The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter: Dogs

By Steve Chambers

Dealing with man’s best friend.
by Steve Chambers


A dog bit me as I was riding home from work recently. As a long-time bicyclist, I’m used to having dogs chase me. Usually they bark and run after me until I’ve left their territory. In this case, Sport (not his real name) was different. At first he ran at me like any other dog. Suddenly, he lunged at my leg. I kicked and yelled at him and he ran away. I thought he had bitten me, but it didn’t hurt and I pedaled on a few strokes then decided maybe I should see if he had broken the skin. Blood was running down my right calf into my sock and I could see a flap of skin.

I turned my bike around and walked back to Sport’s house. The owner had heard the barking and my yelling and was walking down his driveway as I stalked up. Angry, I let him have it with both barrels, demanding his name, the dog’s name, their veterinarian’s name and when the dog last had shots. To his credit, he remained calm in the face of my tirade, apologized and agreed to provide all that information. His reaction defused my anger and I calmed down. We went into the house and he got me a damp washcloth and anti-bacterial soap to clean my wound, and a bandage to put over it. Sport belonged to his sister. She came out and was equally horrified. She told me she had adopted Sport from the Humane Society and he had been given his shots at the time, but nothing since April 2007. We exchanged phone numbers and I continued my ride home.

I had already decided that the bite would need stitches, so my wife and I drove to the InstaCare facility in Holladay. There, the doctor told me stitches weren’t necessary. They cleaned the bite twice, applied antibiotic ointment, dressed it and gave me a tetanus shot. The law requires I complete a questionnaire that the medical facility faxes to Salt Lake County Animal Control; supposedly someone will follow up with both me and the owner about the incident. Afterward, I called Sport’s owner to thank her for offering to pay for medical treatment, and to let her know Animal Control might contact her. All is well that ends well, and this was one of those cases.

Dogs are an inevitable part of cycling. An avid cyclist friend of mine says he has never been bitten, but did once run over a beagle that suddenly cut in front of him. For that matter, I nearly ran over a runner who did the same thing, but that’s another column.

Imagine how a human on a bicycle looks to a dog, and one can think of all kinds of reasons to chase it. The dog may be defending its territory. It may find it a fine excuse to run and bark. Perhaps it wants to herd you. The motion of your pedaling feet exacerbates the situation.

When a dog runs at you, especially if it is not too close, stop pedaling and glide. Of course, you may weigh the odds and pedal like hell to gain advantage. The safest thing to do, unappealing as it may sound, is to dismount. Keep your bike between you and the dog. By stopping, you eliminate most of the fear and curiosity for the dog. Walk slowly, watching the dog and talk softly in a reassuring voice to it. (Though some dogs will respond better to a stern “Go home!”) As you walk out of the dog’s territory, it should leave you behind. However, if you notice signs of aggressive behavior, such as growling, baring its teeth, or the hair on its neck standing up, be prepared to use your bike as both a shield and a weapon to chase it off.

If you do get bitten, do as I did (minus the outburst of anger, if you can help it), and find the owner. Get their name and address and their veterinarian’s name if possible. The biggest risk from a dog bite is infection, whether tetanus or some bacterial infection from the dog’s mouth. Rabies is not a big concern. The doctor said there hasn’t been a reported case of rabies in domestic dogs in Salt Lake County in over 10 years. Still, seeking medical treatment is a wise precaution.

Owners are liable for damage done by their dogs. The old rule that every dog is entitled to one free bite no longer holds. Had I fallen and been more seriously injured, the owners would have been responsible for those injuries as well.

In my experience, the chances of being injured by a dog are pretty low. I’ve fallen several times due to a combination of factors that didn’t involve dogs. Don’t let the possibility of a dog bite keep you from cycling.

Steve Chambers is pedaling somewhere.

This article was originally published on May 29, 2009.