From apathy to empathy: befriending street dogs on a cycle tour

Words and photos: Jen Sotolongo
Originally published in Issue #39

Throughout the Balkans and Turkey, from small villages to major cities, gangs command the streets. Generally civil with outsiders, they allowed us to pass through without question, though at times they chased and harassed us as we cycled into their territory. Demonstrating confidence and authority stopped them in their tracks. We weren’t there to mess with them, and we certainly wouldn’t allow them to mess with us.

Scars, wounds and malnutrition painted the stories of past fights and substandard living conditions. Some limped across the street, while others remained unscathed. Almost all were young, with pearl-white teeth and gums as pink as cotton candy. Walking into the neutral zone, the dividing line was clear. It was herders versus hounds.

Street Dogs-1

For fear of chasing, biting and even rabies, dogs pose a threat for the vulnerable cyclist. Along with wind, tunnels and cars, they are considered among a rider’s worst enemy. Our six-month European cycle tour included developing nations with large street dog populations. Privy to the rumors circling cycle touring forums about dogs, we were unsure what to expect. Traveling with our Australian shepherd, Sora, we assumed—correctly—that we would attract more attention than usual from the roaming packs.

While some cyclists rely on sticks and stones as dog-fending tactics, others suggest the more humane approach of a squirt of water or loud noises, like a high-pitched whistle. Unwilling to use unnecessary violence or loud noises that would affect our own dog, and equipped with screw top water bottles, we ultimately decided that we would simply see how we fared.

Upon entering the Balkans, the status of the dog as a trusted family member instantly changed to a view of dogs as dirty animals used only for work or protection. Destined to a life outside in the five-foot radius of a chain or stuck inside a kennel, forced to eat in the same space where they relieved themselves, we felt deep sorrow for man’s best friend. Where human interaction included cruel and abusive behaviors like kicking or throwing projectiles, malnourishment or neglect, most dogs invariably feared people.

BT street dogs pair

As suspected, Sora’s scent wafting through the air, coupled with the unmistakable aroma of dog food, alerted even those dogs deep in sleep beneath the hot summer sun of our approach. Cruising by in silence, we banked on the premise of letting sleeping dogs lie. Nevertheless, one dog would inevitably catch a whiff of Sora and her food. Its eye would open in a flash, sending the other dogs into a frenzy and a game of chase.

We quickly learned that authoritative behavior often froze dogs in their tracks, and braking left the dogs with nothing to chase, thus stopping their prey drive. Our trepidations quelled, however, upon understanding the easiest way to fend a dog was to show love and kindness.

Throughout the thousands of kilometers traveled in the Balkans and Turkey, we befriended countless dogs. There was Max, the ignored campground lab with whom we played fetch using a pear. We shared Sora’s bones with Sheeba, a high-energy shepherd puppy tied under a bridge at a rafting camp. Some pups joined us for lunch, lounging nearby while we ate, while others took us on as their masters, protecting us from other dogs while we slept. Dave once plucked a hound drowning in a deep water trough in Turkey, and once we awoke to a puppy curled up in the vestibule of our tent.

The level of trust and compassion displayed by these animals serves as an example for the way human beings should interact with one another. Dog after dog, these wonderful creatures approached us as individuals, rather than with judgment based upon past experiences with others of our kind.

Street Dogs-2

With growing rabies control and spay and neuter programs in many cities, subtle signs indicate heartwarming changes in the perception of dogs. In Turkey, recycling stations release dog food with each plastic bottle deposited in the machine. The residents of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, have collectively taken on the care of the pack of dogs that resides in the central plaza. Bakers save stale bread and distribute it to the street animals. Many restaurant and hotel owners “adopt” a local stray and provide scraps and water to it each day, and sometimes even take a sick animal to see the vet.

In our experience, the greatest problems dealing with street dogs did not involve chasing, biting or rabies. Instead, the stress came when the dogs attempted to follow us along busy roads, and even more so when we could not allow ourselves to fall in love with each one and invite it along on our journey.

Six Tips for Handling Aggressive Dogs

Stop the dog from getting the idea to chase

The moment a dog hears you coming, it will perk its head up. In that moment, it will decide whether or not to chase. To stop the dog from moving closer, snap, point to it and say “eht!” or “nope!” This lets it know that you’re in charge.

Stop moving

Dogs like movement and their prey drive tells them to chase. Despite fear telling you to move quickly away from the dog, stopping gives the dog nothing to chase, preventing it from continuing its approach.

Be firm and take a power stance

If the dog decides not to listen, stand or sit up tall and continue saying “eht!” Raise your arms in the air to make yourself appear larger. These dogs are often scared of people and this simple gesture often scares them away.

Act like a dog

Continue to appear large and threatening. Growl and offer a quick, deep bark, almost like a cough. Show the dog you speak its language and that you’re not going to put up with its fight. Listen to the sounds the locals use with dogs and mimic them. The dogs are accustomed to these noises and know how to respond.

Become a threat if the dog continues to chase, bark or act aggressively

Cyclists can use a number of tactics, including squirting water in its face, finding a stick to fend it off, throwing rocks in its direction (but not actually hitting the dog) or making a high-pitched sound like a whistle.

Make friends

Check the dog’s body posture. Is its tail wagging fast back and forth or is it frozen in place? Tail wagging is good and indicates the dog is friendly. Use a high-pitched voice and say “Hi, buddy!” Put your hand out to allow the dog to get your scent.


Follow along with Jen, Dave and their dog Sora as they travel the world on two wheels and share the ups and downs of their adventures at longhaultrekkers.com.

 

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