I’ve cycled many thousands of kilometres in different countries – mainly in Europe – and I’ve never (yet) been bitten by a dog. But I know that fear of dog attacks is a major issue for some cycle tourists, including in Portugal.
So, how do you deal with dogs and how come I’ve never (yet) been attacked or bitten?
Well, the scariest moment I ever had involving a dog was in New Zealand. I wasn’t on a bike at the time but walking near a campsite when a large Rottweiler and several smaller dogs came up growling and barking in an extremely aggressive fashion. The Rottweiler was definitely alpha dog and I seriously didn’t trust it.
I had nothing to defend myself. Carolyn, my wife-to-be, was busy using me as a human shield. I was also pretty certain that if I tried backing away that Rottweiler was going to attack – at which point the other dogs might well follow suit. But on the plus side, the rest of the pack didn’t look like they were going to do much apart from bark until their leader made a move.
So I locked eyes with the Rottweiler and began yelling at it. I made sure my voice was louder and more aggressive – and I made certain didn’t back down an inch. I knew that I couldn’t afford to give an inch so I basically glared back and shouted that dog down. Not sure how long it took – it certainly felt like a while – but eventually, the Rottweiler grumbled with the canine equivalent of “well, I’ve got better things to do than argue with you” and slowly backed off.
I was shaking inside but managed to stroll slowly on and we made our way safely back to the campsite.
My take on that experience is fourfold: 1. Watch out if you’re on someone else’s territory; 2. Stand up to bullies; 3. Most dogs won’t actually attack; 4. If possible, find something safe to stand behind.
Over the last 10 years or so, I ridden (and walked) all over Portugal. I’ve heard of some cyclists who have been bitten by dogs, I’ve been barked at many, many times and chased a handful of times.
One reason people worry about dogs is that there are definitely a lot of them in Portugal. Many are left chained up outside houses or other buildings all day – and will bark furiously at anyone who comes near. When I lived in Torres Vedras near Lisbon, I used to walk past one particular house most mornings. That’s where Rabid Roger lived – pictured above. That dog saw me nearly every day for a year and he never once didn’t act as if his biggest desire was to pull me limb from limb.
But what you need to remember about these dogs is that their existence is miserable. Dogs are naturally territorial. You are on their turf – plus the ones on chains can’t run away from you, so for them attack is the best form of defence. They’re also probably bored out of their minds.
And although I never won over Rabid Roger, I did win on a different occasion. We were camping in the north of Portugal and used to go past a barn with a large, very aggressive dog chained up outside it. Like Roger, he always acted as if he wanted to rip my head off. Until the day I went past with a piece of old cheese rind and tossed it to him. That dog was a LOT more friendly after that.
But most importantly for cyclists, though it’s not pleasant having all these dogs barking at you, just remember – they can’t actually get you if they’re chained up!
Out in the countryside, most dogs that aren’t tied up are working. They’ll be guarding a flock of sheep or a herd of cows. And, yes, get too close to their flock and they may well bark at you. But it’s just a warning. Don’t steal their sheep (or cows) and you’ll be fine.
Herd dogs are also generally pretty friendly. I’ve met some big scary-looking Portuguese dogs on remote country roads that, once I’ve stopped to talk to them, have been as soft as butter. And really do melt as soon as you deal with that itch behind their ears.
In towns, my experience is that most dogs running loose are either more scared of you (they’ll run off) or pretty chilled out and friendly (they’re free!).
However, it’s certainly true that dogs react differently to different people. (Just like humans do.) I grew up with dogs and am generally a dog-lover. With the exception of Kiwi Rottweilers.
When I’m cycling and I see or hear dogs – whether chained up or free – I’ll chat to them as I ride along. I’ll say hello and – even if they’re barking madly at me – I’ll talk in a friendly voice. It doesn’t always work but it often helps. Many dogs (just like humans) will become less aggressive if they think you’re not a threat. Bits of smelly cheese also work a treat with defusing a potentially violent situation.
What if you’re chased, you ask? It doesn’t happen to me often but I’d suggest several options. One, is just to firmly say “no” or “now”. (The Portuguese word for no is não – which to English speakers sounds more like now.) Tell a dog not to misbehave in a firm voice and many will respond and do as they’re told. (Even if they look at you as if you’re a real spoilsport.)
Another alternative is just to come to a stop. Many dogs chase you because it’s hardwired into them. They can’t help it. It’s genetic. Just like chasing balls. They don’t always want to actually bite you, they just need to chase you.
I remember being in Mértola once and watching a small terrier-type thing chasing a car around a roundabout trying to bite its wheels. It was extremely dangerous for the dog but it obviously just had to do it. And once the car was off the dog’s territory, it came back and calmly flopped down again.
So, if a dog starts to chase you and you stop? Well, you’ve just ended the game. At this point, if the dog isn’t immediately trying to attack, have a chat with it. Be friendly and it will more than likely respond. Most dogs aren’t naturally aggressive. Make friends, scratch the back of their heads and ears and the world is suddenly very different.
When you ride on, the dog might chase you again but it’ll probably be much more laid back about it. Now it’s just having fun with a friend rather than chasing a potential threat off its patch.
But if a dog is still being aggressive when you stop – and you think a friendly word isn’t going to win it over – then you have to convince it you are the alpha dog. Shouting loudly and as nastily as you can is sometimes enough. Another option is simply bend over and pick up a stone. Or even to pretend to pick up a stone. At this point, most dogs will know what’s coming and will turn and run.
In a worrying situation, for extra security, get off your bike and put your bike between you and the dog. Not something I have ever had to do but a shield always makes sense. A dog is unlikely to jump over a bike to get you. Pumps can also be possible weapons for self-defence and I’ve heard of a lot of people using a squirt from a water bottle as a way of deterring an attack.
Obviously, if you’re going fast enough – particularly if there’s no uphill approaching – you can just keep pedalling. Even though you can’t see the lines, all dogs will have “their” territory and it’s not generally that big. As soon as you’re off the dog’s territory, it’s reason to chase you has suddenly decreased. Keep going and the dog will probably wander home feeling pleased with itself at having done its job.
It’s also important to evaluate the size of the dog. Some are big and scary but little dogs are often the most aggressive. (Again, just like humans!) Take a moment, and decide whether that yappy little thing running along behind you could even reach your ankles if it wanted to.
I realise that for anyone scared of dogs my words might not help that much and there’s probably things I haven’t covered. But it’s important to remember: few dogs really want to attack you. They’ll warn you off, they will guard their territory against threats (like you) and they love to run after things that move.
But dogs will often respond to kindness better than aggression. And with most dogs, all that barking is just so much bluster. It might not seem like it, but most just want to be loved.