As law enforcement officers we are often required to deal with dangerous, aggressive subjects. In many cases officer presence and de-escalation skills keep many bad situations from turning deadly. But what if the subject you’re facing is not human, and not amenable to your authority? Surviving dog attacks is a subject not generally discussed in the law enforcement profession, and if it is the solutions are often mired in fantasy, myth and misinformation. This article will examine some of the dynamics surrounding dog attacks and offer some practical solutions to officers for surviving a potentially deadly problem.  We’ll examine the anatomy of dog attacks, examine the demographics involved, and discuss some realistic strategies for survival. In order to devise a defensive strategy and implement it into your officer safety plan we first need to quantify the problem.

In North America there are over 4.8 million dog attacks per year, and on average 18 people die as a result of being mauled. In Canada between the years 1990-2007 the mainstream media has reported 28 fatal dog attacks. It is highly likely that there are more that went unreported, and the trauma suffered from victims of non-fatal attacks also cannot be ignored. It’s important to note that many of the factors that predicate a fatal dog attack are determined by location, the number of dogs involved in the attack, breed, and the size of their prey. It’s also important to note that many of attacks are preventable or avoidable.

It’s imperative to look at the data objectively and to understand that the factors affecting primarily rural areas (free roaming dog packs) may not be a factor in urban areas. It’s also important that more research be conducted to determine if there is a direct correlation between if the breeds of dogs that are believed to be at the greatest risk to attack are the same breeds that were responsible for fatal mauling’s.

I’m not going to demonize any breed because the fact is that any dog can and will bite if provoked. However there’s a huge difference in the potential for lethality from being attacked by a Shitzu or a German Shepard. It’s also vital to factor in that the number of breed specific attacks must be compared to the numbers of those breeds that are owned in North America. I’m a dog lover and have owned dogs of various breeds. I’ve also worked closely with individuals (police/military) who employ dogs in a variety of roles (guard, attack, contraband interdiction, and search and rescue). I’ve been bitten twice in my life and have also been stabbed. Given the totality of the circumstances, and objectively measuring the pain associated with each, I can honestly say that being stabbed hurt far less and generated less fear than the dog bites.

Research conducted by the Canadian Veterinary Journal (2008) indicates that 85.7% of all fatal dog attacks were against children under the age of 12. This is important to note and also makes a great deal of sense. Young children are generally physically smaller than adults and lack the physical size and mass to keep from being dragged to the ground where the majority of fatal attacks occur. In 78% of these fatalities, victims were alone when the attack occurred, and 67% of them were the results of attacks by multiple dogs.

This is where situational awareness is paramount. As is understanding how dogs behave and the risk factors associated with them. It also brings us to the fundamental point of this article; which is how do you as a law enforcement officer avoid an aggressive dog, or survive an attack if you can’t. I’ve always been a big believer in avoidance; however in our roles as law enforcement officers, sometimes we don’t have that luxury. The simplest way to avoid a dog attack is to not be in their territory uninvited. My 85 pound boxer is the most loving, gentle dog in the world, unless you are a stranger and attempt to get too close to his people, or enter his house without a family member present.

Regardless of their domestication, dogs are still the descendants of wolves, and therefor still retain many of their wild traits. Unlike people whose violence takes four forms (Social corrective, territorial, criminal, and predatory) dogs are either displaying offensive, or defensive aggression. Defensive aggression in the canine world can often be observed as body language (ears pulled back, growling, and fur standing up). It is a very direct message that you should vacate the territory as soon as possible and may help avoid further aggression. Often the dog displaying defensive aggression will move away from you and give you the opportunity to leave.

If an aggressive dog approaches you avoid the temptation to run or make aggressive movements or sounds. This can trigger a dog’s offensive aggression and provoke an attack. Just like human beings often doing what we think will pre-empt an attack may in fact precipitate one. Instead keep your posture neutral, and keep turning so that you can see what he’s up to. Speak in a soothing voice tone and maintain direct eye contact if you’re in an open area. This communicates to the dog that you are confident and may cause a dog reacting out of fear to back off. If you are in a confined area, avoid direct eye contact as a scared cornered animal may lash out in order to get away from you. Conversely utilizing familiar commands (sit, stay, No) may also give the animal pause, and you time to retreat or access your weapon.

When I was a young man, I had a summer job working for our local gas company walking lines with a portable leak detector. I encountered many dogs during that summer, both friendly and aggressive and the company’s policy was not to enter into any yard where a dog was acting aggressively. To me this was just good common sense.  Approaching a yard one afternoon, I saw a large German Shepard sitting on the back deck of the house. I called the dog over and he appeared very friendly, even bringing over his ball for me to throw. When I entered the yard everything was going smoothly until I turned to leave.

All of a sudden this big friendly dog was all snarls and bared teeth. I rang the doorbell but no one was home. The dog did not approach me, so I stood still on the back deck. He only became aggressive when I attempted to leave. The dog’s owners arrived home a couple of hours later and called the dog off. When I explained what had happened they informed me that he was an ex-military working dog and was trained to let me into the yard, but not to leave. As long as I wasn’t moving I was in no danger. If I had attempted to leave he would have pulled me to the ground and torn out my throat.

My friend and co-worker is a dog trainer and behaviorist and we’ve had many occasions to talk about aggressive dog behavior and the most productive methods for dealing with it. Dogs communicate with body language and their bark. Just like a humans and voice tone, it’s pretty obvious what dogs are communicating by their bark. My big male boxer will bark anytime anyone is in their back yard and he is outside. It’s not an aggressive sound; it’s more like he’s telling us “hey boss, the neighbors are outside again, just though you might want to know.” Aggressive barking sounds terrifying, and serves two purposes; to warn you away, or broadcasting intention. This type of barking is almost daring you to do something, like run or become aggressive and may cause the dog to go from defensive, to offensive.

