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How to Use Situational Awareness to Prevent Dog Encounters and Attacks

June 16, 2022
By partnering situational awareness skills with personal protective equipment (PPE), we can reduce the likelihood of a dog encounter and potentially lessen damage from an attack.

What do people who work for utilities, such as foresters and linemen, have in common? A high probability of coming across a dog during their workday.

According to a 2018 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 38.4% of households in the U.S. own a dog — that’s nearly 48.3 million households. This number could have potentially doubled because of the pet adoption rate during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When it comes to preventing hazardous situations with dogs while in the field, situational awareness can give us a major advantage.

Knowledge is power, and situational awareness is important when recognizing hazards to prevent incidents. Because it’s a learned skill, we talk about it constantly at ACRT and our sister companies. One of my ACRT coworkers Jerry Staton recently authored an article on practicing situational awareness. Jerry and I like to challenge each other and ask, “do you see what I see?” to develop our situational awareness skills.

When approaching a property, it’s important to scan your surroundings and assess where you’ll be working. On occasion, driving through an area before beginning work can give you a better idea of loose dogs while in the safety of your vehicle. It’s possible to identify the presence of a dog through telltale signs such as “beware of dog” signs, bowls, worn paths in the grass, and feces. But in many homes, there are no outward signs of dogs on the property.

By partnering situational awareness skills with personal protective equipment (PPE), we can reduce the likelihood of a dog encounter and potentially lessen damage from an attack. Using PPE as a barrier in the event a dog attacks can save you from a painful injury. There are many options available — from pop-up umbrellas to dog sprays — but like all PPE, these resources are the last line of defense and require training to be used effectively. It is also important to understand there may be legal ramifications if someone harms a dog from the improper use of these tools. 

Dealing with dogs

If a dog becomes aggressive during an encounter, exit the area without running or turning your back and return to your vehicle or place your back against a solid object, such as a utility pole. Maintain an upright posture, and with a stern voice, tell the dog “no” or to “go home.”

In the event of a dog attack, minimize the possible damage by putting something between you and the dog, such as a clipboard or hardhat. Lawn furniture, trash cans, and other items can serve as a quick barrier or be used to strike during an attack. Be prepared to fight for your life. You must defend yourself, but once the attack is over, you must stop. If you deploy dog spray, it is important to let the dog owner know to avoid unintended injury to others who may touch the dog. 

More than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States, and more than 800,000 receive medical attention for dog bites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 

Dogs have become a cherished part of the American family. Owners are very trusting of their dogs and on occasion, overconfident in their ability to control them. Never presume a homeowner can control their dog, no matter how gentle or friendly it looks. The best way to prevent being bitten is to avoid approaching loose dogs.

It’s important to remember that as an employee you have the right and obligation to ask homeowners to restrain their dogs, regardless of the animal’s temperament. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, consider rescheduling for a better time.

Many times, our tasks take us through fenced-in yards or other enclosed spaces, which is why explaining the work you will be performing and the length of time you will be on the property is critical. We’ve had scenarios where the dogs were quiet and sneaky until we were deep into the property, resulting in dangerous encounters. 

In a perfect world, employees and owners collaborate in the interest of safety. However, some of the dogs we encounter in the field might not belong to anybody. These strays can be some of the most aggressive or scared dogs. Understanding that you may come across stray dogs and knowing what to look for can provide context clues as to whether a dog is feeling stressed, frightened, or threatened. 

Signs of aggression include efforts to make the dog look bigger like raised fur, ears up and forward, vertical tail waving quickly, a stiff and straight-legged stance, staring, growling, lunging, and barking. Signs of fear or anxiety include efforts to make the dog look smaller such as cowering, tucked tail, flattened ears, remaining still, avoiding eye contact, and growling.

Spread the word

It’s important to report dog encounters and attacks, as well as areas with high concentrations of strays, to the customer, especially if they have a dangerous dog database. There will be other people from utility partners who will visit these locations. Passing the word to notify everyone there is or was an aggressive dog at an address helps keep others safe. 

Both dogs and homeowners can both be affected by unwanted encounters or attacks. Many states have a rabies quarantine protocol that can last up to 10 days if proven vaccination records are not available. This comes at the homeowner’s expense and often in seclusion offsite.

Think of how many residences you encounter each day, how many animals likely fall into the AVMA’s statistic of pet ownership, and how it can affect you. Stay situationally aware and always remember, you have the right and obligation to ask homeowners to restrain their dog.

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