One February afternoon in 2012, 77-year-old June O'Hara was enjoying a peaceful daily walk down a neighborhood street near her home in Wichita Falls, Texas. A few terrifying seconds later she joined the ranks of a shockingly large fraternity - the 4.7 million Americans who are attacked by dogs each year.

Fortunately for O'Hara, the two large dogs that ran from a neighbor's yard were able to inflict only moderate wounds. A group of bystanders was able to divert the dogs until emergency personnel arrived on the scene.

The experience of victims like O'Hara is matched by a similarly scary prospect for owners of pets involved in an attack. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), dog bites cost dog owners and their insurance companies more than $1 billion each year. The Insurance Information Institute reports that the average dog bite claim totaled $29,396 in 2011. From 2003 to 2011, the cost of a dog bite claim rose by 53%.

The smart response when dogs attack 

Because dogs act purely on instinct, it is possible for a human to outsmart them and minimize the harm of a sudden attack. The key is to overcome your natural human fight-or-flight instincts, replacing them with a set of behaviors that neutralize the animal's aggressive action.

  • Don't run away:  Running heightens a dog's aggressiveness. It's also futile, since few humans can outrun a dog in attack mode.
  • Avoid eye contact:  Dogs interpret a human stare as a challenging behavior. Look down, or look away.
  • Don't fight back:  Aggressive action on your part escalates the dog's fighting instincts and could increase the viciousness of the attack.
  • Stay still:  In most cases, dogs quickly lose interest in a passive opponent.
  • Drop and cover:  If the dog seems intent on continuing an attack, drop to the ground and roll into a ball. Cover your ears with your cupped hands to minimize bites to ears and fingers.

The same basic rules apply for dogs of any breed. A CDC study on breeds involved in dog bite incidents came to no definitive conclusion on whether any particular breed is more likely to attack. The best prevention is to be careful around all dogs, both large and small. Be sure to teach these rules to your children as well. According to CDC statistics, over half of all dog bite victims are children.

Protection for pet owners: coverage and care 

Dog owners with homeowner's or renter's insurance will be pleased to know that most policies offer basic coverage for dog bites. The level of protection depends on your policy, with coverage amounts commonly ranging from $100,000 to $300,000. On the other hand, the cost of a single dog bite lawsuit can escalate far beyond the scope of an average policy. Every dollar above the policy's liability limit comes out of the pet owner's pocket. For this reason, many homeowners and renters with dogs opt for a personal excess liability policy. Such "umbrella" policies protect your home, savings and other valuable assets to levels that can affordably reach from $1 million to $10 million and beyond.

The best and most affordable way to deal with dog bite risk is to prevent your dog from biting in the first place. There are a number of steps pet owners can take to minimize the likelihood of a biting incident.

  • Have your dog spayed or neutered. Studies show that a neutered dog is less likely to bite.
  • Choose peaceful games like "go fetch" over wrestling and tug-of-war, which can encourage aggressive behavior.
  • Don't press your dog into new situations that could heighten its anxiety.
  • When walking your pet, avoid contact with other dogs. Be especially careful to steer clear of dogs that exhibit threatening behaviors.
  • Apply effective restraints to prevent your dog from running loose.

Most dogs deserve their status as friendly, loving members of the family.  A bit of extra care - along with a call to your local HUB broker to check your coverage - will help reduce your risk.