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Features September 2013 Issue

Protecting a Small Dog Against a Big Dog Attack

There’s a right time — and a wrong time — to scoop up your pet.

Perhaps you’ve seen the scenario played out in front of you. A large dog comes galloping toward a small one in what can only be interpreted as an attack, and the owner of the little dog picks it up to protect it from harm — which works to make the larger dog even more aggressive and tenacious. It continuously jumps up in an attempt to bite, or at least scare, the smaller one, sometimes inadvertently getting in a good lick at the owner and causing some bleeding.

Barbara Hollar of Livonia, Michigan, knows the fright firsthand. When her Westie, Wixom, was a puppy, she was attacked on her very first walk when a medium-size mixed breed dog who lived on the opposite side of the street came running up from behind without a sound. “She sped past me,” Ms. Hollar says, “picked up my puppy by the neck in her jaws and shook her from side to side like a rag doll.”

Wixom the Westie was attacked not once but twice. Each time, her life hung in the balance.

Fortunately, a teenager nearby saw what was happening and helped Ms. Hollar get Wixom out of the other dog’s mouth. “My dog was not seriously injured,” Ms. Hollar says, “but would have been if the quick-thinking teenager had not been there to help me.”

This was not the only time Wixom was attacked. On another walk some time later, a German shepherd off leash in a park came running toward them, growling, barking, and showing teeth. “I did not know what to do,” Ms. Hollar says, “as I knew the shepherd could kill my dog. I instinctively picked her up, keeping her tightly by my chest and holding her head to try and prevent her from responding, then turned and stood still while facing a tree. Then I just waited for the bigger dog to attack us. The owner realized what was happening and started running and calling his dog back to him. The dog did not go back, but he hesitated,” and that allowed the man to catch up and leash his pet without anyone being hurt — “although the dog continued to growl and snap at us,” Ms. Hollar relates.

To this day Ms. Hollar wonders if she did the right thing by picking Wixom up on those two occasions or perhaps made things worse. “If my small dog is about to be attacked by a much larger dog running toward us, is it safe for me to pick up mine in the hope that I will be bitten in the legs rather than that she will be bitten in the neck? If not,” she asks, “what should I do when I sense an attack is imminent? I know that people being attacked are supposed to stand still — even roll themselves into a ball to show they’re harmless and not interesting enough to pick a fight with — and also avoid eye contact and remain silent.” But what should you do with a little dog?

First, we are very sorry to hear of Ms. Hollar and Wixom’s travails. Such an ordeal is terribly frightening. Worse still is her conviction is that it’s up to her to figure out a solution. The onus for damage control, Ms. Hollar, is on the owner of the dog who is doing the attacking, not on you. And it’s an extremely serious one. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, the Director of Our Animal Behavior Clinic, tells the story of a woman who had a pitbull in Rhode Island. “One day the dog ran down the stairs of her apartment building into the parking lot,” he relates. “At that very moment, a man was walking his little dog on the other side of the street. The larger dog took off straight toward him. The man realized by the dog’s body language — ears pinned back, teeth barred — that this was not going to be a friendly greeting, so he scooped up his pet. The pitbull proceeded to jump and jump to grab the little dog out of his arms. The man then had a heart attack and died.”

Horror stories are not terribly uncommon, unfortunately, or at least not uncommon enough. Dr. Dodman describes another instance in which a man had his large dog with him when he was working in his front yard. The man then left the yard for a bit to go do something else, and someone walked by with a little poodle. The larger dog went into prey drive mode, rushing up to the poodle, grabbing it, and munching down on its midriff. The owner of the aggressor dog ran and got a pair of garden shears, shoving them into his dog’s mouth so it would have to release the poodle. The poodle ended up having to have a portion of his intestine resected — that’s how deeply into the little dog’s body the larger dog bit — after which peritonitis and aspiration pneumonia set in. The dog died two days later.

The lesson here is for owners of potentially aggressive dogs. Don’t leave them off leash where they might have access to other dogs — or people. It doesn’t matter if the dog “hardly ever” becomes aggressive. As these stories illustrate, “once” could change lives forever.

Owners of potential warrior dogs should also not keep them on choke chains or other torture devices. That’s not how you teach a dog to change his ways. It’s how you break all bonds of trust between owner and pet and make him more likely to act aggressively when he gets the chance.

Instead, dogs who haven’t learned right from wrong and may sometimes itch to brawl, even if very infrequently, should be kept on Gentle Leaders or similar harnesses, where a slight tug will get them to move in the direction you want. It may be frustrating not to let your dog off leash in a public space that allows dogs to amble freely. But it’s a pet owner’s responsibility to keep other dogs, and other people, safe from their own dog’s whims at all times, not just most of the time. If things get far enough out of hand, the responsibility becomes a legal issue that might be taken up by the courts. And the legal system doesn’t always have happy solutions for dogs caught biting.

As for the owner of a 12- to 20-pound dog on the defense, while the responsibility to protect your dog from larger, aggressive ones shouldn’t be yours, of course you want to know the best options. And as far as picking up your pet, the answer is yes. If a dog shoots over to your canine companion like a bullet with the intention to harm, it’s perfectly reasonable to scoop up your pet. It may not work very well. But, says Dr. Dodman, “what are you going to do? You can’t stand there with your little fluff ball defenseless at the end of the leash.”

What you don’t want to do is act alarmed, as much as every fiber of your being might be advising you differently at the moment of the crisis. Yelling at the aggressive dog and perhaps kicking it only makes the whole scene more interesting to him, giving the drama more of a “bring it on” feeling for an animal who at that moment is looking for some physical action. Best to try to act calm so that you appear in charge, in control, and use simple low-tone “leave it” commands to take the emotional charge out of the situation.

Ditto for the owner of the aggressive dog. Screaming at your dog and flailing about to no effect only shows you’re not in control. It doesn’t get your dog to listen to you and do what you tell him. “Best to remain cool as a cucumber,” Dr. Dodman advises, inappropriate as that may seem when your dog is aiming to hurt another. Firmly (but without anger in your voice) call your dog to you, perhaps with a treat in your hand. Your dog will come back to you if you make it worth it, not if he knows he’s going to be in trouble.

Once you get your dog back on the leash, don’t ever let him off again in a public area — unless you’ve gone through training with him and can prove unequivocally to yourself that he will come when called, even in dicey situations. If that isn’t going to happen and you want your dog to be able to enjoy some outside time without being attached to you by a line, border your yard with a fence high enough that he can’t jump over. Anything else is playing Russian roulette with others’ safety. 

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