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Train the Trainer 101: Understanding Canine Behavior for the Protection of Utility Workers: Part Two

In the last installment of “Train the Trainer 101” (see, I provided information to help utility personnel understand, in part, why dogs do what they do. In particular, I addressed the pack mentality, dominant and submissive behaviors, and when and why a dog may feel threatened and try to attack. In the conclusion to this two-part article, I will explain how best to respond to unfamiliar dogs and what to do if you are attacked, as well as discuss breeds that are more commonly involved in biting incidents.

How to Respond to Unfamiliar Dogs
A dog’s response to a stranger will vary depending on whether he is with a handler or alone. When the dog is with a handler, remember what you know about the dog and human family relationship. The dog will respond to his handler’s actions as well as his own interpretation of an encounter with an unknown human. If you are the unknown human, speaking in casual tones to the handler, as well as the handler responding in a casual tone, will immediately set the dog at ease.

Workers in residential areas often are attacked by dogs who never posed a threat to people in the neighborhood. One reason behind this may be that workers focused on their task don’t exhibit the same mannerisms as visitors to the home or the people who frequent the property. This “unusual behavior” raises a dog’s suspicion and consequently his alertness level.

If you are walking toward a dog and his handler, stop a few feet away. If you are jogging or moving briskly, that may signal aggression to the dog. Stopping and allowing the handler and dog to approach you tends to reduce the dog’s alertness level.

A dog that walks next to his handler and does not strain at the leash is likely well-disciplined. A dog straining at the leash, dragging his handler along, is not controlled and should be avoided.

A dog standing erect, wagging his tail and bobbing its head is excited to meet new people and is not likely to bite.

A dog is nervous if he is standing with a slight squat and has his head lowered, ears forward and nose extended, sniffing the air. His tail will be lowered and the fur on his back may be ruffled or raised. He has not decided if you are a threat and may not until you reach for him. This dog is likely to bite.

A dog that is standing erect and staring straight at you, with his ears forward and tail straight, is demonstrating a raised alertness level. This dog is not afraid, may be aggressive and is likely to attack.

A dog that displays a moderate amount of curiosity and caution is harder to read. Socializing is the conditioning of dogs to accept others into his circle. Socialized dogs tend to accept new contacts but with a degree of caution. Non-socialized dogs do not display curiosity. They are not likely to want to make new friends and should be avoided.

If you are one of those people who must make friends with a dog you do not know, first look for those signs of curiosity. Approach the dog in a casual manner, stopping short and allowing him to close the final distance. Speaking in casual tones will be familiar to the dog as a common human trait. Silence tends to raise the dog’s alertness level.

Allow the dog to sniff your lower extremities. Do not reach down to a dog that is not looking up. Extend your hand, fingers closed, with the back of your hand in front of his nose and allow him to thoroughly sniff your hand. If you are not a threat, the dog will push his muzzle or the side of his head into your hand. If the dog does not push his muzzle or head into your hand, a first point of contact is under the chin or on the side of his muzzle. If he is comfortable with that, the dog will usually accept you sliding your hand to the top of his head.

A dog that exhibits a threat should be avoided. A dog that cannot be avoided should be considered in terms of its nature as a pack animal. He will be evaluating how much of a threat you are as you are evaluating him. He will likely also be evaluating your place in the hierarchy, so let him think you are a higher-up. You can try facing him, arms at your side and looking him directly in the eyes to see if he blinks. If he submits, he will turn his head to the side and lower his posture. Stand your ground for a short time to see if he backs off. If you prevail, he will usually walk away, head down, watching you peripherally as he increases his distance from you. Make sure he is well away before you turn your back.

If you try the dominant approach and the dog becomes more aggressive, it is your turn to blink. Lower your head and turn your body a quarter-turn away from him. If he does not move toward you, you can begin to move away. Don’t fully turn your back and don’t move away too fast. Both of these actions can trigger an aggressive move or even a full attack.

Handling an Attack
If you are attacked by a dog, do your best to keep your wits about you. You may suffer bites, but if you keep your wits, you can have a very good chance of surviving the attack. Your size, age, physical ability and strength, as well as those of the dog, all matter in how you will respond during an attack. In most cases, the average adult can overcome an attack by the average dog. Frankly speaking, the advantages a dog has are his threatening presence and appearance. In reality, a thinking human is at an advantage over the dog as the dog only has one weapon: his teeth. The dog’s advantages of presence and appearance are bolstered by the fact that he has no fear and is single-minded toward the attack. It’s important for you to remain on your feet and to control the dog’s jaws.

