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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features August 2018 Issue

When a Big Dog Attacks a Little Dog

It's hard not to act alarmed in such charged circumstances no matter which dog is yours, but remaining calm is your best bet for diffusing the situation.

Julie Kembel’s dog, Abby

Julie Kembelís dog, Abby, loves to run off by herself ó but not if a big dog is around. She has been roughed up too many times.

Julie Kembel’s 14-pound dog Abby is a scrappy little thing. The poodle-Cavalier King Charles spaniel-golden retriever mix loves to chase squirrels (that she never catches) and is happy to run off by herself and then come back to Ms. Kembel or her husband, Bob, once she has had her fill of predatory excitement. But not if there’s a big dog around.

Abby has been rushed too many times by a rather large, energetic Portuguese water dog who, while not dangerous, is somewhat aggressive. She has rolled Abby over on her back, pinning her down. Now, whenever Abby sees her or other large dogs, she stays close by her human parents for the entire time outside.

Abby and the Kembels are among the lucky ones. We know of one woman in Rhode Island whose large-sized dog one day ran out of her apartment, down the stairs, and into the building’s parking lot. Just at that moment, a man was walking his little dog across the street. The larger dog then saw the little one and ran after him. The man, seeing the large dog’s ears pinned back and teeth barred, instinctively grabbed up his pet. That didn’t deter the aggressor, who jumped and jumped until he succeeded in grabbing the little pet out of the man’s arms. The man then had a heart attack and died.

In another instance, a man had his large dog with him when he was working in his front yard. The man then left his yard for a bit to tend to something else, and wouldn’t you know it, someone walked by with a small poodle. The larger dog went directly into prey drive, rushing up to the poodle, grabbing it, and chomping down on its midriff.

The owner of the aggressive dog saw what was going on and immediately rushed over with a pair of gardening shears, shoving them into his dog’s mouth so he would let go. The poodle ended up having to have a portion of his intestine removed. That’s how deeply the bigger dog bit. Then aspiration pneumonia set in along with peritonitis, which is inflammation of the silk-like lining of the abdominal wall. The little dog died two days later.

There are no numbers for how often big dogs attack little ones, but it’s a common enough scenario that veterinarians even have an acronym for it, BDLD, which means Big Dog Little Dog. It not infrequently enough turns into a very, very serious emergency medical situation.

© Jollier | Bigstock

Usually it works out very well.

The best solution: avoiding the situation altogether

First, to the owners of the large dogs: If you have observed even once that your dog can turn aggressive, it’s important that you leash him whenever he might come across other dogs or people. So many people talk about how their dogs are almost always model citizens, and it’s the “almost” that gets them into trouble — and sometimes changes lives. A dog who is docile and friendly 99 percent of the time but once in a blue moon goes off half-cocked unexpectedly has to be consistently restrained until he can be let go with your full confidence that he will do as you say when he doesn’t have to. As sad as it might feel that he has to pay for his exceedingly rare transgressions by remaining on a leash every single day, it’s your only assurance of his behaving appropriately — and safely.

A harness or head halter works better than a simple collar around the neck for redirecting your dog’s attention when you want him to walk the other way or make sure he turns his head, when necessary.

Sometimes, with intensive training, perhaps by you alone but preferably with the help of an animal behaviorist or a professional trainer, a dog who has acted aggressively (but not necessarily harmfully) with a smaller dog can be taught to come back to you or “leave it” rather than attack in the heat of the moment. It takes a lot of patience — and no choke chains, prong collars, or electronic training collars! You want to start at home, working with him to sit, stay, lie down, and live up to other standards of good behavior that you set for him. That includes coming when you call even when he would rather continue doing what he’s doing. When he follows through, it’s your job to reward him with warm praise and delicious treats.

Once you feel your control over your large dog has been unequivocally established (even better if the trained professional who has been working with you feels that way), you can take him to, say, a dog-friendly park and try letting him go. This will occur after you have already taken him to that park many times on a longer and longer lead, making sure that he directs or redirects his attention to you when you tell him to. But even then, a long leash should remain attached to him, trailing behind, so that you can more easily get hold of him should he act inappropriately. Following your instructions while not tethered to you is going to be a lot harder in a public setting with lots going on than in your fenced backyard, which is an environment that you can control almost entirely.

Another option is to train your dog to wear a basket muzzle. A basket muzzle, such as the Baskerville Ultra or the Bumas Custom Muzzle, will allow your dog to eat, drink, pant, and even catch a rope toy. When introduced properly, a dog can learn to be as comfortable in a muzzle as he is in his collar or harness.

