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

Utility personnel are going to find themselves in confrontations with dogs. It is the nature of our work. How a worker responds during that type of engagement will have consequences that can be good or bad. The best consequence is when the parties go their separate ways and no one is left bleeding. Frankly, bleeding is not the worst outcome of these situations. People sometimes die as a result of confrontations with dogs, and the dogs can be hurt or killed, too. As a dog person, I would choose to see everyone walk away if at all possible.

While there is no magic formula that can be used to prevent you and your employees from being attacked by dogs, there are many good training programs out there and many good companies that provide dog attack prevention training. I have witnessed many training sessions and one thing is certain, not all of them provide the same information or approach. A few years ago I decided to perform some research on my own and compare it to what I knew about dogs as a longtime dog owner, a former dog breeder, and someone who is experienced with trained canine service members in the military and on police duty. I should also mention that some of my experience comes from four or five up-close engagements with big, seriously aggravated dogs in the backyards and pastures of utility customers. I can assure you that the nature of those incidents squared well with what I have learned over the years.

Now I must offer this disclaimer: Dogs can’t read. They don’t have the benefit of the wisdom offered throughout this two-part article (check out part two in the December 2016 issue of Incident Prevention). No one can account for or predict every dog’s response. What you read during the course of both of these articles will help you understand, in part, why dogs do what they do. You may also find some practical ways you can improve your chances of having safe experiences with dogs, both those that are friendly and those that are not so friendly.

Facts and Figures
When dogs attack people, we often qualify the attack from a human perspective by saying it was unprovoked, “not like Spot at all” or something else along those lines. The reality is that when Spot attacked, he was provoked – at least to his mind. If you look back at any dog bite from the canine perspective, every attack makes sense. Further, if you look at any confrontation with a dog from the canine perspective, you may be able to avoid being attacked.

We often look at incidents with dogs and assess them based on norms we as humans are attuned to. But what is normal to us and what is normal to a dog are two entirely different things. There are not many tools you can use to stop a dog attack. Workers who face dogs every day have tried pepper spray, noisemakers, batons, electrical shocks and air horns. We will discuss stopping attacks in part two of this article. Your best defense against a dog attack is to educate yourself about how to avoid situations that may provoke such an attack.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur each year in the U.S. (see

With regard to non-fatal attacks, the majority of victims are children. In 1994, the CDC reported that nearly 334,000 patients were treated for dog bites in emergency departments (see In 2001, reporting from physicians and emergency rooms indicated 368,000 patients were treated for dog bite injuries. Medical surveillance indicates 42 percent of bites were sustained by children under 14 years of age while close to 8 percent were work related. The CDC report also indicates that of fatal dog attacks, 75 percent were made upon family members or guests on the dog owner’s property.

According to, between 2005 and 2015, 360 people in the U.S. were killed by dogs. In 2015, there were 34 dog bite fatalities (see

The problem is that these statistics and human perspectives on dog behavior mean nothing to Spot. In fact, if Spot chooses to attack, his reasoning for doing so is as remarkably complex as it is narrow, and he likely believes that what constitutes his property or space is much broader in scope than what the homeowner or the law views as his property. Misunderstandings between dogs and man are usually – though not always – the basis for incidents involving dog bites.

The Pack Mentality
Although interaction between man and his best friend has spanned the ages, dogs are still animals. And despite their evolution from predator to lap toy, all dogs are still basically territorial beasts driven by the instinct to protect and persevere.

In the animal world, species that are not singularly capable of efficient hunting and killing are considered pack animals. Cats are an example of animals that do have that singular capability. Lions may live in a pride, but they can survive on their own, relying on their extraordinary skills. Domestic cats, even those specialty breeds, can take care of themselves if abandoned, although furry Persians and the like suffer greatly because their heavy fur doesn’t do well in the wild.

Dogs, on the other hand, will soon die if left alone to hunt for food. They are pack animals. In the wild they are critically reliant on membership of the pack for survival. As such, they are instinctively predisposed to protecting their territory and other members of the pack.

In the domestic dog world, the word “pack” helps to explain the social order among canines. And when referring to the relationship between dogs and man, “pack” may be just as appropriate as “family.” As a result of domestication, a dog accepts his human family members as members of the pack with some modifications. The dog is no longer reliant on the cohesiveness of the unit in order to hunt and kill for food. Food arrives every day around the same time in a bowl. When pups enter the world, they naturally exhibit some pack-defined behaviors. The mother, the alpha female, also exhibits some pack-defined behaviors when dealing with her pups. In most cases, though, the human family members socialize the pups into the hierarchy of the family pack, ultimately modifying what would normally develop into instinctive pack behavior.

While many pack instincts that dogs are born with are modified when those dogs live with humans, some characteristics of the pack mentality remain. The most disturbing one is that the family dog will defend his human pack members as he would in the wild – to the death. Dogs that sense a threat to the family are likely to attack that threat. When a dog’s instinct to protect the pack is aroused, neither the size of the threat nor the size of the dog makes a difference.

