Dog attacks part 2: Ways to protect your dog.

In my last blog, “Dog Attacks”, I promised to share some ideas that might help you protect your dog from potential dog attacks. First, however, I want to give you some information about why any dog might want to attack a perfectly happy, well-socialized dog.

Fear drives aggression in dogs 95% of the time. Genetics, lack of socialization before the age of 12-16 weeks, or an attack or scare from another dog (particularly if the injured dog was between 7 and 9, or 18 and 24 months when the attack occurred) could be at the core of the problem. However, it is important to realize that any dog will bite if put in the right situation.

If a dog is already fearful, the approach of a happy, well-socialized dog can be terrifying. These fearful dogs have the choice of freezing, attacking, or running away, and dogs who are on leash don’t have the option of escape–they can only freeze, attack, or hide behind their owners. Even if they are off leash, fearful dogs might feel that offense is more effective than defense, offense being a strategy that dogs learn quickly. It makes the scary thing back off, and they are rewarded by this.

Here, you can see that even though Vera knows Annie well, she is worried about Annie’s nose being just centimeters from her shoulder. The minimum safe distance Vera could be from a strange dog was 30 feet.

Another thing that owners of happy, healthy, well socialized dogs should realize is that no one (with the exception of the rare trainer out looking for a challenge), purposefully adopts a dog who is aggressive. They fall in love, then the behaviors unfold or develop, often between the ages of two and three years as the dog matures socially. This certainly happened with our girl, Vera.

The owners of the dog with dog-aggressive behaviors are then saddled with a choice: to work with the dog continuously for years, re-home the dog (and who would willingly adopt a dog with a bite history) or take the dog to a shelter where he would risk euthanasia. If the owners lie about the dog’s history when they relinquish the dog (which certainly happens), the dog will end up injuring another dog (or human if the bite is redirected).

Having an aggressive dog is like living with a loaded gun. At first, owners are in full-blown denial and make extensive excuses for the dog. Then it slowly dawns on them that they need help and they start the slow process of discovering the dog’s triggers and how to keep him safe.

We kept Vera safe by choosing her outings carefully–the right place in the right season at the right time of day–and, of course, always on leash. Always a 6 ft leash unless there was no risk of a dog approaching.

The process is long and arduous as the dog’s freedoms are slowly relinquished to a point where the dog feels safe enough to live a relaxed life, and the owners feel safe enough to comfortably live with the dog. These owners are often stressed for years as they struggle through this quagmire–they want to give their dog a quality of life that makes life worth living, but are challenged to keep their dog feeling protected from friendly dogs, (remember, the aggression is fear-driven), and keeping other dogs safe as well.

My novel, “Finding Vera” tells the story of our experience with our wonderful reactive German shepherd, Vera (with a few embellishments to make it a better novel).

Tips and suggestions to protect your dog from potential attacks:

