Tips based on 40 years’ worth of data
by Merritt & Beth Clifton
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office, in East Naples, Florida, recently honored school bus driver Fabian Golac for heroism in saving a woman and her poodle from a January 2022 pit bull attack that could easily have been fatal.
“I picked up the kids, I was going out, and there was a stop sign,” Golac told Michelle Alvarez of WINK-TV News in Fort Myers.
“So, I stopped the bus. On my left hand, it was a lady on the floor with two pit bulls on her. She was with a small puppy, small dog. And the dogs were trying to take the dog out. There was blood on her hands,” Golac recounted.
“There were some people around,” trying to help the woman, Golac said. “But you know, with dogs that size of dogs, you never know what to do. What helped me is the fire extinguisher,” Golac explained.
Putting the bus in “park,” Golac “grabbed the fire extinguisher and began spraying the dogs,” Alvarez said, driving both pit bulls away from the human and canine victims.
Grab a fire extinguisher
ANIMALS 24-7 has long recommended fire extinguishers as the safest and most humane tools for interrupting a dog attack, based initially on advice from Warren Cox, an animal shelter director from 1952 to 2012, later verified by tallying the data from thousands of dog attack accounts collected in our own files since 1982.
Why a fire extinguisher?
- Using a fire extinguisher does not require closely approaching the dog.
- A fire extinguisher does not have to be aimed very accurately to have a deterrent effect.
- A fire extinguisher does not quickly run out of ammunition.
- A fire extinguisher does not produce an erratic ricochet.
- And a fire extinguisher is normally non-lethal, even if discharged directly into a lunging dog’s mouth and throat.
If the fire extinguisher is exhausted while the dog attack continues, the empty cylinder can be used as a shield, a bite stick, or even a club, as appropriate.
Keep a fire extinguisher handy
Besides the deterrent effect of the fire extinguisher’s contents, which tend to make animals quickly short of breath without lastingly harming them, most animals, including most dogs, retreat from the snake-like hiss of a discharging fire extinguisher.
Carrying a fire extinguisher while walking, jogging, playing, or working outdoors is awkward, but there should be a fire extinguisher in every kitchen, near every fireplace, in every car, near the driver in any bus, truck, or taxi, and prominently and visibly located in every public building or place of business.
Other spray devices
Among the other popular non-lethal devices used to stop dog attacks, pepper spray and Mace must be relatively accurately directed, and are typically carried in small containers meant for use at close range.
Bear spray, pepper spray and Mace have about a 40% success rate in stopping pit bull attacks.
Pocket sprays such as Mace, pepper spray, ammonia sprayers, and similar devices try to replicate in miniature the fire extinguisher effect, but in truth a spray can of almost anything would work about as well.
Part of what makes fire extinguishers effective is that the foam comes out under pressure and rapidly expands, so that the volume actually helps to form an olfactory and visual barrier between the dog and victim(s). Nothing in a small container can have a similar effect.
Weapon success rates
Based on actual case data, a firearm has about an 80% success rate in stopping a charging pit bull, but with a high rate of accidentally killing or injuring other people nearby.
Such an incident that cost Los Angeles County $3 million occurred on June 21, 2017 when a ricochet from a police round fired at a charging pit bull killed 17-year-old Armando Garcia, who was reportedly 40 feet away and out of view of the officers who were trying to stop the attack.
A fire extinguisher has about a 70% success rate, with no risk to bystanders.
A bite stick––meaning something a dog can be induced to bite instead of a human or animal victim––can usually be used safely by anyone who has an appropriate object to use as a bite stick and keeps his or her head.
Knives and blunt instruments have negative success rates, meaning that the people using them are more likely to increase the severity of an attack than to help themselves or help others get away.
Blunt force usually fails
The most frequent mistake made by people trying to stop a dog attack, contributing to serious injuries almost every day now, is attempted use of blunt force, typically by swinging an object such as a baseball bat or a golf club at the dog.
Unless the swinger has major league bat speed, power, and ability to make accurate contact with a rapidly and unpredictably moving target, the dog will easily dodge the attempted blow, the person swinging the blunt object will be off balance, and the dog may then pull the person down to inflict severe or fatal injury.
Use the blunt object as a bite stick
The correct way to use a bat or golf club, if one happens to have one, is as a bite stick, held in such a manner as to keep the dog at maximum distance from oneself.
A walking cane, a broom stick, or any other long, sturdy object can do the same job.
It is also futile to pound on a dog’s head to try to make the dog let go of someone else. Most animals, including humans, respond to a blow to the head by clenching their teeth. This is why prize fighters wear mouthpieces. Among pit bulls this tendency is even more pronounced.
To make a pit bull let go of something, it is necessary to pry the dog’s jaws apart with a break stick, meaning a relatively sturdy object such as a tent stake or a screwdriver. To do this safely, the person doing the prying should be behind the dog, with his or her face out of reach of a quick snap.
Knives are next to useless
Many people carry a knife, but a knife of any sort is next to useless against a charging dog, especially a pit bull.
