dog in your neighborhood, it will be even more of a problem for visiting motorcyclists when they encounter the animal with no warning. We would be doing each other a favor by working to get problem dogs under control in our own neighborhoods.

Confronting the dog owner

It's worth a try to confront a problem dog's owner, unless the dog has shown some serious territorial defenses. It wouldn't be smart to approach the owner's house with a vicious dog loose in the yard, because that would be invading the dog's critical defense territory. If you do feel you can you can get up to the door without being devoured, consider discussing the problem with the pet owner. It helps if you have done a little research into local animal control laws so that you know what the rules are. And it is also helpful to keep your temper in control. You might try something like this:

"Hello, I'm Biker Bob. I live just down the street a few blocks, so I ride my motorcycle past your house every day. Is that big pit bull your dog? What's his name? The reason I stopped is because I thought you would want to know that your dog chases vehicles. He's a nice looking dog, and I'd certainly hate to injure him if he runs out to chase me. I'd really appreciate it if you could do something to restrain him on your own property, so that we don't have to get Animal Control involved. Thanks for your time."

If the owner is a reasonable person who just doesn't realize his dog is a problem, that conversation may trigger some action. But if the owner responds as aggressively as his snarling dog, or if you don't think you can even get to the door without risking life and limb, the other option is to register a complaint with Animal Control, or with the local police department or sheriff's office. Be aware that the legal eagles will want your name and address and will provide that to the dog owner if requested.

The vast majority of pet owners care for their animals responsibly, and keep them out of the street. But during your travels, be prepared for the occasional dog that is undisciplined, or areas of the country where dogs are allowed to roam free. If you can be just a little smarter than the average Fido, you should be able to handle any dangerous confrontations without pain or expense.


David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series " Proficient Motorcycling " in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into a book " Proficient Motorcycling " published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of "Driving A Sidecar Outfit." A pocket handbook, " Street Strategies, "is also on the market now.


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