  • Consider dog parks with caution. I would recommend reading my comprehensive blog post on Dog Parks. Other blog posts that enhance the Dog Parks article are: Kids and small dogs at dog parks, and Dog parks vs off-leash trails.
  • When walking your dog on leash, don’t allow your dog to greet other dogs. As I mentioned above, dogs are limited in their responses when on leash and tend to be more likely to aggress or act out. Check out the video on how to pass another dog on leash safely. I have been lax about this with Annie, but since Milo’s attack have decided to adhere to this advice unless Annie has already established a friendship with the other dog.
I block Annie from Bruno with my body in this technique of arcing around dogs.
I feed her constantly as I pass Bruno.
  • Follow leash laws. People walk their dogs in on-leash areas for a reason. There is nothing more upsetting than to have your on-leash, anxious, reactive, rambunctious, or injured dog approached by an energetic, friendly dog (or to be accosted by a loose dog if you don’t like dogs or are unable or unwilling to deal with their exuberance). At the very least, the leashed dog will feel threatened, out of control, or overstimulated because he is handcuffed in his response to the loose dog. If the leashed dog is under-socialized, he may feel the need to attack because he is confined. Also, even a well-behaved off-leash dog will often take advantage of his freedom to harass the tethered dog.
Annie practices recall on an off-leash trail.
  • If you walk your dog off leash in on-leash areas when no one is around, realize that you could could be ticketed. Be sure your dog has a strong recall (will return to you at least 80% when you call him), and leash him up as soon as you see a person or dog in the distance.
  • Keep your dog on leash and under control in your neighborhood. Over the years, I’ve had clients whose dogs were killed by cars because they were loose in an unfenced yard, even while under supervision. Also, many of my reactive dog clients have been accosted by loose dogs in their neighborhoods. A fight between your loose, friendly dog and a leashed aggressive dog can end badly, both for the dogs and the handler. Redirected bites onto the handler are not uncommon when trying to separate dogs in a fight.
  • Teach your dog a “sit behind.
I’m training Annie to sit behind me. This way I can block her from any approaching off-leash dogs I don’t trust.
  • Watch people and dogs carefully in off-leash areas and read their body language. If the dog looks tense and is not giving out calming signals as he approaches (such as looking away, sniffing the ground, licking his lips, yawning, or doing a play bow), or if the human looks tense and worried, take your dog off the trail, stand in front of him, and block him. You can feed your dog treats, talk to him, or hook a finger through his collar or harness to maintain control while the dog passes.
  • Don’t walk your dog on leash in an off-leash area. As I said above, off-leash dogs might take advantage of his vulnerability. Likewise, if you see a leashed dog approaching in an off leash area, leash your dog and steer clear–there is probably a reason the dog is leashed. It isn’t a good time to get into an argument with the owner.
Annie checks backwash me on an off-leash trail.
  • Practice “check backs” with your dog so that he doesn’t run off when on the trail. Mark any eye contact with a word such as “yes” (or click) and treat him when he returns to you. You will find that your dog starts to check back often and will be more responsive when you call him back.
  • Carry a small air horn to keep loose dogs at bay. One small blast will often stop loose dogs in their tracks. A second short blast has always worked for us. The air horn works at a great distance to keep both well-socialized dogs and reactive dogs safe without sensitizing them to shouting (yelling at the dog, or shouting at the owner to call their dog rarely works anyway). Don and I wouldn’t go out of the house without one when we had Vera. The dog the horn was aimed at would stop, eye us with curiosity, then choose to change direction. They never looked scared.
  • To desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn:
This is a 1.5 oz horn that fits into my treat pouch so I can have it handy in case of an emergency.
  1. Have a second person beep the horn at a distance of 50-100 feet, pointing the horn away from your dog, then feed him several high-value treats.
  2. Always be careful to point the horn AWAY from your dog.
  3. Repeat no more than 3 times in a day, decreasing the distance the horn is from your dog by no more than 5 feet at a time.
  4. Only decrease the distance between the horn and your dog if the dog is relaxed and anticipating the treats.
  5. If your dog is scared, stop using the horn that day, and follow the session with treats and a favorite game.
  6. The next day, double the distance between the horn and your dog and try again.

Dog parks: Why not?

In a perfect world…

In a perfect world, dog parks would be the most wonderful places in the world to pass time—well-socialized dogs cavorting with each other, the rough and tumble and chase of all different breeds and sizes, peaceful pauses peppering play.  No one would fight over toys, no one would feel overwhelmed or get overstimulated, and guardians would be alert to their dogs at every moment, astutely watching and understanding the fluid body language of their own animal, ready to stop conflicts before they even got started. 

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Three dogs at a dog park take a break from play…an appropriate way to calm arousal levels. Communal sniffing is a wonderful way for them to bond.

However, the reality is often much different. Dog parks are typically places where guardians bring their dogs to exercise and play, but they are often not well supervised. The dogs are free to romp and play on their own with little regard for their safety, while guardians chat and socialize with each other, or engage with their smart phones.

“Yes,” you may say, “so what?”  The problem is that dogs, like people, have different needs, different play styles, different degrees of socialization, and different levels of tolerance. And they need to be socialized with other dogs (and children of all ages, men, women, goats, cats, horses etc.) before the age of sixteen weeks in order to be entirely comfortable with whomever it is they are interacting.  If a dog feels threatened, he needs to make a split-second decision to either run away, calm the other dog through appropriate body language, or aggress. The decision-making process is complicated and depends on multiple factors—the current situation, the dog’s past experience in similar circumstances, what challenges the dog has encountered in the past twenty-four hours, and his history of socialization, to name a few.

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Annie studies white dog–he’s playful, but BIG and boisterous. She is confident: her stance is solid, her tail  up, her mouth open, ears back but not pinned.
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Annie is overwhelmed even though the white dog is not being aggressive. She copes by slipping out from under him and running away.  Her run, though, is playful and confident, not fearful.
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Annie recovers nicely and when she finishes her run, greets the white dog at a 30 degree angle. No hard feelings.

