First Responder Defensive Tactics: Animal Threats

BY PHILIP DUCZYMINSKI

Today’s first responders are constantly reminded of all hazards they face every day. One problem is that we have not received the proper training to address every hazard we may face. It is difficult enough for fire departments to provide all of the mandated training; adding even more topics is extremely difficult. However, we cannot neglect training for response to incidents that may pose physical threats to emergency service personnel. Dog attacks are one threat that gets little attention

When I start a training class, I ask, “At an incident, has anyone ever been at risk of being bitten by a dog?” Everyone raises their hands. But to the next question, “Who has ever been trained on how to deal with animal threats?” only one or two people may respond.

Does this seem right? First responders face this hazard every day, but very few have ever received training on it. I understand that we are constantly bombarded with other serious topics, but we don’t need to spend all day analyzing every dog breed and visiting with canine psychologists. There is some basic training that will take only a few minutes and will help protect our personnel.

Legal Aspects

For the legal aspects, seek advice from an attorney knowledgeable in this area of law in your state. However, the law is generally on your side when it comes to repelling a dog that is attacking you. One is “privileged” to destroy an animal for the purpose of defending himself or third persons against harm threatened by the animal. [Devincenzi v. Faulkner (1959) 174 Cal.App.2d 250, 254-5.] The law allows for self-defense in the stopping of an attack; it does not allow revenge killing. A person has no legal justification to kill a dog that had bitten him at a prior time. Most states make dog owners liable for all dog bites when a person is bitten. Under some city, county, and state laws, dog owners can do jail time after dog attacks. Throughout the United States, the owners of pit bulls and other high-risk dog breeds can face criminal charges after a significant attack, according to K.M. Phillips in Plain English Overview of Dog Bite Law.

So why do first responders seem to be “doggie magnets”? Probably the best answer is that dogs have built up a confidence against people in uniform. Last year, according to RobinBennett.com, dogs bit more than 5,600 postal workers. If you think about how dogs are trained, you’ll realize that repetition and consistency play a big part.

So let’s now look at what happens every day. The mail carrier delivers the mail on Monday, the dog barks, and the carrier goes away. On Tuesday, the mail carrier comes, the dog barks, and the carrier goes away, and so on for the rest of the week-plenty of time to build up repetition and consistency. The meter reader comes next in uniform and reads your meter, the dog barks, and the person goes away-another victory for the dog. The dog believes he has won all of those encounters with people in uniform and becomes much more confident that he can chase them away.

But now an emergency incident occurs at the residence and someone else in uniform shows up. The dog barks, and the person doesn’t go away. This does not mean that every dog will attempt to bite you; however, without proper training from the owner, this animal will be a potential hazard to responders.

How to Respond

One of the first things to do is to always pay close attention to the dispatch information. All emergency medical dispatch systems instruct 911 callers to secure family pets before responders arrive. However, depending on how your response system operates, this may not be the case. For instance, my department operates on a tiered response system in which our local dispatch center takes the initial information and dispatches the fire department and then transfers the caller to our ambulance company, which is contracted to the city and uses the emergency medical dispatch system. Call your local dispatch center to find out the procedure for such an incident.

If responding to a potentially hazardous call, request law enforcement assistance. However, any time you arrive on a scene, take a few seconds to survey your surroundings prior to exiting the truck, identifying any responder hazards, including animals. As you approach the door of a residence, be aware of your surroundings. Look and listen for any signs of an animal, any “Beware of Dog” signs, any indicators of the presence of an animal, and so forth.

When approaching the door, continue your survey. As soon as you hear, see, or identify the presence of a dog, take control of the door. It doesn’t matter if it is a screen door or a storm door-controlling the door is key to your safety. Many times, dog attacks have begun with the dog charging the door and pushing through the screen door or squeezing past the owner, who was holding the door only lightly.

If you are making entry and someone inside the home can lock the dog away, request that he do so. How many times has a dog owner said, “He’s never bitten anyone before,” “He’s friendly,” and so forth. Just because a dog is nice on normal occasions does not mean it will be on this occasion. For example, if you are giving medical care to the owner, the dog may perceive your actions as harmful. The best advice: Always request that the homeowner secure his pets before you enter the residence.

