Dog Bites: What To Do When You’re Attacked

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With all of the dog bite attacks that circulate in the news, you may sometimes worry; what if that were you?

As a veterinarian focused on behavior and an avid runner, I’ve dealt with a lot of dogs charging towards me and threatening to bite.  In spite of working with aggressive dogs as well as running by off-leash dogs on a daily basis, I have only been bitten—minor bites— a few times over the last 20 years. What’s the secret? The number one secret is to stay calm. The more you scream and try to move the more aroused you’ll make the dog—here are the two scenarios.

Two Bite Scenarios

Say you’re running along and a dog comes sprinting out from his front yard. If you run faster, you may elicit a chase reflex, the same reflex triggered when a dog sees a cat or a squirrel run by. What you should do instead is face the dog and stand still, like a pole or a tree. Your arms can be folded in front of you so that you don’t accidentally swing them around.

Most dogs that race toward you, even aggressively do not have the intention of biting; rather the charge, bark and growl, are just a threat to get you to go away. When you stand still instead of continuing to move, they bark and back away, and if you step towards them they back away faster. So once you’ve stopped and they realize you’re not going to run away for them to chase, they will generally walk away on their own. You can also back away slowly in a ho-hum, relaxed manner. Once you’ve built up some distance you can turn and continue on your planned route.

Some dogs run out towards you because they’ve just practiced barking at things that go by and when those people continue to pass, the dogs learned that barking and chasing work. They’ve done this so much without thinking that they have no clue why they are barking at you. They may actually want to play, but in their hyper-excited state, if you yell or swing your arms around, they will get more excited and just grab whatever is swinging in the same way they would grab a flailing squeaky toy. This is why it’s especially important to be completely still like a tree.

The method I just described has worked for me in all situations where I have been charged—even in cases with dogs that have a history of biting, a prolonged attack, or having sent humans to the hospital. The reasons their previous bites were bad is that the dogs were responding to the reaction of the person they targeted. Most dogs actually bite out of fear and if the person they defensively charge or snap at screams and flails, it triggers and even stronger survival attack response.

What do you do if you can’t hold still because you’re scared? If the dog starts jumping up on you still try to remain calm and keep your back to the dog so that the dog can’t get to your face. If the dog actually takes you to the ground, roll up in a ball with your knees bend and your hands around the back of your neck and hold as still as possible.

Realistically, if you are just calm, this is not likely to happen. If you are extremely fearful that something like this could happen while you’re walking on the street because you live in an area where dogs rush out, avoid the urge to carry a stick or yell. In the countries I’ve visited where free roaming dogs are common, the use of sticks and rocks to keep dogs away actually have caused the dogs to be more aggressive!

Place Something as a Shield Between You and the Dog

It’s better to consider carrying pepper spray after you’ve taken a course on how to use it. Realistically, what works even better for a dog that is charging you and actually planning to bite is anything that you can place against your body as a shield or wall. Yes, just held firmly and NOT pushed towards or used to hit the dog. The wider, and flatter the object the better so he can’t grab it. Basically the goal is to just have a big flat object in his way. It’s true that even the most enraged animal gives up trying to bite objects that are too big to grip. If you don’t happen to feel like carrying a trash can lid on all your walks, you can always use your open umbrella or purse or bag as a wall between you.

Remember, most dogs that rush towards you on the street aren’t out to bite you. Try to stay relaxed and you’ll be much more likely to remain safe.

Find more articles about dog bite prevention by going to
Review the signs that the dog is anxious and fearful and what humans accidentally do to cause the dog to snap or bite, with these PSAs: Dog Bite Prevention & what to avoid and Seven Tips For Preventing Dog Bites for Animal Care Professionals & Pet Lovers.

For more on how I handled a real life situation where potentially aggressive dogs were chasing runners, read my blog on the situation in Yuendemu

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14 responses to “Dog Bites: What To Do When You’re Attacked

  1. Hello, Dr Yin

    I was wondering if you can help me with something.
    I’ve got my dog after my mum passed away, she was actually her dog.
    She is not a breed, and she is 11 years old.
    She doesn’t like anything to do with cleaning her paws, teeth or eyes.
    The other day I’ve tried to clean her eye and she bit me. Nothing serious, but still it was a bite.
    As soon as she did this, I just ordered her to go to her place, and I ignored her. She then after a few minutes came to me with this lovely eyes looking at me, and it was like saying sorry.
    I didn’t give in and I ordered her again to go back to her bed, although I really wanted to cuddled her. She went back, and she stayed there till the next morning.
    But I keep wondering. Did I react right? Should I have done something differently?

    Could you please advise?

    Many thanks in advance
    Myra Servou

    1. I’m not the doctor! But had this with a dog whose only response when he was in pain was to bite.
      I think your dog apologized. Maybe don’t cuddle, if the dog takes that as aggression, but do accept that love! These things take time. You have to develop trust with each other.

  2. This is a really great article, and I would like to see a similar one with steps you can take if you are walking your own dog, and another dog charges you since you are adding in an additional factor.

  3. What would you recommend if someone is walking their own dog(s) and another dog attacks them? I know of several cases where a person was attacked trying to protect their dogs and themselves.

  4. hi Lacey and Lacey:
    We work on exercise to train our own dogs to focus on us instead of reacting to the dogs that run up. These involve using your body language and movement to help provide clear and confident direction. That way when your dog is scared, you are able to provide the guidance needed to keep him from reacting. In most cases if you can keep your dog focused on you the other dogs are not a problem–even when the other dogs come rushing up. But if your dog pulls and barks or acts tense, then an altercation is much more likely to occur (even though it’s the other dog’s fault). We have two DVDS (Skills for handling your reactive or hyperactive dog) that show how to perform the exercises with good enough technique so that they work in the emergency situation.

