FORT KENT, Maine — When Kate Knowles began bicycling in central Aroostook County a few years ago, she knew she’d have to be choosy on her routes.
She was not looking to avoid hills, distance or challenging terrain.
What Knowles was on the lookout for was man’s best friend.
“I’m relatively new to cycling, but for a long time not comfortable with dogs,” Knowles said. “I figured that concern was only my problem, but as I started to talk to other cyclists who love dogs, I’ve found quite a few with dog encounter horror stories.”
The day she passed by a residence and was charged by a pit bull, Knowles said she was lucky and was able to pedal away quickly and unscathed, albeit quite shaken.
“Out of all the routes I could ride, there is only one I’d never been chased by a dog on,” she said. “Still, every house I pass by I scan for a dog and if I see one, I instantly have that thought, ‘OK, can I outrun it?’”
Fellow rider Loretta Harmon was not so lucky in her recent dog encounter, and as horror stories go, hers is a doozy.
Ironically, it was on this past Friday the 13th when, on a solo ride, Harmon was cruising past a Caribou residence and caught a blur of movement out of the corner of her eye.
“It was off to my left,” she said.
“It” — by Harmon’s estimations — was a 200-pound bull mastiff and it was coming right for her front tire.
“The dog hit my bike just behind the front tire and the impact threw me right off the bike,” she said. “I just lay there in the road stunned for a minute. Luckily the dog was done and just stood there and did not bother me.”
Meanwhile, according to Harmon, the dog’s owner was in her yard “screaming her head off for the dog.”
A young passerby — Harmon thinks he may have been a local high school teenager — stopped and assisted her to her feet, but departed before she could get his name.
It’s a name she would like to track down because, after law enforcement arrived on the scene in response to the reported accident, Harmon said the dog’s owner offered a very different version of the event than what she herself experienced.
“I really would like to find that witness,” Harmon said. “I’ve heard other stories about that same dog chasing other people.”
Harmon walked away from the accident with scrapes and bruises. She’s now waiting to hear from a local bike shop on the extent of damage to her new carbon fiber Trek road bike.
The mastiff’s behavior was fairly typical, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
“Dogs present a hazard because of their unpredictable behavior,” according to an “Ask the Experts” article in the coalition’s 2010 summer newsletter.
“While they usually don’t bite cyclists, they inadvertently can strike or run into a moving bicycle, causing a fall. A dog minding its own business up ahead might decide to give chase or just cross the road at the wrong time.”
So what’s a rider to do?
The BCM suggests the following:
— If riding in a group, warn the others of the dogs immediately upon seeing them.
— Dogs are very territorial, and if you can get beyond its property line without difficult before it gets to you, do so.
— If an encounter is unavoidable, stop and put your bike between you and the dog as a shield.
— Assess the dog’s behavior. If it’s charging and growling, shout in the loudest and most authoritarian voice you can muster, “Stop,” “Sit,” or “Go Home.”
— If you see the owner, ask him or her to control the dog.
— Load a squirt gun with an unpleasant mixture of perfume, water, vinegar or other non-toxic liquids to shoot at an overtly offending dog.
The problem arises, says Presque Isle cyclist Penny McHatten with surprise attacks from the dogs she terms “ditch dwellers” who lay hidden from view along the sides of the road.
Two years ago one such dog caught McHatten unawares as she pedaled through the back roads of Presque Isle, only in that case it was the dog who paid the price.
“It was this big, mixed-breed dog, and I just had time to see it off to my left out of the corner of my eye before it leapt up and came for me,” McHatten said. “At the same time a pickup truck was coming in the opposite direction (and) that dog never saw the truck and was hit in an instant and killed.”
Cathie Bouchard of Caribou is still recovering from a similar stealth attack.
“I was 16 miles in on a 25-mile ride when this lab came out of nowhere and hit my bike and flipped me over,” she said. “Then the dog just sat down beside me — it was not a mean dog.”
Bouchard was able to get home on her own, though very scraped up and badly bruised, and noted the dog’s owners paid for the full repairs to her $3,000 carbon fiber bike.
“The owners were really good about getting the bike fixed,” Bouchard said. “Their dog did not physically attack me, it got the bike.”
But such incidents can be avoided and McHatten, Harmon, Bouchard and even dog-fearing Knowles stress they are not out to punish dogs.
What they are looking for and demanding, they say, is that owners keep dogs restrained behind fences, inside homes or with strong tie outs.
“Maine does have a leash law statute,” Michael Gahagen, Caribou police chief, said. “Dogs must be under the control of the owners at all time.” That control can include voice commands, he said.
Anyone who is chased or attacked by a loose dog — whether while cycling, jogging or walking — should report the incident to the authorities, Gahagen said.
“It’s a real judgment call,” the chief said. “The dog may just want to play.”
Regardless of motive, Gahagen did say a dog’s owner is responsible for any property damage or personal injury caused by the pet. He also suggested riders carry a can of pepper spray to fend off a charging dog.
McHatten said adopting defensive methods is all well and good, but are worthless when a dog suddenly appears out of nowhere.
“It’s really affected my cycling,” Knowles said. “I’m pretty much limited now to the one route I’ve never been chased on.”
The riders agree the solution is for owners to step up and be responsible for their pets — for the animal’s own good.
“We really want to emphasize that our concerns are as much for the dogs as for us,” Harmon said. “It’s about safety for the dogs and for the riders, and owners must be responsible.”