Warning Signs

Every dog will be a little different, but there are generic signs of a friendly dog. A dog approaching with the head held high, its full body moving back and forth in a smooth flowing movement and its mouth relaxed, probably won’t attack. Don’t be mistaken, though; a friendly or playful dog still may growl or bark.

However, a potentially threatening dog will approach holding its head level with its body and its mouth closed, the hair along its back and neck may be raised, its ears may lie back, and it may get closer to take a sniff. A potentially threating dog is one that displays aggressive behavior toward you and cannot be shooed away.

Many times, a dangerous dog will make direct eye contact that may become tunnel vision. It will not listen to the owner, its mouth will be tense, and it will appear stiff and rigid in an aggressive stance. Often a menacing bark or growl will precede the attack.

The next step in assessing a potentially dangerous animal is to consider the breed. Although some pit bulls may be big teddy bears, exercise extreme caution with any unknown medium- to large-breed canine. Personally, I would rather defend myself against a Yorkie-poo/wolf hybrid over a German shepherd.

Potential Attack

Identifying the hazard as early as possible is the key to our safety so that we can reduce the risk for being put in a situation where we have to deal with an aggressive animal. This is not always possible, and if you are caught in a situation where a dog of unknown temperament approaches you, follow these steps:

  1. Hold your position. Don’t run, or the dog will likely chase you.
  2. Use commands such as “sit,” “stay,” and “lie down.”
  3. Put something between you and the dog, such as a hat or a jump kit.
  4. Wave the item around. If the dog is committed to biting, it will most likely go for the item. This stage will also determine your level of response.
  5. Try slowly backing away from the situation. However, never turn your back to the dog.

Defense Against Attack

Many commercial defense products are available such as pepper spray formulated for dogs, stun batons, and so forth. If none of these items is available, you still have options. Many emergency medical service providers responding in areas where dogs are prevalent carry dog biscuits. Biscuits will provide you with an opportunity to make an escape. The key to defending yourself against a dog attack is to first identify the potential hazard. This means look and listen for warning signs of an animal as you exit the apparatus and approach the incident scene. Listen for dogs barking; look for “Beware of Dog” signs or a dog. Then isolate the animal or yourself. If there is a dog, ask yourself the following: Is the dog secure in the yard? Does the homeowner have the dog locked in its cage or another room of the house? Identify and take action so you don’t get into a bad situation.

But if you are in the situation and a dog is charging you, it is possible to strike the dog in the chest with a front kick. Many of the law enforcement personnel who have been attacked have delivered a kick to the dog’s chest. Although it will probably not incapacitate the animal, it will provide a few seconds to determine a Plan B. Since first responders work with partners, this should allow time for your partner to grab an improvised weapon for defense. On a fire apparatus, such weapons include pike poles, halligan bars, and drywall hooks. On an ambulance, what options do you have? Most ambulances should have a fire extinguisher, which, if discharged, can provide a respiratory irritant to distract the animal. Your primary objective is to fend off the dog. If the dog does bite you, take the following steps:

  1. Strike under the throat as hard as you can.
  2. Strike it on the middle of the shoulders, on the spine if possible. Avoid striking on the head; the dog will only bite down harder. Depending on the breed, the dog’s head could be extremely strong.
  3. As a last resort, go for the eyes. Although this sounds brutal, if the dog has a hold of an extremity, you need to react appropriately and ensure your safety.

Response to an Active Mauling

If you are on the scene of an active attack without law enforcement assistance, consider taking the following steps to increase your safety.

  1. Don your personal protective equipment (PPE). Firefighter PPE (turnout gear, hood, gloves, and helmet) will offer some extra protection.
  2. Find a weapon such as a pike pole that will provide a protective distance, allowing both responders to approach the animal and the victim. Responders should use the object to create a safe distance between themselves and the animal. A responder can then maneuver the animal away from the victim with the pike pole. A longer pike pole will provide a greater degree of separation from the dog and allow the rescuer better reaction time if the pole is unable to keep the animal at bay.

