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Aggressive dog. Shutterstock/alexei_tm

Dog behaviourist What should you do if a dog gets aggressive?

Suzi Walsh gives some practical advice to help anyone facing aggression from a dog.

AS A PERSON who has worked with dogs for a living, over many years, I can tell you the recent headlines about dog attacks have deeply unsettled me.

As qualified behaviourists, our goal is to understand the body language and behaviour of every individual dog we meet. We assess a dog’s breed, history, environment, diet and physical condition before determining the reasons for their behaviour, much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Achieving this requires a deep knowledge of canine behaviour, gained through extensive research. Our job is to educate owners and carers how to best interact and manage their relationships with their pets.

When someone brings a pet into their home, they hope for a lifelong best friend. However, sometimes, as we’ve recently witnessed, things can go terribly wrong. When this happens, it devastates families and communities and causes concern for all responsible dog owners.

Much has and will be said about breeds and bans but that is an argument for another day. Instead of digging into the specifics of dog attacks, dog breeds, or dog bites, I would like to give you some practical advice about how to manage a dog if and when it becomes aggressive or bites.

While minor dog bites are relatively common, full-blown dog attacks are rare. However, knowing how to respond in the unlikely event of an attack is essential.

Avoiding a dog bite involves understanding dog behaviour and taking proactive measures to ensure your safety. Here are some quick tips to help you avoid being bitten by a dog:

Immediate actions

Stay calm: If you encounter a loose dog who may be displaying aggressive behaviour such as staring, growling, teeth-baring, barking or if you can see the whites of their eyes, stay calm. Avoid sudden movements or loud noises that might startle the dog.

Avoid eye contact: Direct eye contact can be perceived as a threat by dogs. Instead, look slightly away while keeping the dog in your peripheral vision.

Stand still: If a dog approaches you, stand still like a “tree.” Do not run or flail your arms. Running can trigger the dog to chase you or feel the need to act defensively.

Slow movements: If you need to move, do so slowly and calmly. Back away slowly without turning your back on the dog.

Use a barrier: If possible, place an object (like a bag, jacket, or umbrella) between you and the dog to create a barrier.

Do not yell or shout at the dog: This will likely cause the dog to become even more stressed. Dogs will interpret this as threatening behaviour.

Seek higher ground: Use the hood of a car, a large rock, a tree with low branches, or any elevated surface to raise your head and body, or ideally, get off the ground entirely. This position makes it much harder for the dog to bite effectively from below.

Preventative measures

Avoid unknown dogs: Do not approach unfamiliar dogs, especially if they are tied up, behind a fence, or in a vehicle. Do not put your hand out towards a dog in an attempt to allow them to smell you, the dog can smell you from a significant distance, so reaching your hand out towards the dog might feel threatening to the dog.

Ask for permission: Always ask the owner permission before petting a dog. If the owner is not present, it’s best to avoid interacting with the dog.

Learn canine body language: Recognise signs of aggression or anxiety in dogs, such as growling, barking, showing teeth, stiff posture and a fixed stare. Learning dog body language is by far the most important skill you can learn to keep you safe. As a qualified dog behaviourist, the ability to understand how a dog is feeling and what they are trying to communicate is what keeps me safe when working with a dog who has a bite history.

Don’t disturb: Never disturb a dog that is eating, sleeping, or unwell. This can cause a dog to become stressed or defensive, which can increase the likelihood of aggressive behaviour.

Teach children: Educate children on how to behave around dogs. Children should be taught not to hug, pull on ears or tails, or disturb dogs at any time. Dogs are not toys nor are they able to speak to us when they are stressed or uncomfortable. Advocate for your dog and make sure they feel safe at all times. A dog who feels safe and happy has a very low risk of biting.

Healthy dog: Ensure any dog you are caring for is well. Undiagnosed pain and discomfort account for up to 80% of dog aggression cases (Mills et al, 2020). Dogs who are experiencing pain often display unpredictable and sudden aggressive behaviour.

What to do in the unlikely event of a dog attack

Protect yourself: If a dog attacks, try to put something between you and the dog (like a bag, jacket, or bike). If you are knocked down, curl into a ball, cover your head and neck with your hands and arms, and remain still.

Seek help: Call for help if someone nearby might be able to intervene. Try to avoid screaming.

Do not fight back: As difficult and counterintuitive as it may seem, resist the urge to yell or fight back. When a dog reaches the point of attacking, it is no longer thinking rationally but reacting instinctively. Consequently, the dog will continue to fight until it perceives you as no longer a threat. By remaining quiet and calm, you reduce the perceived threat, which can lead the dog to stop its attack.

What to do if you see a dog attack

Call 999: Contact emergency services immediately for professional assistance.

Do not intervene directly: Unless you have professional experience working with dogs, avoid trying to break up the attack yourself, as you might get bitten in the process.

Use a distraction: If you can do something, throw a jacket, scarf, or blanket over the attacking dog. This helps to distract the dog and might buy some time to allow the victim to escape. Do this from a place of safety.

Stay calm: Do not yell, hit, or kick the attacking dog, as this could escalate its aggression.

Avoid pulling the dog off: Refrain from pulling the attacking dog away, as this can worsen the victim’s wounds and may redirect the dog’s aggression toward you.

Why do dogs bite and what are the factors influencing behaviour?

Socialisation: Proper socialisation from a young age is crucial for any dog breed. Dogs that are well-socialised with people, other animals, and various environments are less likely to exhibit aggressive behaviour. Socialisation for young pups should start as young as three weeks of age. Dogs need to be raised in a home environment and have gentle handling at all times.

Training: Consistent, positive reinforcement training can significantly influence a dog’s behaviour while punishment techniques are known to be associated with a significant increase in aggressive behaviour.

Owner responsibility: The behaviour of any dog is heavily influenced by the actions and attitudes of its owner. Responsible ownership, including appropriate training, exercise, diet and care, is key to preventing aggressive behaviour.

Genetics: While genetics play a role in a dog’s temperament, it’s important to note that aggression is not a trait isolated to specific breeds but can occur in any dog due to various factors. It is vital that you bring a dog into your home who has been bred by someone educated in dog behaviour, genetics and ethics.

Responsible ownership, including adequate socialisation, training, exercise, diet and care, is crucial in ensuring that any dog, regardless of breed, behaves appropriately and safely. It’s important to evaluate dogs on an individual basis and promote responsible pet ownership to mitigate risks associated with aggressive behaviour.

By understanding dog behaviour and taking these proactive steps, you can significantly reduce the risk of being bitten by a dog. If you are concerned about your dog’s behaviour, please reach out for help and advice from a qualified dog behaviourist, behaviour consultant or veterinary behaviourist.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry. 

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