Situational Awareness Fail

20130207-065247.jpgI might not have see the dog, even if I’d been paying closer attention. He darted out from behind a large trash can and a low brick wall, and his nose was nuzzling my fingers before I even knew what was happening. Luckily, his intentions weren’t hostile, and I was able to just walk away. But there’s no guarantee that will always be the outcome.

I was out for a “road hike” when it happened. I’m going backpacking with a friend semi-regularly now so I’ve added a small pack of about 15 pounds to my routine when I go for a walk. It’s good exercise, good practice, and a chance to troubleshoot my gear. When the stray dog approached me, I was two miles into a 3-1/2 mile walk. I had a good pace, good rhythm, and I was feeling relaxed and confident. And just like that, relaxed and confident, I let my guard down and my attention drift, for just a minute.

Lessons learned?

Don’t get too comfortable. The walk was going well, I was feeling good about my progress and so I let myself get into a place of comfort, of taking my attention off what I was doing and letting my mind wander. On a hiking trail, this is how you can miss the hole you break your ankle on or the rattlesnake behind the pile of dead leaves. On a city street, it’s how you miss the dog, or the human predator. It’s nice to be relaxed and comfortable, but don’t get too relaxed and comfortable. Don’t relax so much that you lose your awareness of your surroundings.

Be cautious about task fixation. I was using this walk to test out my backpacking gear, and I’d just finished a task that took my attention heads-down for several moments – the hose attached to the pack’s hydration bladder had become tangled up in the pack straps, and I’d been working to untangle it while I walked. As a result, my attention wasn’t on my surroundings. Had it been, I might have spotted the dog coming. A better choice would have been to clear my immediate surroundings, stop to untangle my hose, and then re-scan what was around me.

Remember that you live in a three-dimensional world. Threats can and do come from above and below you. They come from all sides, in front and behind. Turning your head from side to side as you look for trouble only gives you a slice of your surroundings. But when you don’t remember no look up and down too, you can miss the snake, the hawk, the gopher hole and the falling boulder. Try to make sure you maintain an awareness in three dimensions of your surroundings.

Have a plan. I had weapons on my person, but had this been a rabid attacking dog instead of a benign licking one, I’m not honestly sure I’d have had time to access them, because I was definitely stuck in the “observe-orient” part of the OODA Loop until much too late in the game. When you’re out in the world and doing your daily activities, play the “what if?” game. Ask yourself, “what if a dog attacked me right now – what would I do?” Or, “what if there was a bad guy hiding behind that wall?” More mundane stuff is fair game, too – “what if my hydration bladder sprung a leak right now?” Being prepared for trouble before it strikes and deciding in advance on your initial responses dramatically shortens your reaction time.

The honest truth is, most of the time the world is a relatively safe place, especially compared to much of human history. And it might be that your chance of being attacked by a dog while out for a walk is, statistically, pretty small. But the numbers and odds will be of no comfort if you’re the one in a million it happens to. Stay aware, stay safe, and you’ll be able to have more fun with less stress.

Photo credit: stock.xchng


  1. Good points – all! My nickle here – I would add a walking stick to your kit if you don’t already. They’re great to help with balance, take a bit of weight off your knees and can be a weapon already in-hand should the wayward critter – either 2 or 4 legged – suprise you. I also use mine as shelter poles for my MSR “Missing Link” shelter.

    You are exactly right though – a person’s head needs to be in the game at all times!

    • Great suggestion, Bill – thank you! I didn’t think of that, but it’s an excellent idea. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Excellent, as always. 🙂 I sometimes have a hard time convincing people that situational awareness is just as important at home as anywhere else. Different, yes, but vital. And important to practice all the time.

    In my experience, one of the keys is to be very aware of what is “normal.” If you don’t know what SHOULD be there, you won’t see the thing or person who is out of place and, therefore, potentially a danger.

    From my book, “I Am NOT A Victim” (available free on request)

    Additional Awareness drills
    Building awareness. Group drill – participants in turn perform the following drill
    Really look at everyone present and examine the room carefully
    Sit with your back to the room and close your eyes
    Attempt to describe all of the people there, the location of the doors and windows, other features such as fire alarms, etc.
    Discuss with other participants what you missed.

    Personal Awareness drill. Teach to children, elders.
    Think about and list things you may have been used to doing that do not contribute to your safety. Not all apply to every person, situation or place, but need to be considered whether you are armed or not!

    What might happen if you:
    Open doors to strangers, allow strangers to enter home – especially when you are alone
    Allow young children to answer the door, the telephone
    Take out trash, go to mailbox or other after dark, if poorly lighted especially
    Come home alone after dark alone, no lights on
    Pick up hitch-hiker
    Leave doors unlocked during the day/night, or when you are gone
    Walk or drive in an unaware state
    What else can you think of? (Refer to NRA home defense handbook for more ideas)

    Carefully consider the possible consequences of all the above actions. Imagine the worst! What could you do differently in each case to increase your safety and reduce the need for armed self defense?

    If there are any you do not feel are important to change, describe why or what else you could do to reduce the chance of a violent attack.

    What other things can you do to help PREVENT a situation where you might need to use a gun to defend yourself? The very best gunfight is the one that NEVER HAPPENS because the criminal does not see in you an easy, helpless victim and goes away. That is the very best outcome for everyone.

    Again, there is no right or wrong answer. You do not have to share your exercise with anyone else, so you should be completely honest with yourself. Only you can ultimately decide what is in your own best interest.

  3. AGirl says:

    It is impossible to always be aware and to be on alert 100% of the time, but these are very good tips and reminders.


  1. […] at Mom With A Gun talks about a situational awareness fail. She writes, “I was out for a ‘road hike’ when it happened. … When the stray dog approached […]

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