As soon as it is safe to do so, the rescuers should remove the victim to safety. If the animal turns on one of the rescuers, the other rescuer can subdue the animal by forcefully removing the dog with the pike pole. In many cases, the dog will retreat once the rescuers exert control over it.

If the dog turns on the second rescuer, the first rescuer will perform the same actions as the other rescuer did. If the dog gets around the pike pole and lunges at the rescuer; the other rescuer can deliver a swift knee or front kick to the chest of the attacking dog, which will create space and allow the rescuer to get the pike pole back into position.

The primary objective is to discontinue the attack and get the victim to a safe area. This scenario may include mortally wounding the dog. In a best-case scenario, law enforcement or animal control will be on scene to neutralize the attack. The above actions are intended to be a last resort when there is an active attack occurring and immediate action is required to save the life of the victim.

After the Attack

The main goal after any dog attack is to provide the victim with medical care. Treat any bite that breaks the skin and causes bleeding. The three most important treatment issues to address are skin damage, injury to underlying tissues, and infection. Dog bites introduce bacteria deep into the tissue, which can cause infections that must be treated with antibiotics.

Rabies is always a concern, and it is important to obtain a copy of the dog’s immunization records. Fortunately, in the United States rabies transmission to humans by dogs is rare. The most common carriers of rabies in the United States are raccoons; bats are the most likely to infect humans. After any dog bite occurs, seek medical care for any injuries and then contact law enforcement or local animal control to help find the animal. If there is no vaccination record available, it may be necessary to detain and observe the animal for signs of rabies. If you are unable to locate the animal after the attack, it is imperative that you seek medical attention at your local emergency room.

Finally, properly document any emergency situation. Documentation for a dog attack will go beyond that of a normal medical incident. You must write a complete narrative of everything you remember. Complete this step as soon as possible after the event while it is still fresh in your mind. Request statements from any available witnesses, which will be helpful if the incident has further legal implications.

Response to any emergency carries some degree of risk for responders. Always remember that responder safety should be your highest priority. Following the safety guidelines above will help ensure that your agency personnel are capable of responsibly identifying, isolating, and responding to dog incidents.

Additional Resources

Many resources and training are available to assist emergency personnel with response to dog attacks. Many jurisdictions have an animal control officer who should be requested to assist with any animal running loose through a neighborhood. Many law enforcement agencies have a K-9 officer with advanced training in handling difficult-to-control dogs. Regardless of the agency that serves your jurisdiction, you should request that law enforcement respond to the scene for any animal attack. Your local veterinarian or dog obedience instructor can be a valuable resource who may even assist in developing some training for your department. Recently, our department asked our local veterinarian to provide some emergency animal medical care; he was more than happy to also provide animal response training at no cost.

References

Bennett, Robin. (2014, May). “Why Do So Many Postal Workers Get Bitten By Dogs?” Retrieved from RobinBennett.com: http://www.robinkbennett.com/2014/05/19/why-do-so-many-postal-workers-get-bitten-by-dogs/.

Christensen, Ken. (2014, March). “Defenses in a Dog Fight: Your Rights When a Dog Attacks.” Retrieved from Utahpersonalinjurylawfirm.com: http://www.utahpersonalinjurylawfirm.com/2014/03/your-rights-when-a-dog-attacks/.

Phillips, K. M. (2014, December). “Plain English Overview of Dog Bite Law.” Retrieved from Dogbitelaw.com: http://dogbitelaw.com/plain-english-overview-of-dog-bite-law/plain-english-overview-of-dog-bite-law.html.

Wedro, Benjamin M.D. (2014, April 4). Dog Bite Treatment. Retrieved from Medicinenet.com: http://www.medicinenet.com/dog_bite_treatment/page3.htm#what_is_the_treatment_for_a_dog_bite.


PHILIP DUCZYMINSKI is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a captain and head of the training division of the Novi (MI) Fire Department. He has served with the Western Wayne County Haz-Mat Team and Michigan Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 (MI-TF1). A graduate of the School of Fire Staff and Command at Eastern Michigan University, Duczyminski is a certified Michigan fire instructor and an emergency medical instructor coordinator.


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