How to Handle an Aggressive Dog

How to Handle an Aggressive Dog

By Diane Levitan, VMD

Is there anyway to tell if a dog will be aggressive? 

If a dog growls or snaps without cause you should see your veterinarian!  There are a variety of medical conditions that can cause pain or brain problems that would cause this behavior.  Watch your dog around strangers.  The dog should be protective and alert but not suspicious and aggressive.  Your dog should calm down after you tell him the situation is “okay”. 

Why do dogs suddenly turn on someone?

Dogs usually do not suddenly turn on someone.  For a dog to unexpectedly turn and bite out of aggression is extremely rare.  Dogs are very social creatures and most view their family and other humans as part of their social structure.  However there are various reasons a dog might act aggressively.  Fear is probably first.  If dogs are afraid they may strike out.  Protection is next –as dogs feel a strong need to protect their people, pack members or territory. Finally, some dogs are simply aggressive by nature and that behavior has either been encouraged or not properly corrected and is now becoming out of control. 

What should you do if attacked?

Use a physical object and protect yourself.  Get a clipboard or briefcase between you and the dog’s teeth – no other part of the dog is going to hurt you!  Don’t kick the dog, if they get your foot or leg they may not let go. 

If your dog is acting strange, what should you do?

See your veterinarian immediately.  Most likely it is only a minor medical problem, but other more serious problems can occur.  Doctors have medication for pain, senility and other more rare conditions that can alter behavior.  If it is not medical, the doctor can refer you for professional training or behavioral counseling. 

What can be done at home for aggressive dog training?

People should learn, teach and practice obedience lessons on their dogs.  This puts you in the position as leader and they learn to consistently respect human authority.  Most of the time good obedience training keeps aggression in check. Agressive dog training is important and you want to handle it quickly before it becomes a bigger problem.

What about specific breeds, are some more of a problem than others?

The Pitt Bull is responsible for 63% of all dog bites, but many Pitt bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers are wonderful pets.  It all depends on their early socialization and training and the environment they are in.  A dog is a dog, but big ones and ones with an aggressive nature need special attention placed on this socialization and training.  These protective breeds of dogs are fine when properly cared for and trained.
Should owners of aggressive dogs be worried about legal action? 

People with large aggressive dogs that are not taking action to correct it may have right to be concerned.  Small dogs are not much of a problem, but aggressive large dogs must be trained or restrained.  The courts have proven not to be sympathetic to owners who do not make an effort to train or control aggressive breeds. 

Are owners of dogs who have bitten before at any extra risk?

Owners of small dogs aren’t at much of a risk of legal action.  You must also understand that it can be normal for a dog to bite.  If you roll over a dog’s tail or startle it while eating it may bite.  That is called a “provoked” bite and does not carry a high level of concern because it is considered normal behavior. 
However an unprovoked bite of a large or aggressive breed should worry you.  The law is clear - these dogs must be trained or confined by a leash, muzzle or pen. 

Can you face a lawsuit if your dog bites without previous history? 

About half of all states have a “one-bite rule”.  It’s sort of a “free” bite.  This is because dogs can bite in many normal situations and no problem exists.  However, if a dog goes beyond this you may be facing fines or serious legal action depending on the case.  Some states and Canada do not have this rule so each case it taken on it’s merits. 

Remember if a bite is provoked it could be normal behavior, but if it is unprovoked it can be a very serious even life threatening event.  ALL dogs need socialization and training very early in life.  Problems are harder to fix when dogs become adults. 

What are the Do’s and Don’ts when faced with an aggressive dog?

• Approach fast
• Make eye contact
• Stand over the dog
• Make erratic movements
• Turn and run
• Try to kick

• Stop
• Remain still
• Avoid eye contact
• Speak gently – say sit stay (they may obey)
• If the dog relaxes – get some distance between you and the dog
• Use an article of clothing for protection
• Use an object for a shield
• If knocked down, get in fetal position

Some Interesting Facts:

• Insurance claims related to dog bites have quadrupled in last 5 years. 
• 5 Million bites per year.
• 12-15 are fatal
• 8 our of 10 are male dogs
• ½ bitten are children
• 1 out of 6 require medical attention

 Have a question about aggressive dogs or aggressive dog training? Submit it to our Ask the Vet Channel.