Dogs who are not socialized with other dogs as puppies are often fearful around others of their species and will do whatever they can to protect themselves if they feel threatened. They also have teeth—lots of them. If, in addition, they did not learn how to inhibit their bite as puppies, they can cause a severe amount of damage in seconds. Dog fights often erupt in a blink of an eye, and unless we understand canine body language, we will miss the warning signs. Dogs are not the only ones who can be badly injured in dog fights—humans can also sustain significant injuries from redirected bites—sometimes by their own dog—when attempting to break up the fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.

You have two things to think about when you consider visiting a dog park:

1.) “How well do I know my own dog?”

2.) “How well do I know the other dogs and their people in the park?”

The answer to the second question is usually, if not always: “Not very well.” Even if you go to the park with a group of friends, you can never predict who will show up. An under-socialized dog with a distracted, unconcerned owner is a recipe for trouble. 

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Annie is surrounded. She only knows 1 of the 3 dogs. Her style is to find an escape, run away, then rejoin the group.  But what if she needed to protect herself? Dogs have to think fast and react appropriately.

Here are some things to think about: 

  • If your dog is “OK most of the time”, he does not belong at the dogs park. Why? Because you already know there are situations that make him feel overwhelmed and insecure, forcing him to protect himself. Don’t place him back into those situations where he could injure or be injured by another dog. Also, in that environment, he is most likely too stressed to enjoy himself, so why even consider it?
  • If you take your dog to the dog park because you’ve been told he “needs more socialization”, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner rather than later, he will encounter a situation that frightens him and he will be forced to act. If he gets into a tussle, one bad experience could be enough to cause ongoing dog-directed aggression. Once aggression has worked for him, he’s more likely to depend on it in future encounters.
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Annie is bumped from behind, fairly hard, by this puppy. She is startled, and not happy about it. She whips around, faces him, then dances off.

If you have just adopted your dog and want to take him to the dog park for fun, don’t do it. First of all, you have no idea how your dog will respond in that environment. And even if your new dog has reasonable socialization skills, he’ll be stressed from the recent changes in his life and will be more likely to be defensive. And again, dogs at the dog park are often poorly supervised, and may or may not have good socialization skills. Even if your dog joins in play initially, he could feel threatened or get overstimulated as play escalates, and a fight could be triggered when he panics.  If your dog guards his toys, he should definitely not go to the dog park. He may steal toys and aggress at anyone who tries to reclaim them—humans included. And if you take toys with you for him to play with, he will most likely challenge any dog trying to play with him.

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The puppy grabs a stick.  Annie also likes sticks–a lot. But she leaves him to play with it. If she took it away from the puppy, that would probably be okay.  But what if it was a mature, resource-guarding dog?

Do not even consider taking your small dog to dog parks unless there is a small-dog enclosure. The prey drive of larger dogs can turn your dog into a very vulnerable target.  Muzzles have no place in a dog park.  Muzzles will make your dog feel even more vulnerable, and if/when a dog aggresses at him due to his defensive body language, he will have no way to defend himself.  Leashing your dog at a dog park will prevent him from running away from situations he’s uncomfortable with and will inhibit his ability to express himself, making him more vulnerable and fearful. Also, off-leash dogs will recognize his vulnerability and may take advantage of him, exacerbating the situation even more. If you know you have a well-socialized dog, I would still think long and hard about the wisdom of going to a dog park for the reasons I have discussed above: you don’t know the other dogs who frequent the park or their people.

If you still think that dog parks are an option for you, here are some safety tips to consider: 

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  • Check the park carefully before you unload your dog from the car. Avoid groups of rough-playing dogs, dogs who look stiff or uncomfortable, and dogs whose owners are uninvolved. You want to see dogs who have loose, bouncy, easy body movement, dogs who play in a give and take fashion, and dogs who pause often in their play. The owners should be present, but relaxed. Avoid dogs whose owners hover and say things like “Be nice, Fido”.
  • Look for dogs that have a play style similar to your dog’s. 
  • Be sure your dog has a very strong recall and will come back to you reliably, even in play. 
  • Be sure you understand canine body language. Dogs have a language that is fluid, complicated and ongoing. By learning to read dogs at the park and understanding what they are saying, you can often intervene by calling your dog back to you if play starts to escalate. 
  • Consider other options for dog play that are safer: get together with friends and their dogs, dogs you know have been well socialized as puppies or who have a history of positive, safe interactions with other dogs. Scuffles may still erupt, but if everyone is paying attention and has a good recall on their dog, and if the dogs are well socialized, the chance of injury is extremely low. Well-socialized dogs with good bite inhibition will be careful not to injure each other, even in excited play.