One could hand Zorro himself a knife, throw a pillow at him, and he might be able to effectively stab the pillow maybe one time in 10. Most people could not do that well, lacking the wrist strength to drive the knife through the pillow cover.
A charging dog is coming much faster than a pillow, and the number of places where the dog can be stopped by slashing or stabbing are very few. Further, even if one happened to hit one of those vital spots, momentum would carry the dog on forward.
A dog meeting a knife blade will already be no more than arm’s length away when the knife strikes, so will be on the user, probably slightly injured and even more infuriated, in a split second.
Dogs don’t recognize knives
Merely showing a dog a knife, moreover, means nothing to the dog. Dogs have no experience with knives, and no understanding of what they are. At best a dog may think a knife is a toy, and that the user is about to play “stick.”
This may prevent an attack, but only if one throws the knife over the dog’s head and the dog runs after it. Taking that chance is obviously not recommended.
Cyberspace is, to be sure, full of stories about how people allegedly stabbed pit bulls and other dogs to break off attacks, but close examination shows that in almost every case the dog was attacking someone else, or some other animal. Because the dog was fixated on the original victim, the person with the knife had the luxury of being able to stab from behind, sometimes repeatedly, as the knife struck bones and failed to penetrate deeply on the first effort.
Shedding light on the situation
Among the more naïve reader inquiries recently reaching ANIMALS 24-7 was, “Would a laser light protect oneself against a pit bull?”
No. Pit bulls (and dogs generally) don’t tend to care about lights.
Dogs in general evolved to hunt and scavenge by night as well as day, and “see” mostly with their noses.
A pit bull or other dog of fighting and baiting lineage will kill you whether he can see you or not. If he has to close his eyes to do it, he will, and not worry about it, because his eyes are not how he is locating you.
Tasers & tranquilizers
Tasers are often useless against fur-covered animals. Tasers don’t deliver a shock unless the tasering device sticks to the target person or animal. Contrary to makers’ claims, they work about as well on thickly furred animals as tossing a ping pong ball.
Tranquilizer darts must be placed very accurately to be effective, difficult to achieve when a dog or other animal is in attack mode, and then the tranquilizer can take several minutes to work, during which time the animal can do significant damage.
Hair spray, bug spray, cigarette lighters, jabs in the eyes, etc., among other ill-advised frequent recommendations, all might work on a human attacker, but the odds are excellent that they will be worthless against a charging pit bull.
A shocking possibility
While tasers have a low success rate in stopping dog attacks, stun guns may be another matter, but ANIMALS 24-7 does not yet have enough relevant data to recommend them.
Raleigh Lilith, a “social media influencer” also known as Haybitch, on April 11, 2021 greeted Dog Bite Prevention Week with a 21-minute YouTube presentation, Why I no longer support pit bull ownership.
Raleigh Lilith recounted how she has evolved––as a longtime animal shelter worker and volunteer––from pit bull advocacy to the view that pit bulls have no place in society.
Raleigh Lilith described her own recent narrow escape from a pit bull attack while riding her horse Link, and showed video of an April 3, 2021 pit bull attack at Cane Creek Park in Waxhaw, North Carolina, in which a carriage horse named Queen Charlotte suffered at least 14 bites to her face, chest, and legs.
(For full details, see 16 real-life tips for surviving a dog attack [2021 edition])
Raleigh Lilith concluded by mentioning that she now carries a stun gun while riding––not a taser, which is also often called a stun gun, but a palm-sized device (see photo below) long used primarily as a cattle prod.
Will a cattle prod work against a pit bull?
Raleigh Lilith briefly demonstrated how a stun gun or cattle prod might be used to fend off a pit bull.
Inexpensive palm-sized cattle prods, usually priced at under $60, have been used on farms, by livestock truckers, in slaughterhouses, and illegally to make bulls and horses buck at rodeos, for circa 70 years. Such devices are also widely offered––at somewhat higher prices––as personal protection devices.
Oddly, though, whether called a cattle prod or a stun gun, such weapons appear to have practically no documented history of use to try to stop a charging pit bull.
A palm-sized shocking device is no more difficult to carry than a cell phone, emits a loud crackling noise that might have deterrent value against many dogs, though not necessarily a pit bull in attack mode, and would be much less likely to cause injury to anyone else nearby than a firearm.
ANIMALS 24-7 appealed a year ago for any and all specific case reports involving use of either cattle prods or stun guns against dog attacks, especially pit bull attacks.
A year later, unfortunately, we still have insufficient information from which to determine how efficacious such electroshocking devices are in comparison to firearms (80%) and fire extinguishers (70%), or knives and blunt instruments, both of which, as mentioned, are more likely to lead to injury to the user than to provide effective protection.
Remember, pain is not a deterrent to a pit bull.
Bear in mind that pain alone rarely stops a pit bull.
If you have seen pit bulls fighting, you would know that they will fight on to the death even after losing ears, legs, and having their guts trailing on the ground.
