As Hector Hernandez sees it, utility lineworkers and meter readers face two potential problems—a hostile dog and a camera phone—and they're connected.
That's because encounters between workers and dogs are popping up on social media or the nightly news, causing public relations headaches for utility companies and crews that are trying to do their jobs without being bitten.
Hernandez, a Michigan-based trainer and industry consultant, said his inbox is of full of videos showing dogs that attack utility or postal workers as the owner stands by, taping the encounter.
"If you do something to the dog, then what happens?" he asked. "Assumed you're being videoed all the time. Then you're on the news. Then you're on Facebook. Just by the way it looks you could lose your job."
Hernandez serves as an expert witness and gives lectures around the country about dog attacks to postal firms, police organizations and utilities, including a recent discussion at a safety conference preceding the International Lineman's Rodeo & Expo in Kansas.
There are no exact statistics on the frequency of dog bites and dog attacks, he said. But since almost half the U.S. population owns a dog, according to the American Pet Products Association, it's certain that lineworkers, meter readers, technicians, disconnect personnel or other utility workers will confront multiple dogs in a week.
And since most dogs can bite into flesh quickly and easily, even seemingly friendly canines should be approached carefully, he warned.
"They say, 'My dog doesn't bite, he loves people.' You say, 'I need you to put him away before I do my job. It is my policy to not work around dogs,'" Hernandez emphasized. "The dog can't differentiate between a burglar and a utility worker."
You have to look at it from Fido's perspective, he added. The dog howled through a window or door at someone in uniform, and their task completed, that person eventually left. "The dog gets this mental image, 'I can scare anybody in a uniform away,' so now the uniform becomes something he is confident in chasing," Hernandez said.
What to do if there's no window or door between you and the dog? The first order of business is to act confident for the benefit of both homeowner and dog. After all, utility workers have a right to be on the property, a fact that Hernandez said utilities should stress beyond some legal fine print.
"You can be on their property without their permission, but we have to teach these people that you're not trespassing. Nobody hardly ever reads the back of the bill," he said. "How are we educating our members about that? How are we doing it?"
By looking, sounding and acting confident—definite eye contact, no hands in pockets or headphones—workers can often defuse a situation before it escalates, he said.
It's also a good practice to put a trash can, flower pot or chair between you and the dog until the canine's adrenalin rush has slowed. During that time, workers should maintain eye contact with the dog, face the pooch while walking backward, and shout out common commands like "sit" or "down."
If the dog persists and is poised for a strike, then it's time to up the game, Hernandez said. A hat, a package, a bag, a belt or a satchel are all good diversions. Shake them, don't swing them, and let the canine chew on that for a while. That trick also demonstrates the dog's intention to bite something, which could come in handy in a deposition or TV interview.
"You've defended yourself without pain and if you're on video you can describe why the dog was so dangerous," Hernandez said. "Once he's bitten it, he's made a commitment to hurting you and you're justified in what you're doing."
Even if the situation gets serious, Hernandez said he advises clients to watch their language.
Cursing and swearing comes across poorly on video if someone is taping the incident.
"You know in your line of work you could do everything right and something could still happen," he said. "The lens is a public relations nightmare and you might end up getting bitten and be out of a job."