When Spot snapped at the next-door neighbor on his front porch, he wasn’t being bad, he was being a dog. The physical discipline and lecture he received after the incident satisfied the owner that he won’t do it again. But to Spot, the discipline was a message from the alpha leader: “That visitor on the porch is mine and I will decide when to bite it.” And Spot will comply, until the next time his pack-driven aggression is aroused.

Dominant and Submissive Behaviors
When dealing with animals, we must be careful to remember that they don’t think of themselves in human terms. Dominance, submission and aggression within the pack are complex behaviors that have been studied and dissected for decades.

As much as we know about pack mentality, the individual response of a dog to pack stimuli can still be unexpected, even though it can be easily explained after the fact. When we add the influence of coexisting with humans to the mix, a dog’s response can be even more unexpected.

To dogs, we are not family – we are human members of the pack. The comfort level of the dog in the family home is based on the character of the family pack. A dog sees itself as a submissive member. Every human is a leader on some level. It is that pack mentality that sets up incidents in the home during which dogs attack family members.

As pack animals, dogs instinctively operate under the alpha leader system. They recognize a system of governance within the pack, and all members in a pack know who the leader is. Occasionally fights break out within a pack as one animal tries to assert himself into the alpha position. Keep in mind that the alpha member in a pack of dogs does not necessarily have to be male. In the wild, pack hierarchy is very well defined. There is an alpha male, and one step below him is an alpha female who also dominates male pack members, as the alpha male allows. In canine social groups, females are often observed as the alpha leader.

When we see a pack of dogs that appear to be fighting each other, it is usually a case of pack dominance. Pack members are siding with either the alpha leader or the dog trying to assert himself or herself into the leadership position.

Even when the fight is inspired over a female in heat, the males are not each fighting individually for the female. They are most likely defending or challenging the alpha leader’s first claim to the female.

When dogs are alone, they instinctively evaluate new social contacts within that context. They try to determine their place as either the dominant or submissive party in this new relationship. Some dogs, like humans, are less confrontational and will easily adopt a submissive position in the new relationship.

The Threat
As dogs assess new contacts from a pack mentality perspective, their pack experience dictates how intense their response might be. If a dog’s pack hierarchy experience has been very physical, his experience has included fighting for his position or defending himself from the aggression of alpha leaders. Dogs that are abused or beaten in their family experience are the same as dogs in a pack. Being beaten is part of the pack experience for the submissive animal. This explains why mistreated dogs rarely bite or attack their abusive owners. Fighting dogs exhibit a ferocious and unnerving presence in the ring and intimidate every contact whether dog or human. Yet when observed with their owners, the ones who beat their ferociousness into them, they are cuddly and loving.

Although domesticated dogs are far removed from wolves, canine behaviorists repeatedly look at the wolf pack in analyses of dogs’ behavior because dogs are considered a subspecies of the wolf. The contemporary wolf pack is the same as it was 1,000 years ago. It is a family, usually of about three generations. As the members mature, they leave the pack and establish their own families, much like humans do.

A family dog lives under a modified set of pack rules. In the wolf pack, the singular alpha member is the ruler until he becomes too sick or injured to assert himself. In the family, every human member is superior to the dog but to varying degrees. The dog senses the strengths or inconsistencies of the dominant humans and will use that knowledge to his advantage. The human who is consistent when interacting with the dog will consistently get obedience.

In the wolf pack, the alpha leaders command obedience simply by standing up, staring, raising a lip or quietly growling. Submissive members of the pack know the leader will attack if he needs to. Fights break out over sharing carcasses, mating with females and ascension within the pack hierarchy, but the fights never affect pack unity. Immediately after a fight, members will appear as if nothing happened, but the ferocity of such an encounter is chilling to the human observer.

In the family, the dog operates under the same system. A consistent message backed up by a deliverable physical threat makes that family member the alpha leader. This does not mean the master must physically discipline the dog when he exhibits undesirable behavior. The dog understands the threat of force. The interesting thing overlooked by humans is the amount of loyalty the submissive member will show to the dominant member. Dog owners often put up with undesirable behavior because they think that a little physical discipline will make the dog not like them. Nothing is further from the true nature of the family dog. He may shy away after an initial session of discipline, but if the actions between leader and dog are consistent, the relationship is understood by the dog. Compliance with the human’s stare, single-word command or physical signal is all that’s needed. On the occasion that the human’s weakness is challenged, an appropriate physical reminder may be all that it takes to re-establish the dominant order. In a short time, usually measured in minutes, the dog will again be man’s best friend.

A strong understanding of the reasons underlying canine behavior is helpful to utility workers – and anyone else – who may encounter dogs from time to time. In part two of this article, we will build upon the information presented here and delve into the best ways to respond to unfamiliar dogs and what to do if you can’t avoid an attack. I’ll also provide an overview of breeds of dogs that are more commonly involved in biting incidents.

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