Forget about trying to inflict pain.
What you have to do to stop an attack by a pit bull is create a distraction compelling enough to jolt the pit bull out of the idiopathic rage syndrome — the kill-or-be-killed mindset of the fighting dog, which pain only intensifies.
Push instead of pull
Fire extinguishers work. Sometimes a sudden unfamiliar noise works. Even throwing a pan of cold water on the dog is more likely to work, though, than a cigarette lighter or a jab in the eye.
Once a person is bitten, what can be done depends entirely on the severity of the bite.
Merritt learned from the late Humane Society of the U.S. investigator Guy Hodge many years ago to push against a bite, instead of pulling away. This forces most dogs to open their mouths, and enables the victim to avoid the sort of ripping injuries that result from pulling away from a dog’s serrated teeth.
While Hodge’s advice has helped in many situations, it may not be universally applicable to all dog bites––especially the gripping bites of pit bulls and other dogs of fighting ancestry.
The first bite disables
In fatal and disfiguring attacks, quite often the first bite disables the victim to some extent, and pulls the victim down.
The victim may then not be able to push against the bite, or hunch up and protect his/her face, or do any of the other things that are conventionally advised.
Most dogs bite defensively, and will bite, let go, and retreat, but pit bulls and other “bully” breeds bite offensively, and will not let go. Instead, they bite and shake.
This behavior produces the degloving injuries that are so frequent in pit bull and Rottweiler attacks, in which skin and muscle are stripped from the bone.
The only effective defense against that attack mode is to prevent the attack from occurring in the first place.
Bite sticks & break sticks
One way to do this is to use any accessible object as a “bite stick,” to thrust into the dog’s mouth.
While the dog is biting the “bite stick,” the dog will not be biting anything else.
Be aware that a “bite stick” is not the same thing as a “break stick,” the pointed instrument that dogfighters push between a pit bull’s teeth to make the pit bull release a bite, or tent stake, screwdriver, etc. that you might use to free someone else or an animal from a pit bull’s grip.
Meanwhile, for Dog Bite Prevention Week 2021, the American Humane Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, the Insurance Information Institute, State Farm Insurance, and the celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell again shared essentially the same lists of tips for avoiding ordinary dog bites and minimizing the damage that Dog Bite Prevention Week sponsors have offered annually since the U.S. Postal Service initiated Dog Bite Prevention Week in 1956.
Yet for nearly 9,000 of the more than 11,300 people who have suffered fatal or disfiguring dog attacks since 1982, none of those tips would have helped.
These people were attacked by dogs, often several dogs at once, who were hell-bent on mauling, maiming, and/or killing their victims.
Among these dogs were 7,800 pit bulls and pit mixes, plus about 1,000 other dogs of closely related breeds, including Rottweilers, boxers, and a variety of pit/mastiff crosses such as the Presa Canario, Dogo Argentino, and Cane Corso.
How fatal & disfiguring attacks occur
Many of the human victims were disfigured or killed while trying to protect their pets from dog attack. The approximately 4.2 million pit bulls in the U.S. appear to be killing about 9,000 other dogs per year, severely injuring at least as many more, and killing at least 3,100 cats.
When a dog does not just bite, but attacks with intent to maul, maim, and kill, observing the usual rules for escaping injury no longer helps––especially if the attacking dog is of a breed selectively crossed for centuries to have low inhibitions against conflict and a high pain threshold, the better to injure and kill other animals in fighting and baiting.
(See The science of how behavior is inherited in aggressive dogs, by Alexandra Semyonova.)
Your best weapon is your brain
Quick thinking, as bus driver Fabian Golac demonstrated in reaching for his fire extinguisher, is of premium value in any emergency situation, along with having a bit of good luck.
In one instance in 2003, ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton was driving home from playing softball when he saw two pit bulls pursuing a bicyclist, then redirecting to a small female jogger.
Either pit bull probably weighed as much as the jogger did, and her evident terror encouraged the dogs to leap at her.
The pit bulls tore her shirt, and scratched her enough to draw blood, but had not actually gotten their teeth into her flesh when Merritt stopped, jumped out of his car, handed his bat to the jogger (basically as a placebo), stepped between her and the dogs, and offered his fielder’s glove as a “bite stick,” but then had the sudden inspiration to order “Sit!”
Lightning struck twice
Incredibly, the two pit bulls broke off the attack and sat. Merritt told the jogger to walk away slowly, while he kept the dogs sitting. Instead, the jogger dropped the bat after a couple of steps and took off sprinting around a corner, which meant Merritt was no longer between her and the pit bulls.
The pit bulls rocketed diagonally across the corner property to attack her again. Merritt roared “Sit!” again, having nothing else he could do. The pit bulls skidded abruptly to a halt and sat just long enough to enable the jogger to escape.
Obviously the “Sit!” command won’t always save the day, but it did that time. Merritt called animal control at that point.
Both pit bulls were impounded and the owner was fined.