  5. Back in Patchogue, Long Island NY by the Canaan Lake area, there are many loose, very aggressive dogs. A Jack Russell, Papillon, Boxer, German Shepherd mix and a white Pitbull are some of them. We always walked with a 3ft bamboo pole and it proved to be very effective. Here’s some of the most stressful encounters in back in crappy Patchogue, Long Island:

    The Boxer named Leila, ran out of a house and went at Yuki’s throat. I used my pole to block her and it started the dog when it saw it. The owner called back her dog.

    We were walking by Canaan Lake when the GSD mix charged at us, she was growling with hair up at Yuki. I was scared of her as she ignored the pole and me yelling on the top of my lungs to “GO!”. Thankfully her owner came in time before things got serious…

    Several times an Jack Russell charged at us from blocks away. I found that yelling to “GET OUT!”, raise arms up and charge at the dog stopped him from charging. He ran away and left us alone.

    A white Pitbull with a black eyepatch also named Leila was the worst. Her owners never walked her and she frequently escaped. Most aggressive dog I’ve ever seen. She chased a bicyclist down the street, attacked a neighbors dog and got on our property. One time it was just dad and I sitting outside, no dogs, and the Pitbull ran up to the edge of the lot, snaring and growling about to charge. We yelled “Go! Get out!” But it came closer. Dad actually had to throw rocks and branches at it until it finally left. It came back another time. It was night and heard a rustle in our hedges. I stepped on the deck by my front door because I thought it was a trespasser harassing the stray cats – but instead I was “greeted” by that darn dog! Luckily I had the pole handy but that beast was stalking, all teeth bared, growling. I knew it wanted to kill me and the only thing stopping this mad dog was my pole. I was completely terrified. Then the dumb owner called her dog off and it ran. I yelled back at her in rage and dad called the cops on her.

    We rarely had one pleasant walk at evening. It was either a nasty aggressive loose dog, obnoxious teenagers or idiot drivers flying down the road at 80mph. I’m so happy we moved out of Patchogue by Canaan Lake in Long Island, NY! No more stressful walks. So beautiful, peaceful, quiet here in the countryside upstate NY – and my sweet rough collie Yuki boy is happier too!

  6. Urgent Help Needed!! Please Help.
    Hi, I have a serious issue with my 4 year old GSD. He my little baby but 3 years back I got married and had to move to another town and he is living with my mom since. Initially I used to take him out regularly but due to old age of my mom could take him out that regularly. He is trained on “Sit and No” commands along with “shake hand”. He was a good dog but since a year now he has been showing signs of aggression which my mom catered well by staying calm and removing any irritants around him. He do not like my mom going out and leaving him behind so some time he used to growl when ever she goes out of home or comes back in. This was under control till yesterday. He bit her on her hand as she entered home from an evening walk. She tried to push him away but he bit her again. The injuries are level 5 dog bites. Along with that he licked the blood of his mouth.
    Please help what should be done. There are a lot of suggestion to kill him. I dont know what to do.

    1. An animal’s aggression may be caused by many different possible things. A first step in diagnosing why your “little baby” has displayed this aggressive act is to have him checked out by your local veterinarian. Following this check-up, and provided the veterinarian does not find anything medically wrong which may be contributing to the aggressive behavior, it is suggested/recommended that you seek the guidance of an animal behaviorist. There may be fears felt by your dog or other environmental factors which may be contributing to this behavior. Between your veterinarian and the animal behaviorist, they will be able to assist you in determining what will be best for the dog and for your family.

    2. If you can find a Vet Behaviorist, that would be the best. Check with your nearest Vet School that has a clinic. For example, University of California, Davis where Dr Yin got her start, has a Behavioral Sciences unit at the Vet hospital that handles cases exactly like yours. If they don’t have a Behavioral Vet on staff, they may be able to point you to one.

  7. After several dog attacks in our area, a friend and I started going into grade schools to teach kids what to do if approached by aggressive dogs. As part of our Humane Society, we taught…Be A Tree, Protect Your French Fries (fingers) by lacing them behind your neck and dropping your head forward. If taken to the ground or knocked down, Protect Your French Fries still keeping them interlaced behind the neck and Be A Log. Dogs like french fries so keep the fries laced together. Fries, trees, logs…simple for even the youngest to understand and remember.

  8. My comment is about my problem – a month ago got a beautiful five yr old German Shepherd that had been raised in a kennel to produce puppies. Was not a good mother, so was given to me. I love her very much, and she returns the love. I am handicapped. The day we picked her up, my husband had to handle her, and she stuck to him for about three days, but was okay with me. Then she took more to me, as I do feeding, letting her out, etc. Suddenly she became afraid of husband, and it continues to get worse. It is stressful for her, myself, and husband. He loves her, has never hurt her. She doesn’t have an aggressive bone in her body. If the leash has to be put on her, he has to do it (I have very bad balance issues, plus being right side compromised), and she tries desperately to get away from him. He can control her, but then she is even more afraid of him. HELP!

    1. It’s not normal for a dog to suddenly be afraid of a person with whom she’s previously been just fine. Something had to have happened.

    2. A not uncommon situation. While the dog was previously “stuck” to him, she never learned social skills and confidence. That would have been visible in her body language and responses, but most people do not recognize it. You need either a very good trainer or behaviorist, to suggest perhaps two dozen simple training exercises. You then focus on the 2-3 that have the dog responding. These will all be exercises aimed at the dog performing a simple act while feeling more secure.

      For instance, a feral dog who could not be approached learned a leashing protocol, where I show her the leash then slowly walk around her several times. Only when she pauses and drops her head do I put the leash on. She liked walks and knew what was going to happen, but was given the time to adjust before being approached. It took months before she could go further, but this worked every time.

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