Recently an acquaintance was attacked by a dog. Fortunately for her, the dog was not an angry, aggressive dog but rather a 100+ lb. adolescent with a strong play drive – and she was the toy! The other fortunate part is that she is very level headed and strong, so she stayed calm and was finally able to physically control the dog long enough to get away. She suffered several bite wounds and her clothes got very torn but she survived. Would you? Do you know what to do, and equally important, what not to do, if a dog attacked you?
The first thing all the videos and articles on the subject talk about is how to deescalate the situation to try and avoid the attack if confronted by an angry dog. Do not look the dog directly in the eyes, raise your voice or hands, or otherwise look challenging to the dog. Never run – I guarantee you can never outrun a dog and you will stimulate a chase reflex, otherwise known as a prey drive, in the dog. If the dog is just being defensive, of their territory, puppies, or just themselves, you can usually get away by just being non-threatening and slowly backing away, perhaps telling them to “go home.” Do not ever turn your back on a threatening dog, you want to know where they are and what they are doing at all times.
If the dog proceeds to come towards you, your next step is to be as boring as possible in the hope that the dog will just sniff you and wander off to find something more interesting. Stand still and think about becoming like a tree. You might take off your jacket or purse so you have something you can hold between you and the dog, and make a quick scan of the area to see if there is something you can use as a barrier (a bench, a car you can get on top of, even your purse or backpack). Make your hands into fists (to protect your fingers), cross your arms (slowly) across your chest, tuck your chin (to protect your throat) and just freeze. Sometimes just tossing an object (or part of your lunch) will distract the dog long enough for you to back away and get to safety.
If the dog does bite you, don’t pull away – yes, that will be your natural reaction, but that will just cause further damage. Do what you can to cover the dog’s head with something or use your purse strap or belt to slip around his neck and lift them up off the ground. Sure, that might seem mean but you want to cut off their air so they release you! The next best thing, especially if you have a friend with you to help, is to pick up the dog’s back legs so they are completely off balance – that works well if the dog is attacking your dog and not you. If there are people around, call for help in a low voice – again, high squeaky voices sound like prey and can excite the dog.
The best place (if there is such a thing) to get bitten, is in the shins or forearms. There is less chance of a fatal bite in those areas. At all cost you want to protect your throat and face. If the dog knocks you down or is leaping up on you, curl up in a ball with your knees drawn to your chest and your face tucked. Put your hands, curled into fists over your neck to protect it. Without anything flailing around to grab onto (your arms and legs) you make a pretty boring target and the hope is the dog will lose interest and go away.
It’s so important to teach our children safety around dogs and to never put their face near theirs (no kissing! Or hugs!). At our camps, when we held them, we would teach the children to “act like a tree” or “become a rock” so they could practice these poses. Perhaps it would help for adults to practice too! The most important thing, of course, is to keep a cool head and not get angry back. At a certain point you might have to hit the dog – a sharp fist to the top of the nose will usually startle them – but it actually should be done quietly and firmly and not like you are engaging the animal into a fight.
Fortunately, actual dog attacks are rare and hopefully you will never need these tactics but, like any defensive training, you want to know what to do before you need it. Have you ever been faced with an aggressive dog? Please share how you handled it! And what, if anything, you might have done differently. Experience is a great teacher!
Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.