My Biggest Fear and Safety, Safety, Safety.

A few years after I got married, my mother showed my mother-in-law, Opal, my baby book. Soon, Opal came running up to me and asked, “I bet you don’t know what your biggest fear was when you were three?” I instantly replied, “dogs.” She stood shocked for a second. “You remember that?” she asked. I think my answer surprised her. “Do you think I’d be likely to forget it?”

In more than 35 years of handling literally tens of thousands of animals in shelters and as a behaviorist, I have been punctured five times and bitten only once. Three of the punctures occurred during the eight years I worked in shelters. Twice I was nailed by six-week-old feral kittens. Once a Chihuahua pinked my little finger nail. Working as a behaviorist and trainer primarily by veterinary referral, I was nailed about 15 years ago by a Wheaton Terrier that was let out his crate before I was ready. No stitches. Two other times I received small punctures on the top of my hand. That’s it. While I do not claim to be the best handler on the planet, I think I have a pretty good record – thanks to that inner child who keeps reminding me that I’m scared of dogs.

To be frank, I believe that if you are not a little afraid of dogs you are out of your mind. Their large canine teeth work like shears – they slice through flesh, sinew and muscle better than my kitchen knives. Their heavy molars pierce, crush and slice, all at the same time. They are perfectly capable of maiming or killing you, Chihuahuas and Shi Tzus excepted. In that spirit I would like to offer my thoughts on what I think has kept me safe, all these years. Some of these things are simultaneously the safest and most risky things you can do. I make no warrantee or guarantee on any of these suggestions. I do not recommend that you use them as last resorts – you need to practice to make these things work.

“Never make eye-contact with a dog you haven’t slept with”
If you are in close proximity to a dog you think might bite you, do not stare it in the eyes. Use your peripheral vision to watch the dog. Dogs consider direct eye contact a challenge – especially from above. Most will not contest your stare. Some will react instantly, violently. There is no dependable way to know which is which, so simply don’t do it. Once as a lowly dog catcher, I doubted for a moment that something as simple as direct eye-contact could trigger a dog attack. I only tried it once. From about 20 feet I locked eyes with an 80-ish pound German Shepherd guarding her front porch. Two seconds later I was squatting down, spinning sideways and shoving my clipboard into her mouth as I backed away as fast as was possible. I went over the curb, backwards, which stopped the attack. I was flat on my back looking up in the sky. It took 20 minutes to get to a seated position. Every time I moved she raced back and threatened me. It took me another 15 minutes to gradually stand and make it back to my van. One other caution – large, dark sunglasses look like large staring eyes to a territorial dog.

Do not look tall:
The best way to make a dog lose its desire to hurt you is to get down to the dog’s level. Standing way up in the air does not make them feel safer. This is safe and dangerous at the same time. Obviously if the dog does attack you, the injury will be more severe. However, the odds that the dog will bite you are dramatically reduced. That is a gamble. You can lose if you have not trained yourself well enough.

Do not face full front:
If a dog is threatening you, do turn face front to the dog. Instead, turn sideways. Look at the dog with your peripheral vision. My personal preference is to turn completely away from the dog and sit, quietly on the ground. Cross your legs and keep your arms close to your body. The danger here is that the dog is likely to approach and look at your face. If you screw up and make eye contact, you will receive a very nasty bite. Another danger is that this actually works too well. The dog will approach and attempt to slip its nose under your arm-pit and then look up at your eyes. The eye contact at close range can trigger a bite. Squeeze your arm close to you body to prevent the dog from shoving forward. If the dog tries to make eye contact, look away.

Do not move quickly:
It is very easy to forget that you present a threat to a dog. After all, you love dogs. You are good with dogs. Unfortunately, there are dogs who are not good with people who are good with dogs. One of the quickest ways to scare a dog is to move quickly – especially arms and hands flailing around. Try to appear calm and slow. If everything falls apart, that is the time to move quickly.

No touching the top of the head, neck and shoulders:
If you have ever watched two dogs in the park charge forward and assert their personality you will notice two areas of concentration. The first is a sniff in the inguinal region – the area inside the thigh near the dog’s private parts. (As if dogs had anything private) The other area is the top of the head, neck and shoulders, called “the withers” by dog aficionados.  If the two dogs are going to play or fight, that is the place it starts. One dog will place its chin or paws on the other dog’s withers and if a fight is going to occur, that is the time the ruckus starts. If you touch a fearful or aggressive dog on the top of the head you will discover this first hand. This obviously means that bending over and patting the nice doggie on the head is a very risky thing to do.
If a dog is trying to bite you, put something other than yourself in its mouth.
When biting time is nigh, your reaction time is going to be about 75% slower than any dog you come across. That’s why they never fight dogs in Kung Fu movies – they are simply that much faster than us. The best strategy to save yourself when the attack starts is to put something in the dog’s mouth and let him bite on it. Some animal control agencies actually use a “bite stick” – a police baton that is placed in the dog’s mouth to ward off a bite. One caution – do not attempt to hit the dog. As I said, they are so much faster than us that if you attempt to hit or kick them, you will most likely lose the contest.
Caveat, caveat, caveat: (in Latin, caveat means “beware.”)
All of these suggestions really are things that I believe have kept me safe in one of more combinations. However, these aren’t free suggestions – you have to work with them in advance. I have trained myself in the acid test of kennels, on the streets and in people’s homes. I practice by going to the local county pound and making eye contact with any dog that is reactive. I sit next to a kennel gate and practice staring at them until they spark and then looking away until they get quiet. I really do – about twice a year. I have to stay fresh so that the visceral sounds of a dog growling at close range doesn’t make me flinch or jerk. This training means that I can completely avoid making direct eye contact, even if a dog shoves its muzzle right up next to my face. That takes practice. I really do not hug them unless I’ve slept with them. I have no problem getting down low on the ground so that from the perspective of a newbie I have to be crazy. I have taught these things to many people – kennel workers, animal control officers, groomers, vets and vet techs. If you choose to start experimenting with these tips, use the utmost caution. There is no assurance that you have the most important character trait that has kept me safe – you may not be as scared of them as I am.

One thought on “My Biggest Fear and Safety, Safety, Safety.

  1. Couldn’t agree more Gary. In the two years working animal control myself, I watched carefully and came to the same conclusions about modifying my behaviour with dogs to keep myself and others safe. I never once had to use the pole to catch or contain a dog and was never bitten because I used these techniques. I strongly recommend anyone who comes into frequent contact with dogs learn and practice these methods. There is no trick to it, but I encountered many who thought I had ‘a way’ with dogs.

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