Travel and Sports–Silver Winner: Going to (and Away from) the Dogs

By Tom Bentley

Dogs. Man’s best friend, perhaps. Man-on-bicycle’s best friend? I don’t think so. All bicyclists face the occasional pursuing dog, and when an actual chase occurs, it’s easy to give in to blind fear, rather than employ any rational technique to disperse the dogs or the fear. But what if you lived in a place where there was essentially just one road to ride on, and that road was filled with dogs, some of them vicious?

That was my regular ride on the Micronesian island of Kosrae, from which I recently returned after a year of teaching English. Kosrae has just one main road, and many, many dogs, a host of which present a threatening face (and teeth) to any bike rider. I’m a recreational rider who learned a number of methods to deter these dogs from taking my cycling peace of mind away from meor taking away a literal piece of me. What was is it about my sturdy old Diamondback Ascent that brought out the beast in those beasts?

And I thought that riding in the heat was the challenge. Kosrae’s just a pedal past the equator, which means that islanders don’t have to worry a lot about weather predictions. It’s pretty much between 80 and 90 degrees year-round, and the humidity percentages almost match those numbers. Never having lived in a tropical climate, my first contact with the air astonished me. It had such a presence: thick, heavy and enveloping.

It’s no great surprise that exercising in this climate ramps up your body’s evaporation engine, but the duration of its efforts can be startling. I usually rode for an hour or so (streaming sweat all the while) at 6:30 am, and when I dismounted, the flow really began. And continued. And continued. For every minute of riding, there seemed to be a minute of post-ride sweating. But the sweating turned out to be less of a problem than the swervingmy manic maneuvers to avoid toothy curs.

Kosrae is a volcanic island, with a number of interior mountains; only the coastal areas are flat. Therefore, most homes are close to water’s edge, where the island’s main road is as well. Along with the homes and the road come the dogs. Most houses have dogs; many have two or three. However, most Kosraean families don’t look upon the dogs as domestic pets to be cuddled and coddled. Many Kosraeans eat dogs, and while some people treat them kindly, many are just considered fodder for the eventual barbecue. After riding my bike there for a year or so, I concluded that they should have more barbecuesand I’m a guy that’s always liked dogs, and not as something to add ketchup to.

The dog-attack tactics took many turns. Kosrae has lush jungle; there are roadside spots where the beasts can just leap out from deep cover, so that they’re at your legs and nipping before you can counter their charge. One of the jungle jumpers was the only one to actually get his teeth into me in all my riding, and he only got as far as the heel of my shoe. Now I know better how to parry their tooth-baring thrusts.

Let’s start with the basic road dog. There are no vets on Kosrae, and thus no doggy birth control. Inbreeding is fierce, and the stock they started with must have been of questionable quality, because Kosrae has some of the most repellent dogs you’ll ever see. There are only a few basic types, and that provides one cyclist’s advantage: many, many of these creatures have woefully short legs. It’s not unusual to see something that looks like a very furry dachshund, but stockier (and uglier) than the standard. The female dogs seemed to be in a constant state of pregnancy or nursing; however, that maternal instinct didn’t prevent them from trying to bite a bicyclist peddling by. However, the woefully short limbs combined with the trailing teats don’t make for a very threatening predator.

It’s the longer-legged ones that are more trouble, but then again, a good percentage of them have already been hit by cars, so that they have varying degrees of mobility. However, that doesn’t prevent them from still making an effort to mangle a cyclist. There was one three-legged favorite of mine I came to admire for the sheer doggedness (sorry) of his attempt to clamp on my leg as I whirled by. A testament to the high intelligence of these creatures that have already been bashed by cars is their steadfast need to continue to lie in the middle of the road, day after day.

Still, if you eliminated the peg-legs and the mutts with the permanent hip-pointers, there are still a number of able-bodied beasts hankering to hunker down on a bicyclist’s tender flesh. The first key is to recognize which dogs are poised to pester you, and which ones are indifferent to your spinning wheels. If they are out in the open, I learned to spot the attackers from a couple of hundred feet awayby their stance. The dogs that are lying in wait are those who will rise to their feet, square their shoulders at you, lower their heads a bit and put their tail ends on a diagonal from your oncoming direction. This gives them a working, adjustable angle on you as you approach.

It took me a while to distinguish these dogs from their dormant cousins. Soon, that stance alone gave me a sense of behaviors to come, which ranged from full-speed, loud-lunged pursuit to a quick attempt at a good bite. My first reactions to these dogs were to swerve wildly away, and try to speed up, but for some dogs, that’s a signal to swerve determinedly toward you and speed up in turn. I had many heart-pounding moments pushing away my Diamondback at top pedal-power.

Then I got more aggressive. I started to rest my pump across my bars, so that I could swing it from either hand at dashing dogs on either side of me. Some of the rare high-IQ critters even learned that they could divide and conquer, flanking me in pairsyes, worse than one attacking dog, many. The paired pups required pump swinging from side to side, often behind me, since the dogs were often at my heels and I didn’t want to run off the road into the jungle. The canines that I swatted with the end of that pump actually learned enough to stay just far away enough to continue sporting with me, but out of contact range.

My real breakthrough came when I tried to out-dog them: rather than me going by in a line while they veered toward me, I would wait until the dog signaled its square-shouldered intent, and then from twenty or twenty-five feet away, I would swerve directly at them. Voila! This tactic proved most successful: 100 percent of my antagonists will stagger back on their flopping paws, and the momentum lost by that move was key: they simply couldn’t recover enough to catch me going at my standard three-quarters speed down the road.

Of course, none of these methods dealt with the stealth dogs: those ones I mentioned that shoot, spring-loaded, out of the jungle. Defensive familiarity with their hidey-holes was the only shield: I learned which dogs wait in which jungle patch, so I was on the alert whenever I passed. No blood spilled, despite many a jungle-hid canine missile. There were other measures: one of my biking friends made a sling in which he carried a long 2×4 on his bike, and supplemented that with a bag of rocks tied to his the handlebar stem, but that seemed a bit crude to me.

The road on Kosrae probably doesn’t fit the classical definition of “technical,” but it certainly has its terrain challenges, and they’re all hairyliterally. But when I was riding on one of the sparklingly sunny days there, and I turned a corner past a big stand of coconut palms into a clearing and saw those incredibly puffy columns of cumulus clouds and the piercingly blue ocean crashing on the island’s coral reefs, I knew a few uncouth mutts couldn’t darken my day. Let sleeping dogs lie. For all those others, speak softly, ride swiftly, and carry a big pump.


One Response to “Travel and Sports–Silver Winner: Going to (and Away from) the Dogs”

  1. Still News: Man Almost Bites Dog | * The Write Word Says:

    […] because I truly minded that Rover had been barbecued—I’ve written before about the spirited chases that mange-ridden canines gave me on my bike rides, and the improvised weaponry and tactics used to dispatch those hounds of […]

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