Dog Behavior and You Part 3

Dog Behavior and You: Part 1
Dog Behavior and You: Part 2

For the safety of you and your family, learn the signs of dog aggression, and what to do if confronted by an aggressive animal.

For your own safety, you should learn the signs of an aggressive dog

In the first two installments of this series, we talked about confident dogs and fearful dogs. Although both of these emotions may affect your relationship with your dog, probably the most important type of dog to be aware of is the aggressive dog. Most dogs are friendly and fun-loving, wanting nothing more than a pat on the head or a good belly rub, but there are some dogs who are just flat-out mean. Whether this is the result of bad breeding or bad socialization, or even just because the dog is having a bad day, for your own protection and that of your children, you must learn how to recognize an aggressive dog and what to do when you encounter one.

An Aggressive Dog May Bark…or Not

The signal most of us have probably heard from an aggressive dog is growling. Some dogs will give a low-throated growl as a warning before they attack. However, a truly aggressive dog may give no warning at all. Some dogs who have been trained as attack dogs have also had their vocal chords removed so that they will not give an intruder any warning prior to assaulting him. These silent attacks are common in guard dogs, particularly if illegal activity is occurring at the dog’s home.

If the dog does still have his vocal chords, he may also begin to bark loudly when he is preparing to attack. This activity is meant to scare away any threats. The dog knows that in any fight, he stands a chance of getting injured. He would much rather an intruder become scared and go away, but an aggressive dog is prepared to fight if necessary. The major reason an otherwise calm dog becomes aggressive is to protect his home and family. Anything he perceives as a threat will be dealt with in a hurry.

An aggressive dog will bare his teeth, ready to bite

Bared Teeth, Flattened Ears

An aggressive dog may pull his lips back into a snarl. This motion bares his teeth and wrinkles the muzzle. This action is designed to intimidate possible attackers. A dog who is baring his teeth is easy to distinguish from a dog who is merely “smiling” or panting. The wrinkled muzzle is the key. While other actions may result in the teeth being exposed so you can see them, the wrinkled muzzle teeth-baring pulls the upper lip out of the way so it will not be bitten when the dog sinks his teeth into someone else.

An aggressive dog’s ears will be pinned back close to his head. Remember, he is getting ready to fight; he doesn’t want to leave anything sticking out, where it can easily be bitten off. Take your cue from this action. You also should keep things like your fingers tucked in where they are less likely to be grabbed by sharp teeth. If you would happen to be knocked down by an aggressive dog, cover your ears so they are not such an easy target to grab.

Eyes Not Best Indicator of Aggression

The eyes of an aggressive dog may be wide open to take in all of his surroundings, as he is on hyper-alert status. On the other hand, dogs may narrow their eyes before an attack. The eyes are not necessarily a reliable indicator of aggression. As was discussed last week, a fearful dog may develop “whale eyes” where the whites of the eyes show as the dog looks out of the corners of his eyes. This is in contrast to an aggressive dog, who will look directly at the target of his aggression. To a dog, looking directly at someone is a sign of dominance, a challenge to see if the other dog (or person) will look away first. Do you remember having staring contests when you were a kid? Dogs exhibit similar behavior, and to look away first indicates submission.

Tense and Ready

The dog who is exhibiting aggression will have a very tense body stance. He will likely be leaning forward, in the direction he intends to attack. His legs will be straight and his hackles may be up. If you have been reading this feature regularly, you will remember that the hackles are the fur running along the dog’s spine. Raised hackles are difficult to see in a long-haired dog, but very distinctive in a short-haired dog. The fur, particularly at the shoulders and at the base of the tail, literally stands on end.

The tail is generally held straight out from the body when a dog is being aggressive. The fur is fluffed out to make the tail seem larger. This, as well as the raised hackles, is an attempt by the dog to make himself seem larger. Just as a cat will puff out his fur when threatened, a dog tries to make himself seem bigger and more intimidating than he actually is, in hopes he will scare off whatever is threatening his home or family.

What to Do Around an Aggressive Dog

This installment would not be complete if I didn’t tell you what to do when you encounter an aggressive dog. Statistics show that as many as 50% of children are bitten before the age of 12 years, so be sure to review this information with your kids. When confronted by an aggressive dog, your first instinct may be to run away. This is one of the worst things you can do. If you turn your back on the dog, he will be able to sneak up behind you, and if you run, he will assume you are prey and will try to tackle you. It is far better to back away from an aggressive dog. Shuffle your feet as you walk to lessen the chances that you will trip. Avoid direct eye contact; remember the dog sees this as a challenge. Keep your eyes on the dog to prevent a sneak attack, but do it from the corner of your eyes. If you have a purse, jacket, or something else with you, “feed” it to the dog if he tries to bite you. This may keep him occupied as you make your escape. If you have an umbrella, opening it in the dog’s face may scare him off. Many utility meter readers use a modified umbrella called the Bite Terminator® for this very reason.

If an aggressive dog knocks you down, curl into a ball and cover your ears with your hands. Curling up tightly will expose very few of your vital organs to the dog. He will mostly be able to bite your arms, legs, buttocks, and back, none of which contain life sustaining organs. In addition, curling into a ball protects your major arteries in the arms and legs, so chances are you will not bleed to death while awaiting help. Report all dog bites to the dog warden or health department so the proper follow-up can be done with the animal. The dog must be quarantined for 10 days after the bite, and examined on the 11th day for signs of rabies. In addition, most states have laws regarding vicious dogs. If you feel you were bitten because the dog’s owner did not properly obey the law, you may be able to file a criminal complaint.

Be Responsible for Your Dog

Finally, if you own an aggressive dog, make sure you keep him properly contained and under your control. Use a muzzle when you have him around other people, and lock him in another room when you have guests. Simply holding your dog may not be sufficient. Many meter readers and postal workers have been attacked by a dog which was being held by the owner. Dogs are simply too strong and agile to be reliably contained by holding their collar or leash.

Okay, enough of the bad dogs! Next time, we’ll talk about the signs your dog will give you when he is in the mood to play.

Dog Behavior and You: Part 1
Dog Behavior and You: Part 2

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