How to Protect Yourself Against a Dog Attack

Pitbull dog running down beach
Pitbull dog running down beach (Image: Aly Tyler/iStock/Getty Images)

About 4.5 million dog bites are recorded in the United States every year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half involving children and a fifth serious enough to require medical treatment. When confronted by a menacing dog, the best strategy for avoiding injury requires overriding the primal human instinct to fight or run when faced with danger. Always, your first objective is to prevent aggressive posturing from escalating to physical attack. If that fails, the goal becomes to minimize the damage the dog's teeth can inflict on your body.

Some Dogs Love to Chase

People and dogs have been companions for so long that our two species have literally evolved together. But in their wolfish days, the ancestors of dogs had to catch their own food. In some dogs today, a person whizzing by on foot or a bike still triggers a chasing instinct. In the dog's mind, this might be great fun, but being pursued by a strange dog whose intentions are unknown is seldom amusing for people. Often, all it takes to end the pursuit is to stop moving, whereupon the disappointed dog is likely go elsewhere in search of a good time. But if a dog approaches you with teeth bared, snarling and barking, there's nothing ambiguous about the message.

De-escalation is Preferable to Combat

The best way of protecting yourself against a menacing dog is by standing your ground and showing him that you can't be intimidated, writes Jon Bastian for dog trainer Cesar Millan on his website. Stay calm and self-assured. Don't shout at the dog or make threatening gestures. Avoid direct eye contact, since this might be interpreted by the dog as a challenge. Turn slightly sideways, thereby making yourself a narrower target, while keeping the dog in your peripheral vision. If you're carrying anything, hold it in front of yourself to make your body appear larger. Once the dog understands that you're neither afraid nor a threat to him, yet don't intend to back down if he insists on pressing the issue, he'll "probably lose interest and the situation will de-escalate," Bastian notes.

If Worse Comes to Worst...

If you can't stop an attack, try to keep the dog's mouth occupied with something you're wearing or carrying, like a sweater or a backpack, to distract him from going after your body. Protecting your face, throat and chest should always be priorities, Millan's website advises. Fingers make vulnerable targets so ball your hands into fists. If being bitten is inevitable, it's safer to take the bite on your forearm or shin than the thigh area, where a tooth might puncture a major blood vessel. If the dog latches onto you and won't let go, resist the impulse to pull away because this can tear your flesh. If you can, grab the dog's back legs and pull them off the ground. He'll have to open his jaws to get back on his feet again.

Teach Kids To "Be a Tree"

Children shouldn't grow up fearing dogs but if threatened or attacked, they should know what to do, writes veterinarian and author Marty Becker. Kids should never try to engage with dogs running loose, even if they appear friendly. If approached by a strange dog, children should "be a tree," Becker advises, standing straight with feet together, fists against their neck and elbows against their chest, avoiding direct eye contact with the animal. Kids will want to flee but shouldn't, since running might spark the dog's prey-chasing instinct. In almost all cases, the "be a tree" response will cause menacing dogs to walk away. However, if a child is knocked down, "be a tree" changes to "act like a log," Becker says, "face down, legs together, curled into a ball with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears." The child should stay in that position until help comes or the dog leaves.

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