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...
DOG SPRAY AND ITS SHU VALUE
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 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.
PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND THE DOG CHASE
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.
ADDITIONAL READING :
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)