What happens when a family outing or a simple walk in the park turns into a frightening encounter with an aggressive dog? And what if your own furry family member suddenly displays aggression—or worse, attacks you?
In this guide, we’ll explore the most effective techniques for preventing or responding to dog attacks*.
Avoid Triggering Situations With Dogs
Dogs attack for various reasons. Some dogs may have a history of abuse or neglect. But in other cases, their reasons for becoming aggressive may be closely linked to a specific situation. A dog may feel threatened, may be protecting their territory, may be prone to feeling anxious around strangers, or may be in pain.
Certain types of encounters can dramatically increase your odds of a canine confrontation. Do everything in your power to avoid the following:
Approaching an unfamiliar dog, especially if you’re moving toward them quickly
Sneaking up on a dog
Approaching a dog despite barks or warnings
Disturbing a dog who’s sleeping. (That old saying about sleeping dogs exists for a reason!)
Coming between a mommy dog and her pups
Approaching a chained or tethered dog, as they may feel trapped or vulnerable
Touching a dog roughly (like pulling on their tail or ears)
Approaching a dog (even your own dog) who appears sick or injured. (And if you have no choice, do so with great care; a muzzle might help!)
At the end of the day, your best bet for avoiding a dog attack is to steer clear of high-risk encounters. Just use your best judgment, and you’ll be far less likely to find yourself in a truly dangerous confrontation with a dog.
Recognize Signs of Aggression in a Dog
Just like humans, dogs communicate their emotions in a wide variety of ways. Picking up on certain behaviors can help you prevent a frightening encounter from escalating into a full-blown attack. Here are some signs of aggression to look out for:
Fur standing up on their back
If you recognize some of these signals in time, here’s the good news: You may still have some time to defuse the situation.
What to Do When a Dog Behaves Aggressively
As difficult as it may be to think clearly during a frightening confrontation, there are certain things you should do if you find yourself face-to-face with a dog who’s displaying signs of aggression.
First, remember that dogs can sense panic. In fact, research has determined that dogs can literally smell fear, which can cause a spike in their own agitation. It’s important to stay as calm as possible. Never scream or raise your voice; if you do speak to them, do so calmly and gently.
Try to avoid direct eye contact, which dogs can perceive as a threat. And smiling won’t defuse the situation; on the contrary, aggressive dogs sometimes interpret bared teeth as a direct challenge. Be sure to avoid any sudden movements, which a dog might see as a threat. In fact, you’d be well advised to stand completely still, at least at first.
Don’t run, as they’re likely to chase you. When you get the chance, try to back away slowly and deliberately and remove yourself to a safe location.
What to Do If a Dog Attacks You
If a dog charges at you, it may be possible to get them to bite something that isn’t actually part of your body, like the sleeve of a sweatshirt. In that case, you may be able to get the entire garment off and let them have it, which could distract them long enough for you to get away.
But if you fall victim to a full-scale dog attack despite your best efforts at deescalation, your first priority should be to protect your vital areas, such as your face, neck, and chest. Use your arms and hands to shield these areas. And you can protect your fingers by keeping your hands balled up in fists. If you're knocked over, curl into a ball and use your fists to protect your ears and neck.
If the dog continues to attack, you may need to get physical and fight back. But hopefully, you’ll never find yourself in that position.
What to Do After a Dog Attack
After an attack has ended and you’re certain that you’re safely away from the dog, it's critical to attend to any wounds immediately. If you’re still in decent enough shape to tend to yourself, you can clean any wounds with warm water and soap, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover the wound with a clean bandage.
You should report the incident to the local authorities right away, which will help prevent future attacks. Just as importantly, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. If your wounds are severe or life-threatening, you should call an ambulance.
Now this part is very important: If you’ve been bitten by a dog, you must visit an emergency room or a doctor, even if your injuries seem minor. Most experts recommend a medical visit within at least 24 hours, even if you feel perfectly healthy. Dog bites can lead to serious infections and other complications. A doctor can properly clean and dress the wound and provide you with any necessary antibiotics.
And your doctor may tell you that you need to begin rabies post-exposure prophylaxis immediately, especially if you were bitten by an unfamiliar dog whose rabies status is unknown to you. In extreme situations, rabies prophylaxis may save your life, as a full rabies infection is nearly 100% fatal.
How to Prevent Your Dog from Attacking Others
You can’t control how other pet parents raise their pups. But there’s plenty you can do to reduce the chance that your own dog will ever be the one attacking.
Effective socialization, starting from puppyhood, is key to preventing aggressive behavior throughout your dog’s life. Socialization involves exposing your dog to a variety of people, environments, and other animals in a positive way, which can help them feel more comfortable and less threatened in different situations. A well-socialized dog is less likely to attack humans or other pets.
When standard socialization and puppy training techniques don’t work or when you’ve adopted a behaviorally challenging dog from a shelter, you may need to take stronger steps to address your dog’s aggressive tendencies. In some cases, that may mean enlisting a behavioral expert.
How ManyPets Can Help
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*This article is written for informational purposes. It is not a substitute for advice from a licensed expert. If you have any real-life concerns or questions regarding canine aggression, please contact a licensed behavioral specialist, a veterinarian, or both.