When you see an injured dog, your first instinct as a dog lover is to run and provide aid. But this may not be the best way to approach a dog who is frightened and in pain, and who can see you as a threat. In addition, a wounded dog may be in a dangerous situation, such as in a fire, a dog fight, or on a trafficked roadway. Caution should be used to ensure you are not hurt or put in danger in the same way the dog is. Care should be taken when offering assistance to an injured dog, whether it is your dog, or someone else's. Ensure your help is useful and does not cause further injury to yourself or a dog in distress.
Assess the Risks
Before approaching a wounded dog, assess the situation. Is there a risk of harm to yourself, or further injury to the dog if they become frightened and try to flee?
- If the situation is not extremely urgent, contacting authorities, a rescue agency, shelter, or humane society to come and assist the injured dog is advisable. Personnel from such organizations will have training and experience as well as be equipped to handle a fearful dog that is in pain. While waiting for assistance, you can keep the dog company, comfort them verbally, and try to ensure they do not run away from the scene.
- If the dog is on a roadway or in a parking lot, check for traffic before approaching the dog to assist, rather than blindly running into a trafficked area where you may become another accident victim. If possible, have someone else watch for and direct traffic while you offer assistance to the injured dog.
- If the dog has been hurt in an animal attack, is the other animal still present? If the dog still feels threatened by the other canine or animal, they may react aggressively to your assistance, or the other dog may attack you or the injured party while you are trying to provide assistance. Steps to safely contain another dog, acquire the other animal owner’s assistance, or remove the other dog, may be necessary before you can approach the injured dog to provide aid.
- If the dog is in a fire or flood situation, wait for emergency personnel to provide support, ensure that the risk is contained, and safety precautions are taken before approaching the dog in distress. This will reduce the risk to you from the hazard and provide the help needed if the dog reacts by putting himself in further danger, for instance by hiding, withdrawing, or trying to escape via a hazardous route.
- If the dog is experiencing electric shock from chewing on a cord or from contact with another electrical source, ensure that power is turned off before approaching or touching them. Even if the dog is no longer touching the source, a compromised electrical system can still present a hazard to you and the injured pup, and needs to be neutralized before rendering assistance.
- Dogs that have been exposed to a toxic substance can present a hazard to yourself if you come in contact with toxic or corrosive substances. Ensure you have protective gloves and clothing before approaching and handling the dog.
Watch for Aggression
Dogs who are in pain can react unpredictably. They may be aggressive or perceive you as a threat, even if it is your own dog and they are not normally aggressive. Approach an injured dog slowly, and preferably from the side, not the front, which can be interpreted by the dog as threatening, or from behind, which can startle them. While approaching, talk to the dog and assess their reaction. If they show signs of fear and aggression, you may need to muzzle them before moving forward. Signs of aggression may include:
- Baring teeth
- Hair standing on end
- Flattened ears
- Starring you down
You can use a leash to make a loop, by running the end through the fastener or handle so that it can be gently placed over the animal's head, to form a makeshift collar and leash to restrain them. You may be able to place a jacket or blanket over the dog's head to calm them and reduce the risk of a bite. To muzzle a dog when you examine them, you can create a makeshift muzzle with a scarf, roll of gauze, or belt to avoid being bitten. Remember, even a normally docile dog can be aggressive when hurt. Do not muzzle a dog that is vomiting, has an injured mouth, or is unconscious, as this can result in choking and a compromised airway.
If the dog can not be muzzled, and an Elizabethan collar is available, this may help calm them and prevent bite injuries. Keep your face and hands away from an injured dog’s mouth. Dogs can also scratch or kick when in distress or trying to protect themselves, so watch and position yourself to avoid injury. Move slowly and talk softly to the dog--avoid quick movements, loud noises, and direct eye contact. If possible, stabilize injuries such as injured limbs with a splint before moving them, to provide stabilization, prevent pain, and further injury.
A small dog that needs to be restrained can be wrapped securely in a towel to prevent further injury to themselves or others. Containing dogs in a crate or cage when transporting them will provide the dog protection from further injury by limiting their movements, and will protect you while driving a frightened, aggressive, or needy dog to receive medical attention.
Also, fear reactions such as submissive behavior and tucking the tail between their legs can also indicate an extreme fear condition, which can result in fear biting. A frightened dog may also flee--if possible find assistance to block off the dog’s escape routes, and contain the dog in order to help them.
If a dog is injured, avoid the temptation to hug them. Although this is a human reaction to distress, an injured dog can perceive this as being trapped, and a hug puts you in close range where you can be hurt. Even if the pup is not normally aggressive, they may bite when they are in pain and precautions should be taken. A further risk you should consider is that if the dog is not yours, you will not know if they are current on their rabies vaccinations, so extra care to avoid a bite should be taken.
Make Your Help Matter
Remember when approaching an injured dog to take safety precautions, assess the situation, and obtain appropriate help if possible. Recognize that a wounded canine may be frightened and aggressive and mitigate this with slow, cautious movements, a makeshift leash and muzzle, and careful patience when approaching. There is a risk of being bitten or the dog fleeing the situation and coming to more harm. Be sure to prevent the dog from putting themselves or you in harm's way. As pet owners, we want to help a dog in distress, but thinking about and planning the best approach, rather than automatically reacting, will make your help more effective.