By Jeff Van Pelt
One of the cultural differences first noticed by gringo expats upon arrival in Ecuador is the myriad dogs running loose, or sleeping, in the streets. In North America, dogs are usually kept in fenced yards or inside houses, and their owners can be fined it they run loose. Not so in most of Latin America.
This free-range canine population usually poses no problem. It is a cultural difference that I think should be respected. In fact, I enjoy it when a sweet dog approaches me for a caress or a snack.
But, if you walk or bike much outside of the Centro you will eventually be accosted by an aggressive dog, sometimes a group of them. They bark and growl and snarl. I have never been bitten, but twice I have had jaws placed around my leg as if to say “I could bite you if I wanted to.” I once had four dogs surround me. I took off my backpack and swung it around to keep them at bay, but when my back was turned, the ones behind me moved in menacingly. I eventually was able to move on without physical contact, but it was intimidating.
Well-behaved dogs in the streets are one thing, but I submit that nowhere in the world should it be acceptable to have aggressive dogs chasing people down public streets. It’s obnoxious and a public health hazard. It warrants taking action to protect oneself.
My first defensive strategy was to start carrying a can of Guard Alaska bear repellent that I had brought from the U.S. to fend off human attackers. It is like pepper spray on steroids. But I never used it and I got tired of carrying it at the ready in my pocket – it is of no use in the backpack. Time to try some different techniques I had heard about.
I tested a compressed-air noise maker. A friend tried a high frequency dog whistle. And I experimented with opening an umbrella in the aggressive pooch’s face. All of these were said to scare away canine assailants. You can probably guess the results. Each method startled the dog and stopped him in his tracks … for about ten seconds. Once they realized it was an empty threat, it was back to the starting line.
Then I noticed from my apartment terrace that even children were able to keep aggressive mutts at bay by picking up – or pretending to pick up – stones, and raising their arms as if to throw them. It became my new modus operandi for a while. It causes dogs to keep some distance between you and them, but the barking and growling don’t abate, and so it is still a rather unpleasant encounter.
In a similar strain, I noticed that when we were hiking in rural areas carrying hiking poles, dogs might bark but they knew to stay out of range of long sharp sticks. That solves that, as long as I have my poles with me, but such isn’t always the case. And again, it’s still not pleasant being followed by a snarling mongrel even if at a distance. This led to my latest and now preferred strategy…
In suburban Cuenca each barrio seems to have its own strain of mutts, apparently descending from similar lineage. In some neighborhoods you see hints of Husky or short-legged Corgi. In others, there are curs, reminiscent of foxes or dingos. And of course, there are the ever present, dirty gray, curly haired, poodle-like things.
On my route to my volunteer job (meaning I have to pass that way twice a week) is a group of short-legged dogs with long blonde hair. Their ring leader looks like a cross between a Dachshund and a Golden Retriever. No wonder he has a chip on his shoulder. He and sometimes two or three other dogs would often block my path, surrounding and snarling at me. In retrospect, I guess I looked like an intruder to them. I was a newcomer, I wore a gringo sombrero, carried a backpack, and have a light complexion. But I had to do something about the menace.
I decided to start carrying the bear repellent again, and to actually use it this time. However, in consideration of the feelings of my soft-hearted co-worker who often walks with me, I decided to try a positive approach first. If that didn’t work, then the mongrels would get the grizzly bear juice.
I saved table scraps in the freezer – bits of chicken, pork, and beef. The next time I walked that gauntlet, Stubby (name given by me), the ring leader, came out, staring me down and daring me to keep coming. I pulled the baggie out of my pocket and opened it. He stopped, cautiously eyeing this new development. I took out a scrap and tossed it toward him. He backed off as if I were throwing stones. But one of his buddies was willing to test it, and he liked it. His ire melted and he waited for more. Eventually, the several dogs present had finished half my scraps, the other half being for the return trip.
The following week I brought more scraps and was ready for another face-off. When I reached Stubby’s yard he was lying in the driveway, relaxed, paying me no mind. Wow! How can it be that easy? And similar results were achieved again and again, with different dogs, on our rural hikes. Even one scrap of food would calm down a group of dogs.
My background in psychology initially made me think: this is how parents spoil children, rewarding them when they misbehave and ignoring them when they behave appropriately. But after observing for a while and giving it some thought, I realized that with these dogs it’s not about the food or getting a reward. They relax because you are showing them that you are a good guy. I don’t have to feed those dogs on my way to work anymore. They have accepted me into the neighborhood.
I learned an equally eye-opening lesson about coping with aggressive dogs when cycling. On a three-day bicycling trip down the Avenue of Volcanoes, our guide told us that our instinct to pedal faster and try to outrun them is the worst thing to do. Dogs are by nature predatory animals and will instinctively chase fleeing “prey.” Instead, he advised slowing way down. This confuses dogs, makes them nervous, and takes away their fun. We tried it and it worked better than I could have imagined. Dogs walked away as if it was no fun fast-walking after a cyclist.
I have discovered that this approach also works on motos. A couple of dogs were chasing me on my motor scooter through San Joaquín. I slowed down to a crawl and turned around and looked at them hard. They backed off and gave up the game. Visualize a 400-pound lion chasing a 1,500-pound water buffalo. When the buffalo stops fleeing and turns around, the lion thinks “maybe this won’t turn out so well.”
You will hear many different suggestions for how to cope with aggressive dogs here. This is an account of my evolving experience with them. I hope it is helpful to someone else.
Jeff Van Pelt earned his doctorate in counseling from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca almost three years.