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Avoiding dog bites

Man’s best friend can be an occupational hazard for outdoor workers

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Key points

  • Outdoor workers need to know how to read the warning signs of an aggressive dog.
  • Crucial tips to avoid a dog attack include: Never assume a dog will not bite, do not run, and place an object between you and the dog if it attacks.
  • Disagreement exists on whether to look an aggressive dog in the eye, as well as about the use of repellents.

Geese and turkeys have chased postal workers. Letter carriers have found snakes, scorpions and wasp nests in mailboxes. But for these and many other outdoor workers – including delivery drivers, utility workers, police officers and landscapers – encountering an aggressive dog is a greater safety concern.

Dogs present a potential occupational hazard for people who work door to door. According to the Greenwich, CT-based American Pet Products Association, nearly half of U.S. households owned at least one dog in 2012.

“In any given number of houses or set route for someone who’s outdoors, the odds are pretty good they’re going to encounter dogs in the course of their work,” said KC Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, headquartered in Washington. “It’s great to take safety precautions to avoid a negative encounter.”

The Humane Society, the U.S. Postal Service and other organizations provide guidelines on how to avoid attacks, including how to read warning signs, when to skip a house, and when to use repellent.

“We’re trying to drive home the point – with just a few simple tips, you can avoid an incident where you’re going to lose time from work and need medical care,” said Linda DeCarlo, manager of safety and OSHA compliance for USPS.

USPS faces the issue

Postal workers suffer more than 3,000 injuries from dog bites and attacks every year, according to USPS. Statistics from the Schaumburg, IL-based American Veterinary Medical Association show that letter carriers are the third most common dog bite victims, behind small children and the elderly.

USPS is tackling the issue through heightened awareness.

In the past, USPS may have responded to dog attacks with safety information, but the agency now is taking a more proactive approach, DeCarlo said. All letter carriers have received dog safety training during new-employee orientation for about the past five years, she said. USPS also has made information about dog bites part of its re-launched “Safety Depends on Me” campaign, which includes videos sent to workers on a variety of safety topics. In addition, letter carriers are discouraged from petting dogs or giving them treats.

The dog safety video shows a letter carrier wearing headphones being chased and attacked by two dogs. It advises to “stand your ground” and face the dog, as well as the following:

  • Never run.
  • Never wear headphones.
  • Use your satchel as a barrier.
  • Back away.
  • Always carry repellent.
  • Be vigilant.

Workers are instructed to avoid handing a package to a customer, especially a child, in the presence of a dog because the animal might observe that as a threat, DeCarlo said.

If a dog is considered a threat, a letter carrier can notify a supervisor and curtail delivery to the customer until the dog is restrained, DeCarlo said. If a dog is running loose in a neighborhood, delivery can be stopped for the entire block.

What to look for

Some owners insist their dogs do not bite, but USPS counters with the message: “Man’s best friend can have bad days too!”

The key to avoiding a dog attack is to proceed with caution when encountering an aggressive or fearful dog, Theisen said. Certain cues indicate aggressiveness or fear. Stiff legs and a raised tail are signs of tension and anxiety, while a tail tucked between the dog’s legs or held tight to its body are signals the dog is afraid. A dog that wiggles and has a soft, curvy body is happy, relaxed or curious.

“You’re looking at the whole body from a distance,” Theisen said. “Next thing you look at is their tail. If the tail is very stiff and high in the air, it’s waving like a red flag. A smart person translates it as such, and takes more time, takes a step back, doesn’t continue to approach.”

A dog’s breed is not necessarily an indicator of aggressiveness, experts say.

“Teeth hurt no matter if they’re big or small,” DeCarlo said.

If a dog weighs more than 100 pounds or if more than one dog is present, a worker should reconsider whether to enter the yard, said Mitzi Robinson, president of Ocala, FL-based occupational dog bite safety provider Bulli Ray.

However, Robinson notes that each dog is different. “You can have the most lovable, sweetest pit bull in [one] yard,” she said, “then go three doors down and run into Cujo pit bull.”

Warning signs

The Humane Society of the United States urges anyone who sees a dog exhibiting the following behaviors to move to a safe distance:

  • Pulled back head and/or ears
  • Tense body
  • Stiff tail
  • Wrinkled brow
  • Yawning
  • Rolled eyes so the whites show
  • Flicking tongue
  • Intense stare
  • Backing away

Next page: More tips – and the eye contact debate

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