Dogs generally bite for one of three reasons.
- Dominance or Territory The dog sees you as an intruder and bites to control or protect his property.
- Fear The dog sees you as a threat and bites to protect himself.
- Predatory Instinct The dog perceives you as prey and bites you as the logical end to the hunt or the chase.
Of course, when you are threatened with a dog bite, you generally don’t care why the dog wants to bite you. You just want to avoid being bitten. However, understanding what motivates dogs to bite can help you protect yourself from dog bites.
There are a few obvious ways to avoid a dog bite.
- Don’t approach or touch a dog that is sleeping, eating, or chewing a bone.
- Don’t approach or touch a dog that is behind a gate or tied in a yard.
- Don’t approach or touch a dog that you don’t know.
Unfortunately, those solutions assume that if you do not approach the dog, the dog will not approach you. Clearly that is not always the case. So, what should you do if are delivering mail or a package and a dog approaches you in an aggressive manner?
What to do when threatened by a dog
Stand still! I know, easier said than done. When all your instincts tell you to move away from the danger as quickly as possible, the best course of action is actually to freeze momentarily.
- A territorial dog’s goal is to get you off his property, so once you have stopped advancing, he will usually allow you to back away.
- Stillness will make you less threatening to a fearful dog. If you stop advancing, he will usually be glad to see you back away.
- Stillness will reduce the stimulation to a predatory dog’s urge to chase. If you don’t run, the dog has nothing to chase.
Avoid eye contact. Dogs interpret direct eye contact as a challenge. Challenging a territorial or fearful dog will heighten the tension and increase the chance of a bite. Instead, use your peripheral vision to watch the dog indirectly.
Put something between yourself and the dog. If you are carrying a bag or box, keep it between you and the dog. If necessary, you can use it to protect yourself.
Don’t allow the dog to get behind you. Fearful dogs will often try to bite from behind rather than confront you directly. Remain calm, make no eye contact, keep your bag/box between you and the dog, and turn slowly to prevent the dog from getting behind you.
Don’t talk. Don’t tell the dog “good boy” or ask if he wants a cookie. Your talking will only encourage further aggressive behavior.
Don’t scream or yell. Screaming will incite the dog’s predatory instincts. The more fear you show, the more the dog is encouraged to continue threatening you.
Step back. Often, the threatening dog will stop and stand his ground stiffly after you stop moving. At this point, you can take a few slow steps back, moving away from the dog. Keep your bag/box between you and the dog and continue to use your peripheral vision rather than direct eye contact. Continue backing away to safety unless your motion seems to further incite the dog.
What to do if a dog attacks
Even if you do everything right, some dogs will still attack. In this worst case, there are ways you can minimize injury.
- Protect yourself by feeding your jacket, box or bag into the dog’s mouth. While the dog is occupied with biting the jacket, box, or bag, back away to a secure area. Try not to scream or yell; the noise will excite the dog and escalate or prolong the attack.
- If you fall to the ground, protect your face and neck by covering them with your arms and hands. Try to curl into fetal position. Use your legs and kick. Dogs are sensitive in the same areas as humans: stomach, eyes and groin.
- Use your pepper spray. Although you might fear you will anger the dog further, it is more likely that the dog’s pain and shock will interrupt his attack long enough for you to get to safety.
Why dog bites must be reported
Dog bites account for 1/3 of all homeowners/renters insurance claims that are filed. Most insurance companies give the homeowner what is called “one free bite.” After that first bite, subsequent bites usually result in loss of coverage for bites or increased premiums.
Unfortunately, if a dog has bitten once, it will almost certainly bite again. Bites don’t happen without warning; owners who miss or ignore the warning signs of the first bite are unlikely to become more proactively careful unless they are compelled by consequences to be more attentive to the danger. Additionally, a dog that has bitten once is likely to inflict a more severe bite to the next recipient. For these reasons, all dog bites should be reported.
If you are bitten by a dog and are fortunate enough to receive only a minor wound that does not require medical care, you should still report the bite. You may not need to see a doctor, but the next victim probably will.
These tips may help you stay safe when you encounter a dog behaving aggressively. Sometimes, a dog behaving aggressively will let you walk away if your behavior and body language indicate to him that he is getting what he wants. Unfortunately, in some cases, aggressive dogs will not be satisfied until they bite.
It is my hope that you do not encounter such dogs. However, if you do, use the tips for protecting yourself from an attack. Be alert as you enter property with a dog and prepared to use your jacket, bag, and/or spray to protect yourself.
Finally, report the encounter. Aggressive behavior is self-reinforcing. Each time a dog gets away with it, he is empowered to try it again.