My approaches with dogs during bicycle travel, based on my experiences in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Turkey (1,400 words).
Our family dog was high-strung and named Ava; she would run circles around the living room after eating the raw dog food that was meant to ease her epilepsy. My gecko that my parents fed the crickets because I thought crickets were gross was named Victor, and he could not climb walls because he was the wrong type of gecko for that.
I never named the garter snakes that I caught because there were too many, and our interactions were too brief. When they peed on me, (Wikipedia tells me not pee, a “malodorous secretion”) I would return them to the dirt and leaves in Burnaby Lake Park. I knew to pick them up just behind their heads so that they could not bite.
The snakes we see on the road scare me—I assume they are all lethal, probably wrong—but it’s not the disgusted fear, and I credit the reptiles of my childhood. But more than Victor or the secreting garter snakes, Ava prepared me for cycling in parts of the world where dogs are common and trained to guard. If I had been unfamiliar with dogs or had experienced violence from them in my past, bike travel would likely be harder.
In late 2015 Evan cycled and camped his way towards Iran via the snowy passes of southern Armenia, sharing the road with a Belgian couple for a few days. Half of the couple was a woman with a significant fear of dogs—each time one barked at her, she’d cry. It amazed me that she had made it through the Turkey and the Caucasus without being bitten; there must have been many tears.
When a wasp buzzes towards me, I flail and run in circles. Small wonder I’ve been stung. With many animals who have the potential to change from nature to aggressor, freaking the fuck out worsens the situation, but this is hard to remember in the moment.
In the early days I had the opposite problem: I met dogs with bravado, and would try to race away from them. This was stupid, and soon I was taught to immediately stop and yell at them, to bark back. The key was to stop being a moving target and to call their bluff.
Barking back was nearly a daily activity in Central Asia, proportional to the amount of people living near the roadside. Dogs would shoot out towards us, peripheral blurs of white or grey or brown or black. The cyclist in the rear bears the brunt of this because sometimes the dogs don’t see the first rider or they take a moment to respond. On one sunny afternoon in Kyrgyzstan a dog saw Ilona belatedly, rushing out after she had passed its house. Ahead of me a car hit it, sending the dog flying through the air, rigid before it landed twitching in a ditch.
I believe in barking back because it has been effective with all but two dogs, one in Georgia and one in Kyrgyzstan. I stopped their first charge with this strategy and had started to pedal again. But these dogs returned for a second charge, now knowing to keep quiet, silently running up behind me. Quickly they were alongside and sinking their teeth into my panniers. Luckily for me, their target had been the panniers instead of my legs: perhaps they thought these were the flanks of a strange, boxy, multi-coloured animal running down the road.
There have also been nicer surprises. Because of Caucasian sheep dogs, I was nervous about visiting Tusheti in eastern Georgia by myself. On one of my few days up there I left my bicycle in the guesthouse and walked from a little place called Omalo to a littler place called Diklo. I was returning on the path when a sheepdog with snowshoes for feet stood in my way; its sheep trundled around the surrounding September meadows. The sheepdog approached me, I passed the test. It let me sit and pat it for the better part of an hour, one of my favourite memories from mountainous Tusheti.
Rabies pre-exposure vaccinations have given me peace of mind while cycling and trekking in rural areas where this neglected tropical disease persists, and this is probably part of why I’m less afraid of dog attacks than I could be. Although I’ve read that the costs have come down, this was expensive: 750 CDN in 2014. The less sensational thing I also carry is soap, which can kill the virus if used when washing wounds. The idea isn’t to wash up and then not go to the hospital, but to help the body by lessening the amount of rabies inside the wound, seeking out nerves to begin their climb towards the brain and spinal cord.
THE OTHER SIDE
It’s not just risk management that come to mind with dogs. Their suffering drags my emotions out like few species can, and this has made me aware of their vulnerabilities, especially in Kyrgyzstan:
There was a donkey close to death leaning against a road-cut; I cycled by unaffected. Inside a home where we slept on the floor, the father showed us a video on his draconian Nokia. It was of a wolf strung up on a chain being skinned alive, screaming, bleeding, its pelt hanging from it in strips. The man laughed, for wolves are disliked in Kyrgyzstan and the government pays a bounty for their extermination. Each year wolves allegedly eat thousands of horses, cows, sheep and goats, depriving Kyrgyz families. I kept my expression neutral in pursuit of cultural respect.
But not with the dog. A horse trotted past us dragging a puppy on a chain, its limp body kicking up a little cloud of dust behind it. Evan and I stood up at once from the puncture we were fixing and yelled at the man to stop. He did. He stared at us and dismounted to unchain the puppy from where it lay; it wobbled around trying to find its feet.
As speculation, the man was perhaps showing it who was the alpha male, some sort of initiation. Preparing it for a lifetime of guarding against wolves in Kyrgyzstan’s green grasses of summer and snow drifts of winter.
While I was in China, Ava was put down. I sobbed on the bed of my cold room with gold curtains, and then went out and ate a plate of yak dumplings, not yet aware of speciesism. Ava used to lay on my bed, less for affection and more because it was against a window. About a year after she died I was in Turkey, where one night there was scuffling outside my tent. I peeked through the mesh and saw a dog crawling under the fly, to escape the winter winds blowing off the Black Sea. The dog was gone by morning.
AND WHAT ABOUT AFRICA?
“I’m surprised about the lack of garbage and lack of dogs here in Tanzania,” said Ray the travel writer, who had pulled over to chat when he spotted us sitting by the road under a tree on the way to Kigoma.
In East Africa there are varying amounts of garbage, but dogs are not particularly common. They are however consistent in their pacifism. This puzzles me, as I assume they are kept to guard against strangers, like elsewhere. Virtually all the dogs we’ve cycled by since we began in Kenya have barely lifted chin from paws as we enter and leave their territories.
This means I’ve unlearned what was once automatic: the eye contact, the yelling that was actually invigorating, the hard pull on my mediocre brakes to quickly stop.
I’m unsure how to replace them. What would deter the dog-like hyenas that we could be unlucky enough to encounter while wild camping? The only one we have seen so far was roadkill, but its presence still felt ominous. And in writing that, what comes to mind is “better the devil you know.” That because wolves exist in Canada and hyenas do not, they seem scarier. And that for those who didn’t grow up with an Ava of their own, dogs may be one of the challenges of travelling by bicycle in rural Central Asia and the Caucasus.