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Avoiding dog bites

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

Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

General tips

The first step a worker should take when visiting a home is to check if the homeowner has a dog, said John Ciribassi, veterinarian at Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants in Carol Stream, IL, and a member of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

If a dog is present and the owner is not home, it is best to leave a message stating you need to reschedule when the owner can confine the pet, Theisen said. Avoid entering a yard in the presence of a dog you have not previously met.

Patience is a huge asset in avoiding a negative encounter, Theisen said. Be willing to remove a hard hat and sunglasses and let a dog sniff you through a fence.

“The vast majority of dogs – once they have a chance to meet you in quiet circumstances when you’re not treading on their property and not threatening their home – will come around and be polite and friendly,” Theisen said. “If workers can extend that courtesy to them and make themselves as non-threatening as possible, they might find they have more success with more dogs.”

Before approaching a dog, experts suggest a worker make noise to alert the dog without startling it. If a letter carrier sees a dog sleeping on a porch, for example, he or she can give a soft whistle, DeCarlo said.

Customers can help protect workers by restraining their dog or putting it in another room when answering the door. Robinson suggests workers request this by using a firm, authoritative statement, such as: “Our policy requires that the dog be confined before I’m allowed to enter the yard. Would you get someone who can put the dog away?”

“Stand firm, say, ‘No, I will not do this service until the dog is put away,’” Robinson said. “If they want something from the worker, then it’s no problem – they will put the dog away.”

During an encounter

Two schools of thought exist about training and dog behavior, Ciribassi said. One believes behaviors relate to dominance and is based on corrections. The other focuses on reinforcing appropriate behavior rather than being confrontational. The two sides disagree on whether it is safe to make eye contact with a dog.

Animal behaviorists advise to avoid eye contact with a dog, who can interpret a stare as a threat.

“If you’ve got a dog that’s fearful or territorial, staring at them can trigger a more aggressive response,” Ciribassi said. “It’s better for a person to avert their stare, turn or look away, not put themselves in a position where they’re challenging the dog.”

Others say to take a more dominant approach by facing the dog. USPS instructs its workers to look the dog in the eye before slowly backing away.

“When a dog is approaching you, we tell you to turn, face the dog, stand still, almost stare him down, so he understands you’re not afraid,” DeCarlo said. “You’re aware he’s there. You’re not making sudden movements.”

Old guidance stated that a person should not act dominant around a dog and instead should stand still, turn to the side and avoid eye contact – but thinking has changed, Robinson said. In 1998, Bulli Ray followed meter readers in Southern California. Robinson observed the workers making eye contact and using a stick or umbrella as a barrier against dogs as they visited homes.

“If the dog came up, they would put the stick out there. The dog would bite it, and they would use their natural behavior to take them to the meter and then take them back to the gate,” Robinson remembered. “It was amazing to watch these guys. They were doing it the right way. What I learned is they were able to dominate the dog at the gate, give respect to the dog, get in and get out. Most dogs are submissive.”

If a dog maintains eye contact and never backs off the fence, a worker will know it’s aggressive and that they can skip the home, Robinson said.

Safety advocates agree that outdoor workers should avoid running, which could trigger a dog’s instinct to chase.

Stay upright and keep vital body parts, including the head and neck, away from the dog, Robinson said.

To prevent a bite, use an object as a barrier between you and the dog, safety advocates urge. That object could be a bag, clipboard, umbrella or something else that compresses because a dog will drop something hard – such as a metal bar – that hurts its mouth, Robinson said.

“The dog will bite the first thing he comes to,” Robinson said. “He doesn’t know it’s not part of you. Maneuver him to the front door, the gate. Do not drop the compression. Go with the dog.”

If bitten

The American Veterinary Medical Association provides the following advice for animal bites:

  • Request proof of rabies vaccination and the owner's name and contact information.
  • Clean the wound with soap and water as as soon as possible.
  • Call your doctor immediately or go to the emergency department.

Extreme measures

As a last resort against an attacking dog, letter carriers can use repellent made mostly of cayenne pepper and mineral oil approved by AVMA and the American Kennel Club, DeCarlo said. Workers carry it on their satchel and use it if they cannot get somewhere safe or stand their ground.

USPS advises the worker to spray the repellent directly at the attacking dog’s eyes, nose and mouth. The spray is effective up to 10 feet and wears off within 15 minutes.

Bulli Ray warns against using repellent as a first line of defense, noting that the type most people carry is effective against about 60 percent of dogs, and some dogs have higher pain tolerance.

Likewise, Theisen said the Humane Society discourages using deterrents such as pepper spray or mace because it is difficult to predict their success, and sometimes carrying a deterrent creates a sense of complacency. The society prefers that people remain alert, she said.

“With the high number of dogs that share our homes and neighborhoods, the HSUS believes every single person should be educated in dog behavior,” Theisen said. “We encounter them in our schoolyards and playgrounds, on public sidewalks, in people’s property. It’s up to us to learn how to live around them safely and humanely.”

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