Last month I stated that you need up-to-date knowledge about canine behavior, emotions, and communication to prevent conflicts. This knowledge is even more critical if you have a dog predisposed to reactivity because it is more likely to bite. So, if you did not read last month’s column, please start there.
When a dog is growling, barking, and lunging, it is experiencing an extreme emotional response, most likely due to fear but sometimes frustration or anger. Most fearful dogs will not bite unless pushed, but if they do, you are responsible. If you have such a dog, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to consult with the dog’s veterinarian and accredited canine behavior professionals to help alleviate your dog’s distress. Failing to do so is inhumane and potentially dangerous.
If you have a dog with a history of attacking people or dogs, you have a moral, ethical, and legal responsibility to do everything in your power to prevent injury to others.
In Maine, if one fears imminent bodily injury to himself or his dog by another dog, the courts may declare the attacking dog a dangerous dog. The owner of a dog that injures another may be subject to criminal and civil legal action. Liability insurance may not cover you if you have previous knowledge of the dog’s propensity for aggression.
If you are worried about your dog attacking other dogs:
1. Aggression, most often caused by fear, is a mental health issue. Please understand that your dog is suffering. See a Veterinary Behaviorist or your regular veterinarian immediately. They might uncover a treatable medical cause for the aggression or prescribe medications to alleviate your dog’s suffering.
2. Understand that aggression, caused by fear or anger, is an emotional issue. Therefore, training things like sit and down will unlikely change how your dog feels and potentially make your dog feel less safe, thus increasing reactive behavior.
3. Seek assistance from an accredited positive reinforcement trainer to:
a. Teach your dog to wear a muzzle happily. In the interest of public safety, have your dog muzzled when in public and when others are in your home.
b. Learn about relaxing activities to help calm and center your dog. High-arousal activities such as obsessive retrieving and excessive physical exercise can be incredibly stressful. In addition, they can increase the likelihood of your dog overreacting. An accredited pet behavior professional can teach you alternate ways to meet your dog’s physical, mental, and emotional needs.
4. Always have your dog on a 6-foot leash if you are anywhere other than in a fenced yard on your property. A dog with a bite history is a legal liability to you if it is not leashed. Also, Maine state requires that when your dog is off your property, it must be leashed or under reasonable control. A reactive dog is NOT under reasonable control.
5. For the safety of others, walk and exercise your dog where the probability of encountering potential triggers to your dog is close to non-existent. In addition to this being a safety issue, your dog’s continued aggression will only perpetuate its behavior, as aggressive behavior is often self-reinforcing.
6. Do NOT walk your dog places you have not inspected for potential triggers. This may include loose dogs, dogs behind a fence, children playing, or whatever causes your dog to react.
7. If you are out in public or have others in your home, you must always be 100% present and focused on your dog. Stay home if you are not feeling 100% fit physically, mentally, and emotionally. Leave the phone, music player, and any other distractions at home.
If you are worried about your dog being attacked by other dogs:
• Follow steps 4, 5, 6, and 7 in the above list.
• Avoid dog parks.
• Do not feel compelled to allow your dog to interact with dogs you do not know, especially if they are running loose.
• Always carry treats with you so that you can throw them away from you to distract the charging dog.
• Be prepared to stand in front of your dog or to pick it up. However, do NOT run away, as this will likely trigger the reactive dog to chase you. It is wise to teach your dog to move behind you.
• Consider carrying an umbrella. You can pop it open to startle the attacking dog and to serve as a block between you and the dog.
• Carry a loud whistle with you as the sound may distract the attacking dog; however, it could also negatively affect your dog.
• If you are continually harassed by dogs charging at you out of their yards, consider filing a complaint with your local animal control officer. People with dogs are always responsible for keeping them on their property and the public safe. It is your civic duty to report dogs that pose a danger to others.
How to Break Up a Dog Fight
There is no easy or perfect way to break up a dog fight, and there is a high probability that you may be bitten, perhaps by your dog, when you try to do so. Therefore, I recommend you follow all the prevention strategies noted above. Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is excellent advice regarding dog fights.
Recognize that if your dog becomes involved in a fight or is attacked, you will most likely be under high emotional stress in fight or flight mode. Therefore, your top priority must be minimizing injury. The following link will take you to an excellent handout The Pet Professional Guild produced which describes how to intervene if your dog is attacked. – https://bit.ly/BreakUpDogFights
*Supplemental materials on this topic can be found on my blog at https://forcefreepets.com/blog/
Don Hanson lives in Bangor, Maine, where he is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) and the founder of ForceFreePets.com, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. He is a Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (PCBC-A) accredited by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB)and a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP). Don is a member of thePet Professional Guild (PPG), where he serves on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairs the Advocacy Committee. He is also a founding director of Pet Advocacy International (PIAI). In addition, Don produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show podcast, available at http://bit.ly/WfMwPodcasts/,the Apple Podcast app, and Don’s blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.