Remaining on your feet becomes more difficult if an attacking dog is approaching from a great distance, allowing him to build up speed and consequently the force of the collision impact. The solution sounds simple – duck! As the animal approaches, he is most likely to jump, as an attacking dog’s primary target is the upper body. The higher his speed, the longer his jump will be. Judge the potential impact just as a baseball batter judges the speed of the ball and the swing of the bat. When the dog leaves the ground, move your body out of his line of attack. At the least you will minimize the directness of the impact; at best he will miss you completely. The advantage here is that on his return, the dog will be traveling a shorter distance with less force on impact.

Let’s talk for a moment about controlling the dog’s mouth. When he attacks, feed him your weaker forearm; for instance, if you are right-handed, feed the dog your left forearm. This will give him something to chew on while you gain control. Allow him to bite across the width of your forearm, keeping his teeth off the inner arm. If he does penetrate the skin, there are some nerves and arteries in the inner arm that you would prefer to keep intact.

If a dog is on your arm, stand with the front of your body facing away from him. Larger dogs will pull themselves up and scratch at you with their paws. Don’t give them a sensitive target. Standing facing away also gives you more strength to resist the dog’s weight. Keep your feet spread for stability and your knees bent for balance.

If your attacker is concentrating on your weak arm, your strong arm is now your weapon. Because the dog is clamped on your arm, his eyes and snout are available. Though it sounds repulsive right now, you should not hesitate to use your fingers to blind your attacker. Most dogs will become defensive and try to escape as you gain control. Additionally, from this position you have access to the dog’s soft and unprotected underbelly. If you have a weapon, puncturing the dog’s abdomen will quickly end the attack.

An alternative to filling the dog’s mouth with your arm is pushing your hand down his throat. This will cut off his air supply and give you the upper hand. The idea of voluntarily placing your hand or arm into your attacker’s mouth might sound bad, but at least he doesn’t have you by another body part that may be more sensitive.

If you do fall to the ground, the fundamentals previously described are the same, but the dog will have more leverage. Some people move into a fetal position and try to cover up. This usually does not discourage an attack and may prolong the incident. In some attacks, the human prevailed by controlling the dog’s mouth and rolling on top of the dog, immobilizing him.

The natural human response during a dog attack is to defend against injury. It takes some effort to overcome an attack, but those who have done so usually prevailed by keeping their senses and turning the tables on their attacker.

Dogs That Bite
Any dog can bite, but certain breeds are more commonly involved in biting incidents. Some animal behaviorists link breed intelligence to frequency of bite as well as original breeding. The link to intelligence assumes that the dog can make better judgments or evaluations of the intent of humans in interactions. The better bet is that a dog’s likeliness to bite is based on his previous experiences with humans. Since dogs can’t forward you their résumés, it is best not to assume that a dog is friendly just because he looks smart.

As far as original breeding is concerned, dogs that are bred for protection are large with massive jaws. These dogs are bred for fearlessness and to capitalize on their protective nature, while other dogs are bred for more passive and playful natures. By their nature, the dogs bred for protection are more aggressive.

Pit Bulls and Similar Breeds
Many argue that the statistics don’t support the reputation, but the pit bull is the dog most commonly associated with attacks on humans. Dogs similar in nature to the pit bull are the Rottweiler, Akita, bullmastiff and Staffordshire terrier. Unfortunately for them, the Staffordshire terriers are frequently mistaken for pit bulls; however, they are well-known for their intelligence, friendliness and happy disposition.

Guard Dog Breeds
Other dogs associated with aggression often are found in the ranks of trained guard, attack or police dogs. These dogs are not quickly associated with attacks on humans but are frequently depicted as dangerous. Common guard dog breeds are the Belgian Malinois, the Doberman pinscher, the German shepherd and collies.

The dogs you may encounter outdoors that may be a threat are those that are either not accompanied by their handlers or are not under the control of their handlers.

Wolf Crossbreeds
Wolf crossbreeds – which have been outlawed in some states – were purposely introduced on a large scale in the 1980s to the puzzlement of many dog owners. These dogs come in many varieties. Some have the appearance of a wolf while others look more like a Malinois or shepherd. In any case, these wolf breeds have no fear of humans like their wild cousins do, and they are known to be nervous and aggressive.

The point of this part of the lesson is to gain an understanding of the traits of dogs that may be more aggressive as a byproduct of breeding and nature. Any time you encounter an unfamiliar dog, it is important to remember the pack nature of dogs throughout history and to avoid an encounter if at all possible.

About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn has devoted the last 18 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is senior safety manager for Global Energy Solutions Inc. in Baton Rouge, La. He can be reached at

Editor’s Note: “Train the Trainer 101” is a regular feature designed to assist trainers by making complex technical issues deliverable in a nontechnical format. If you have comments about this article or a topic idea for a future issue, please contact Kate Wade at

Safety Management, Worksite Safety, Train the Trainer 101

Jim Vaughn, CUSP

After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at