When asked which wild animals we could take in a fight, Americans are a pretty cocky bunch: A YouGov poll making the rounds earlier this year found that 6% of respondents said they could beat a grizzly, which is completely insane. Equally bonkers, 38% of men believe they could handle an eagle.
But part of this lighthearted poll hits closer to home: Just 15% of women, and 31% of men, said they could fight a large dog and win.
I’m definitely part of the 85% of women who don’t like their chances against a dog. And there’s a far greater chance that I or my child might someday encounter a dangerous dog than an enraged eagle.
I’m not afraid of dogs, or out to indict a particular breed. And I realize that despite the horror periodic accounts of fatal dog attacks evoke, they are rare.
But there are sometimes dogs roaming in my neighborhood — maybe lost pets, maybe strays, maybe dangerous, either way — and if one of them threatens my child, I want to know what to do.
Thousands of children are bitten every year, said Melissa Miller, former head of Detroit’s animal control. Stray dogs can be dangerous, but kids are most likely to be bitten by a dog they know, she said.
Miller encourages dog owners to be thoughtful about how their animals are socialized. A guard dog that spends most of its time confined in a yard is more dangerous than one who interacts regularly with people and other dogs. Miller advises owners to walk their fence-lines daily to ensure their pet is secure, and to always, always, keep their dogs on leash in public.
Those are valuable tips, but I need to know what to do if I find myself, and my child, in a potentially fatal encounter.
What should I look for when out walking?
Be aware of your environment, Miller said. On a route you regularly walk, note which houses have dogs.
It’s good to register whether dogs appear to be home. If the dog is absent and the gate is open, it could signal that the dog is in its house, on an outing — or that it has slipped out.
Dog owners and other pedestrians, Miller said, need to understand that an urban environment is almost designed to put a dog in a stressful situation.
“The act of walking down the sidewalk, from a human perspective, we approach each other face to face, we smile if we know them, or we walk by them and it’s no big deal,” Miller said.
But for a dog, that creates a potential confrontation. For a pet owner, the solution may be as simple as stepping off the sidewalk until a pedestrian has passed.
What behaviors should put me on high alert?
There are two sets of behaviors to watch for, Miller said.
A dog that averts its face, licks its lips, has its ears back, or yawns while walking down the sidewalk may be exhibiting stress. She also warns pedestrians to be vigilant for “whale eyes,” when the whites of the dog’s eyes are visible. An animal looking to engage may harden its muscles, lower its head and stare directly at its target.
If a dog moves toward me, what should I do?
A dog pursuing prey follows a certain pattern: Focus, stalk, chase, acquire. If the dog isn’t tracking you, Miller said, be still and let it move past you. “If you start to run, you’re likely to become the thing that’s chased. Those are innate behaviors.”
But if a dog is tracking you, she said, get out of its way — slowly. If you must move past the animal, Miller said, move away on a diagonal, at walking speed, to create the most distance as quickly as possible.
“Moving in a diagonal turns your body sideways. It says, I’m not a threat to you. It’s really to get out of the dog’s direct line of sight,” she said.
If the situation is really bad, it might be useful to step inside a gate at a home without a dog. Look for a pickup truck with an open bed you can climb into, or place your child in, or a car you could get on top of, Miller said. Once, when a stray menaced a small dog she was walking, she put it in a garbage can.
If moving away from the dog or breaking its line of sight is not possible, Miller said, remember: “Stand like a tree, don’t flee,” with arms straight at your side, or crossed over your chest. “Sometimes that dog will run right up to you and sniff you, and then move along — and it’s terrifying when that happens.”
What should you do if a dog bites you?
“Your instinct is to pull away, but really, you should lean in. Dogs have an oppositional instinct, which is that if (prey) pulls away, bite harder,” Miller said.
This, she acknowledged, may be hard to actually do — and harder yet for a child. A loud, low noise may startle a dog and cause it to back off. “If there is an object that you have — a backpack, a purse, if you’re an older person with a cane — swing it back and forth low like you’re sweeping” to create space between a biting dog and yourself or your child.
It’s human instinct, Miller said, to raise an object to deliver a blow. “But when you lift up, you leave your whole body exposed.”
If a dog is lunging at you or your child, Miller said, pepper spray can work. She recommends Halt Dog Repellent. She’s also used Pet Corrector, a product that emits a hissing noise.
If you’re brought to the ground by a dog or group of dogs, Miller said, interlace your fingers and curl into a tight ball. If a dog has your child, “Hitting isn’t going to do anything,” she added.
I tell Miller that a surprising number of mothers I know are prepared to gouge an attacking dog’s eyes out.
“As a parent, if getting the dog to redirect on you is the goal, to put yourself between your child and the dog, that could work,” she said.
The pandemic effect
Young dogs born during COVID haven’t been socialized like their older peers. But those older dogs, she said, may need a slow re-entry to social situations.
“I’m getting a lot of calls about dogs who are really fearful, engaging in fear barking or posturing at strangers,” she said.
Even walks, she said, can be overwhelming. “You need to be checking in with your dog to see if what you think is exciting is good for your dog.”