15 real-life tips for surviving a dog attack (2017 edition)

This pit bull raced unattended into a busy supermarket, but Beth Clifton caught him before anyone was hurt.
(Beth Clifton photo)

by Merritt Clifton

If the expert geniuses passing out advice about avoiding dog attacks as celebrity trainers and on behalf of animal advocacy organizations really knew what they were talking about––and yes,  Cesar Millan,  Robert Cabral,  and Victoria Stilwell,  we are talking about you,  among many others––the U.S. and Canada would not have reached midway through 2017 with already more total dogs involved in fatal and disfiguring attacks,  more child victims,  more adult victims,  more fatalities,  and more survivors learning to live with disfigurements than in any entire year before 2014.

Cesar Millan (National Geographic TV photo)

Eye-popping numbers

More than half of all the fatal and disfiguring attacks on record in the U.S. would not have occurred just since 2007.

Humane societies alone would not be adopting out more dogs who go on to kill or disfigure people than the total number of fatal and disfiguring attacks on record in any year,  for all dogs combined,  from 1833 through 1991.

Since 2007,  47 former shelter dogs are known to have killed people.

Same tired tips

For Dog Bite Prevention Week 2017 the American Humane Association,  American Veterinary Medical Association,  and U.S. Postal Service again offered essentially the same lists of  tips for avoiding ordinary dog bites and minimizing the damage that they have offered since Dog Bite Prevention Week originated in 1956––but for at least 563 people in 2015,  581 in 2016,  and 356 just halfway through 2017,  none of those tips would have helped.

Those more than 1,500 Americans were attacked by dogs,  often several dogs at once,  who were hell-bent on mauling, maiming, and/or killing their victims.

Among the dogs were 1,149 pit bulls and pit mixes,  and more than 200 other dogs of closely related breeds,  among them Rottweilers,  boxers,   and a variety of pit/mastiff crosses such as the Presa Canario, Dogo Argentino,  and Cane Corso.

Of the 4,729 humans who have been disfigured by dogs since 1982,  3,564 were disfigured by pit bulls;   of the 681 deaths,  382 resulted from pit bull attacks and another 101 by Rottweiler attacks.  Pits and Rotts,  together with their recognizable mixes,  make up about 7% of the U.S. dog population,  but account for 70% of the fatalities and 83% of the disfigurements.

How fatal & disfiguring attacks occur

Many of the human victims were disfigured or killed while trying to protect their pets from dog attack.  The approximately 3.5 million pit bulls in the U.S. appear to be killing upward of 10,000 other dogs per year,  and 2,000 cats,  severely injuring at least as many.

(See Record 32,550 pit bulls killed or badly injured other animals in 2016.)

         When a dog does not just bite, but attacks with intent to maul, maim, and kill, observing the usual rules for escaping injury no longer helps––especially if the attacking dog is of a breed selectively crossed for centuries to have low inhibitions against conflict and a high pain threshold, the better to injure and kill other animals in fighting and baiting.

(See The science of how behavior is inherited in aggressive dogs,  by Alexandra Semyonova.)

Pit bull attacks smaller dog. (YouTube)

Shedding light on the situation

Among the more naïve reader inquiries recently reaching ANIMALS 24-7 was, “Would a laser light protect oneself against a pit bull?”

No.  Pit bulls (and dogs generally) don’t tend to care about lights.

Dogs in general evolved to hunt and scavenge by night as well as day, and “see” mostly with their noses.

A pit bull or other dog of fighting and baiting lineage will kill you whether he can see you or not.  If he has to close his eyes to do it,  he will,  and not worry about it,  because his eyes are not how he is locating you.

ANIMALS 24-7 data superimposed on ASPCA image, covering up only a black void.

Weapon success rates

I have been logging fatal and disfiguring dog attack data for nearly 35 years now.  Based on actual case data, a firearm has about an 80% success rate in stopping a charging pit bull,  but with a high rate of accidentally killing or injuring other people nearby,  as occurred on June 21,  2017 when a ricochet from a police round fired at a charging pit bull killed 17-year-old Armando Garcia,  who was reportedly 40 feet away and out of view of the officers who were trying to stop the attack.

A fire extinguisher has about a 70% success rate,  with no risk to bystanders.  A bite stick can be used by an experienced person,  or anyone who has an appropriate object to use as a bite stick and keeps his or her head.

Knives and blunt instruments have negative success rates,  meaning that the people using them are more likely to increase the severity of an attack than to help themselves or others get away.