Understanding the hunting instincts of wolves will help you defend yourself in case a dog does attack you. If you watch any video of a pack on the hunt, you’ll see many of the same behaviors you see in herding dogs and guard/attack dogs. They bite at the back of the legs and the buttocks and pull the prey down. With human beings the arms and hands are also fair game. Generally dogs will attack the stomach, or the face/neck when behaving in a predatory manner. This is because stomach/neck wounds have a higher probability of lethality due to the close proximity to vital organs and arteries. If this strategy doesn’t kill you outright, then shock and septicemia may finish the job later on.

With this in mind, understand that running is the worst thing you can do. First and foremost you have absolutely no chance of outrunning an animal capable of doing 35 miles per hour on open ground. Secondly you’ll only trigger their prey instinct and change the dynamic from defensive aggression to offensive. Dogs in packs are truly dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. They will feed off of each other’s aggression and their numbers allow them to bring down prey many times larger than they are.

Dogs can easily pull three times their own weight, meaning that an 85 pound dog has the ability to pull down a 250 pound man. I’ve seen many inmates come into custody missing pieces of their arms and legs as a result of trying to run from, or fight with police dogs. Research indicates that in many fatal pack attacks on humans there was considerable soft tissue missing from the victims as the pack actively fed on their prey.

So you’ve found yourself in a situation where retreating to safety is not an option and the dog in question has become offensively aggressive. What options do you have? First and foremost you should attempt to gain access to your primary weapon, and create the time and space to deploy it. If this is not possible use an environmental barrier to put something between you and the dog. Any kind of mobile barrier that can be used to keep the dog away from anything vital will increase your chances of survival. A baton, OC spray, or knife will all provide a physical barrier that the dog needs to navigate before they can bite you. Use these sorts of barriers to give you time to move towards a place of safety, arm yourself, or to summon assistance.

You know from reading past articles that I’m a big believer in carrying personal safety tools with me wherever I go. I’m a runner, and often alone out in the countryside where sometimes I run across big, aggressive farm dogs. I’m not a big fan of OC for self-defense purposes for two reasons. It will often work as a deterrent against dogs that are defensively aggressive as they’re reacting from fear and just need the proper motivation to leave you alone. For a dog displaying offensive aggression, it will likely be little to no deterrent at all.

If you plan to employ OC against an aggressive animal, you’d better practice getting it out and on target in an instant. In most cases your reactions won’t be fast enough to be proactive, and it’s difficult to employ when the dog has your arm in his mouth. The second reason is that even though it does affect the dog’s ability to breathe and see, once they’ve locked onto you, they don’t need to be able to see to continue biting. I’ve been sprayed by both dog spray and OC on many occasions and while they are uncomfortable, they are by no means debilitating. The end result is that you may only end up really enraging an already aggressive dog by using a tool that is meant to deter aggression not stop it.

It’s important to note that we don’t always have access to the weapons we use as law enforcement officers when off duty. I’ve carried a knife as a personal safety tool for most of my adult life. Although I’ve never needed to deploy it for self-defense purposes in the 20+ years I’ve carried one, I also know that if push comes to shove I’d have no compunction about using it to save my life. Dogs, just like people are physically vulnerable in multiple areas. I’m a life-long dog lover and the idea of harming an animal makes me physically ill. On the other hand, so does having my stomach ripped open and being eaten by the animals I love so much.

If you look at canine anatomy you’ll notice that there are several points that are vulnerable to attack by anything sharp or pointed. Just like human beings, dogs are full of pressure points and nerve bundles that are accessible when attacked. If you have the opportunity, try to jam something into the dog’s mouth to keep them away from your extremities. You must have respect for the amount of force that can be generated by a dogs jaws. Large breed dogs can exert bite pressure upwards of 238 pounds of pressure per square inch (National Geographic Society). This is enough to shatter bones and crush whatever they’ve latched on to.

If bitten you should do something that is completely counter-intuitive. The first reaction that people have is to try to pull their arm away from the bite. A dogs jaws are designed to prevent this from occurring and will only make the damage to your arm worse, leaving you with massive tears rather than puncture wounds. Instead push your arm into their jaws and employ appropriate counter-measures.

As distasteful as it may sound driving your fingers or a baton, or knife into the dog’s eyes or throat will cause a great deal of pain and inhibit to their ability to continue biting. The ridge behind their jaws is replete with nerve endings and striking, or gouging this area can cause the dog to release (with the exception of dogs such as Pit bulls and Rottweiler’s that have massive jaw muscles). Tools such as batons are better deployed as spears rather than clubs. The relatively slow speed of a swing with a baton and the over extension caused by the swing will allow most dogs to avoid it and leave you vulnerable on the return stroke.

What is vital to understand is to never underestimate the power and ferocity of an aggressive dog. I’ve read countless articles detailing how to fight an aggressive canine, and in my personal opinion they reek of fantasy and dangerous misinformation. As one of my military buddies tells me, the best way to win a fight with a dog is to be three blocks away when they attack. Good situational awareness, and target hardening will go a long way to keeping you safe when it comes to aggressive dogs. A solid defensive strategy and an understanding of a dogs capabilities will drastically increase your chances of survival. Remember that most dog attacks are preventable and avoidable if you pay attention to the signs and signals that an attack is imminent.

Kerry Sauve