By Dr. Leslie Ross D.V.M. B.Sc
Imagine, if you will, a warm, sunny afternoon with you seated on a park bench with your four-legged companion happily romping about sniffing at intriguing objects for a minute or two until he is distracted by the motions of a butterfly then gaily pursuing this new object of interest. For a minute, your attention is diverted and then suddenly, you hear a bone-chilling scream from your pet and you turn to see him pinned to the ground with a snarling, much larger dog hovering over him with his jaw clamped on your terrified dogs neck!
Not uncommonly, a scary event like this can occur very unexpectedly when a roaming dog seeming to appear out of “nowhere” and starts to cause trouble. Dogs will show aggressive behavior for a variety of reasons. Often anxiety, fear or territoriality instincts can be underlying motivations. Inherited personality traits and environmental factors also significantly influence a dog’s personality. For example, a dog brought up in an abusive or neglected manner can become aggressive since, quite understandably, having experienced many bad experiences in his world and very few good ones, he will tend to assume worst-case scenarios for most of his future life experiences.
Fortunately, however there are a few measures that you can take to help keep your pet safe from these potentially dangerous individuals. First and foremost, try to find safe areas for you and your dog to walk and play, away from areas where you may expect dogs to be out running unsupervised and loose. However, this does not mean keeping your pet away from all dogs since all dogs, particularly young ones, significantly benefit from socialization with other dogs.
Young dogs need to learn the body language of other dogs as well as human body language to coexist with dogs and humans and feel worthwhile, confident and secure in their daily life experiences. For example, your pup needs to learn that growling and baring of teeth, staring, snarling and lip lifting are all clear signals by another dog of these individuals drawing a line in the sand that he best not cross.
It also pays for you, as well as your pet, to learn to interpret correctly that a dog approaching with his body curved is usually communicating that he is not interested in an attack, while one approaching with a straight and stiff body with or without his hackles raised, is a sign of attack-mode intentions. A relaxed, loping gait generally means a curious and playful dog while an even, beeline run towards the two of you means be very wary!
Early training of your pup to teach him or her to return immediately to your side in response to your voice command or to the sound of a clicker can be a very useful safety measure to make use of if you sense that a dangerous situation may be unfolding. In the event of a challenge by a loose dog, it is very important to keep yourself very calm, standing tall and still and with your dog close at your side, ideally seated, with the both of you facing the dog. Since the aggressor is generally more interested in your dog as a target rather than you are, it is important to keep your dog calm and still. Often, basic commands such as “GO HOME”, or DOWN or “GO AWAY” spoken in an authoritative tone will be all that is needed to cause him to slink down and retreat. Even if this is the case do not turn your back to him or he may seize the opportunity and return to attack.
Often pebbles are handy on the ground to pick up and throw at the dog to scare him off. Also, if you have come prepared for your outing, an umbrella that opens quickly and easily in your hand can be very useful tool to shield you both from the other dog. Another useful aid is a squirt bottle containing water, a water and vinegar mix, or a commercial dog repellent spray. Again, as mentioned above, do not turn your back to the retreating dog but back away slowly until you are out of his immediate range to avoid him returning for another attack attempt. Also be very careful about using pepper spray or mace since if you are downwind, the spray may affect you and your pet way much more than the challenging dog.
If the aggressive dog is actually locked onto your pet, a cloth coat thrown over his head may be confusing or scary enough to cause him to let go and retreat. Another very useful method to separate the two animals is to grab his back legs and elevate them into the air while you step back, pulling him away from your pet.
Vets are accustomed to dealing with the challenges of healing injured pets that have sustained dogfight injuries. Hidden damage to torn or compressed tissues or body organs is the rule rather than the exception. Sometimes vital organs such as the liver, spleen, lungs or intestines are damaged very severely, and even if this isn’t the case, the infection rate occurrence is very high from bite wounds. Further, even if a dog attack victim is not seriously injured it can develop phobias or other temperament problems resulting in him becoming defensive or very fearful about all dogs in general.
If your neighborhood has a problem with roaming dogs it is best to involve the animal control authorities in your area. It is important to keep in mind that loose dogs are in danger too since unsupervised dogs can be accidentally hit by vehicles, or injured in other ways while running at large. So you are acting in their best interests by stopping their roaming activities.
Internet access to some notes by Kathy Diamond Davis, an author and trainer has been a helpful source of some of the information for this article. (Veterinary Partner, published 11/15/2004)