Blunt force usually fails

The most frequent mistake made by people trying to stop a dog attack, contributing to serious injuries almost every day now, is attempted use of blunt force, typically by swinging an object such as a baseball bat or a golf club at the dog.

Unless the swinger has major league bat speed, power,  and ability to make accurate contact with a rapidly and unpredictably moving target, the dog will easily dodge the attempted blow,  the person swinging the blunt object will be off balance,  and the dog will then pull the person down to inflict severe or fatal injury.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Use the blunt object as a bite stick

The correct way to use a bat or golf club, if one happens to have one, is as a bite stick,  held in such a manner as to keep the dog at maximum distance from oneself.  A walking cane, a broom stick, a fence slat, or any other long, sturdy object can do the same job.

It is also futile to pound on a dog’s head to try to make the dog let go of someone else.  Most animals, including humans, respond to a blow to the head by clenching their teeth. This is why prize fighters wear mouthpieces. Among pit bulls this tendency is even more pronounced.

To make a pit bull let go of something,  it is necessary to pry the dog’s jaws apart with a bite stick — and to do this safely, the person doing the prying should be behind the dog,  with face out of reach of a quick snap.

Zorro

Knives are next to useless

Many people carry a knife, but a knife of any sort is next to useless against a charging dog, especially a pit bull.

One could hand Zorro himself a knife, throw a pillow at him, and he might be able to effectively stab the pillow maybe one time in 10. Most people could not do that well, lacking the wrist strength to drive the knife through the pillow cover.

A charging dog is coming much faster than a pillow, and the number of places where the dog can be stopped by slashing or stabbing are very few — and even if one happened to hit one of those vital spots, momentum would carry the dog on forward.

A dog meeting a knife blade will already be no more than arm’s length away when the knife strikes, so will be on the user, probably slightly injured and even more infuriated, in a split second.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Dogs don’t recognize knives

Merely showing a dog a knife, moreover, means nothing to the dog. Dogs have no experience with knives, and no understanding of what they are. At best a dog may think a knife is a toy, and that the user is about to play “stick.”

This may prevent an attack, but only if one throws the knife over the dog’s head and the dog runs after it.

Taking that chance is obviously not recommended.

Cyberspace is, to be sure, full of stories about how people allegedly stabbed pit bulls and other dogs to break off attacks, but close examination shows that in every case the dog was attacking someone else, or some other animal, and that because the dog was fixated on the original victim, the person with the knife had the luxury of being able to stab from behind, sometimes repeatedly,  as the knife struck bones and failed to penetrate deeply on the first effort.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Grab a fire extinguisher

ANIMALS 24-7 recommends fire extinguishers as the safest and most humane tools for interrupting a dog attack,  since using a fire extinguisher does not require closely approaching the dog,  a fire extinguisher does not have to be aimed very accurately to have a deterrent effect,  a fire extinguisher does not quickly run out of ammunition, a fire extinguisher does not produce an erratic ricochet,  and a fire extinguisher is normally non-lethal, even if discharged directly into a lunging dog’s throat.

Demonstrating an inexpensive automotive fire extinguisher.
(Beth Clifton photo)

Keep a fire extinguisher handy

But if the fire extinguisher is exhausted while the dog attack continues, the empty cylinder can be used as a shield,   a bite stick, or even a club, as appropriate.

Besides the deterrent effect of the fire extinguisher’s contents, which tend to make animals quickly short of breath without lastingly harming them, most animals,  including most dogs,  retreat from the snake-like hiss of a discharging fire extinguisher.

Carrying a fire extinguisher while walking, jogging, playing, or working outdoors is awkward, but there should be a fire extinguisher in every kitchen,  near every fireplace, in every car,  near the driver in any bus,  truck,  or taxi,  and prominently and visibly located in every public building or place of business.

Other spray devices

Among the other popular non-lethal devices used to stop dog attacks, pepper spray and Mace must be relatively accurately directed,  and are typically carried in small containers meant for use at close range.  Pepper spray and Mace have about a 40% success rate in stopping pit bull attacks.

Pocket sprays such as Mace, pepper spray, ammonia sprayers, and similar devices try to replicate in miniature the fire extinguisher effect, but in truth a spray can of almost anything would work about as well.

Part of what makes fire extinguishers effective is that the foam comes out under pressure and rapidly expands, so that the volume actually helps to form an olfactory and visual barrier between the dog and victim(s). Nothing in a small container can have a similar effect.

