How to stay safe around dogs

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 17 July 2019

Victorians are crazy about their puppies. Here’s what do do if a dog turns on you. 

The recent tragic death of a disabled man in Mill Park as the result of a dog attack has put safety around dogs back in the headlines and is a timely reminder to make sure we know how to behave around unfamiliar canines and how to recognise and respond appropriately to signs of aggression. 

American Staffordshire Terrier lying on drive way under green ferns

While the Mill Park incident was an extreme case, dog attacks are more common than most of us think. Monash University figures show that almost four Victorians are hospitalised daily as the result of a dog attack. And the numbers are rising, with a 56 per cent increase in attacks leading to amputation, broken bones and open wounds in the five years to June 2018. 

Surprisingly, most attacks happen in the home. Monash University’s Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit found that almost 57 per cent of attacks happened in homes, compared to just over seven per cent on the street. 

The RSPCA’s head of operations, Tegan McPherson, says dog attacks can happen for various reasons and the type or size of dog is not an accurate indicator that it could be aggressive. Aggression is often linked to training, socialising, owner behaviour, temperament and underlying health issues, 

There are steps you can take to keep you and your family safe:

  • Never approach or pat a dog without the owner’s permission.
  • If approached by a strange dog, let it sniff you and don’t make eye contact.
  • Always supervise young children around dogs. Tegan says toddlers are the most at risk of dog bites because of the way they approach and try to play with dogs. “Throwing their arms around a dog, burying their face in them, climbing on their back – these are all things a predator might do and are seen as a threat,” she says.
  • Learn to recognise signs that a dog might be stressed. Growling and barking are obvious but excessive yawning and holding the tail high or between its legs or laying its ears back can also be signs the dog is stressed and might become aggressive. A dog that freezes and stares is in the most heightened state of stress. 
  • If your dog is normally calm then starts to demonstrate fear or anxiety, consult an animal behaviourist or vet in case there is an underlying problem that can be treated. “Dogs can have pathological changes in the brain due to pain or illness which can trigger aggression,” says Tegan.
  • If a dog lunges at you, turn sideways and use your arms to protect your face, neck and body, and use a bag or a jumper to create a barrier.
  • If bitten seek medical attention, no matter how minor the bite, to prevent infection.

When your dog reaches three months of age in Victoria, it must be registered with your local council and that registration needs renewal every April. If your dog hasn’t been registered before, it will also need to be microchipped first.