Humane Society of the U.S. representative Dave Pauli maintains this tranquilizer gun arsenal.   (Dave Pauli photo)

Tasers & tranquilizers

Tasers are often useless against fur-covered animals.  Tasers don’t deliver a shock unless the tasering device sticks to the target person or animal. Contrary to makers’ claims, they work about as well on thickly furred animals as tossing a ping pong ball.

Tranquilizer darts must be placed very accurately to be effective, difficult to achieve when a dog or other animal is in attack mode,  and then the tranquilizer can take several minutes to work,  during which time the animal can do significant damage.

Bear spray, hair spray, bug spray, cigarette lighters, jabs in the eyes, etc.,  among other ill-advised frequent recommendations,  all might work on a human attacker, but the odds are excellent that they will be worthless against a charging pit bull.

Dogfighter & pit bull breeder Earl Tudor, circa 1951.

Pain does not stop a pit bull

Remember, pain is not a deterrent to a pit bull. If you have seen pit bulls fighting, you would know that they will fight on to the death even after losing ears, legs, and having their guts trailing on the ground.

Forget about trying to inflict pain. What you have to do to stop an attack by a pit bull is create a distraction compelling enough to jolt the pit bull out of the idiopathic rage syndrome — the kill-or-be-killed mindset of the fighting dog, which pain only intensifies.

Humane Control of Wildlife in Cities & Towns, by Guy Hodge

Fire extinguishers work. Sometimes a sudden unfamiliar noise works. Even throwing a pan of cold water on the dog is more likely to work, though, than a cigarette lighter or a jab in the eye.

Push instead of pull

Once a person is bitten,  what can be done depends entirely on the severity of the bite.

I learned from the late Humane Society of the U.S. investigator Guy Hodge many years ago to push against a bite instead of pulling away.  This forces most dogs to open their mouths,  and enables the victim to avoid the sort of ripping injuries that result from pulling away from a dog’s serrated teeth.

While Hodge’s advice has served me well in many situations,  it may not be universally applicable to all dog bites––especially the gripping bites of pit bulls and other dogs of fighting ancestry.

(Beth Clifton photo)

The first bite disables

In fatal and disfiguring attacks,  quite often the first bite disables the victim to some extent, and pulls the victim down.  The victim may then not be able to push against the bite,  or hunch up and protect his/her face,  or do any of the other things that are conventionally advised.

Most dogs bite defensively,  and will bite,  let go,  and retreat, but pit bulls and other “bully” breeds bite offensively,  and will not let go.  Instead, they bite and shake.  This behavior produces the degloving injuries that are so frequent in pit bull and Rottweiler attacks,  in which skin and muscle are stripped from the bone.  The only effective defense against that attack mode is to prevent the attack from occurring in the first place.

Break sticks. (Daxton’s Friends)

Bite sticks & break sticks

One way to do this is to use any accessible object as a “bite stick,”  to thrust into the dog’s mouth.

While the dog is biting the “bite stick,”  the dog will not be biting anything else.

Note that a “bite stick” is not the same thing as a “break stick,”  the pointed instrument that dogfighters push between a pit bull’s teeth to make the pit bull release a bite.

Mr. Peabody

Your best weapon is your brain

Quick thinking is of premium value in any emergency situation, along with having a bit of good luck.

In one instance in 2003 I was driving home from playing softball when I saw two pit bulls pursuing a bicyclist,  then redirect to a small female jogger.

Either dog probably weighed as much as the jogger did,  and her evident terror encouraged the dogs to leap at her.  They tore her shirt,  and scratched her enough to draw blood,  but had not actually gotten their teeth into her flesh when I stopped,  jumped out of my car,  handed my bat to the jogger (basically as a placebo),  stepped between her and the dogs,  and offered my fielder’s glove as a “bite stick,”  but then had the sudden inspiration to order “Sit!”

(Beth Clifton photo)

Lightning struck twice

Incredibly,  the two pit bulls broke off the attack and sat.  I told the jogger to walk away slowly,  while I kept the dogs sitting, but instead she dropped the bat after a couple of steps and took off sprinting around a corner,  which meant I was no longer between her and the pit bulls.

The pit bulls rocketed diagonally across the corner property to attack her again.  I roared “Sit!” again,  having nothing else I could do. The pit bulls skidded abruptly to a halt and sat just long enough to enable the jogger to escape.

Merritt & Beth Clifton

I called animal control at that point. Both dogs were impounded and the owner was fined.

Obviously the “Sit!” command won’t always save the day,  but it did that time.

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