Believe it or not, keeping your dog on a leash in public places when he wants to run free and going through the paces of training, which could take weeks to months, is not the hardest part. The hardest part is staying calm should an unfortunate instance arise in which your dog is loose and a small dog he sets his sights on happens to come along. So many owners, understandably, start screaming at their dog and making a big fuss — a perfectly logical expression of instinct when another dog’s safety might be at stake, and one that might also be expected by the owner of the dog being attacked. But it’s the worst thing you can do because it only adds to the frenzy and will get your pet even more excited about what he is up to.

Yes, you have to work as quickly as possible to remove your pet from the other dog’s body and re-leash him, no matter what that might take. You also have to be prepared to be contrite and apologetic even when the other owner, who is scared to death, starts yelling at you or perhaps even trying to kick your dog in an effort to keep his own safe. But you screaming and flailing about will make your dog less, not more, inclined to comply with your wishes and return to your side. It could enhance that “bring it on” feeling that he already has.

You should not yell at your dog or punish him once the incident is over, either. He will not get why you are doing it. Dogs live very much in the moment. What happens “next” is not a follow-up to what happened before; it’s simply a different situation, and he won’t understand why you’re treating him harshly. You simply have to go back to patient training, and in some cases you have to be resigned to never letting your pet off the leash again where he runs the chance of coming into unwanted contact with other dogs. Keep in mind that if things get far enough out of hand, your responsibility becomes part of a legal situation that can get taken up in court. And the courts sometimes have solutions for biting dogs that don’t end well.

The responsibility of the small-dog owner

It is never your fault if a larger dog attacks your littler one. But you can enhance your chances of keeping your small dog safe in public settings. One thing not to do is overcompensate for her small size by constantly worrying over her and picking her up outside out of unfounded concern that she is in danger. In general, big dogs and little dogs do well together. But if you always send a message to your small pet that life is unsafe, she might become anxious, or even nasty — with barks and teeth barring of her own. And “anxious” and “nasty” tend to activate other dogs, sometimes into aggressive stances and tactics.

Again, it is never your fault if a dog attacks yours, even if yours is acting unfriendly. But why inadvertently teach your dog to be confrontational even though, in the main, life is not a confrontational series of incidents?

To help steady yourself, bear in mind that in dog parks and other places that dogs go around unleashed, they do a lot of running up to each other. And what often looks threatening to us is playful to them; they like chasing and being chased. They like sniffing each other. They have rules for play that don’t necessarily resemble people’s rules, and it almost always works out.

That said, should real danger advance toward your dog in the form of another dog, you want to know your options. Sometimes the best one is to scoop up your pet in your arms. If a dog shoots over to your canine family member like a bullet, perhaps with teeth barred, working to lift your dog out of harm’s way makes perfect sense. We can’t guarantee that it will always work very well. After all, some large dogs can easily jump as high as your arms and can cause harm to you in the process as well as to your dog. But it’s a better bet than just trying to kick the large dog away, which will only leave your pet standing there defenseless, as physically lashing out at an aggressive dog in the throes of an attack will generally not work to shoo him from the scene. He has more bite than you, and is quicker, too. Then, too, kicking and yelling can only serve to further agitate the aggressive dog, just as that reaction from his owner will goad him on. In fight or flight mode, the dog is going to take flailing and loud voices as a kind of encouragement to give it his all in the “boxing ring.”

It’s hard to stay calm when a dog you love is in serious danger and your body and mind are telling you to act. But firmly and calmly telling the aggressor dog to “leave it” might actually have a better effect than a more dramatic reaction. You might even toss a handful of treats on the ground in front of the approaching dog as a distraction. It’s the last thing you would feel like doing. But if the aim is to get the dog to chomp on food rather than your little pet, what does it matter as long as you get the outcome you’re looking for?

Ditto about treats for the owner of the aggressive dog. The person with the small pet may not understand why you’re treating your dog kindly when he’s on the attack. But again, the objective is to get the dog to do what you want; teaching him a harsh lesson in the moment isn’t going to yield a positive result.

Of course, if you think you’ve successfully taken the time to train your dog to come back to you after he has frightened or actually harmed a littler dog, perhaps with the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist because so much is at stake, and a second dog ends up in an equally dicey situation because of your pet, it’s time to permanently limit his outside time off leash to your backyard bordered by a sufficiently high fence.

Comments (10)

Little dogs can be at fault- the result has more consequences for them. I support the above comments and also disagree with the articles conclusions.

Posted by: DM | July 18, 2018 12:38 AM    Report this comment

I very seldom comment, but feel that I must jump in. As the owner of very large dogs (a Great Dane and an Irish Wolfhound), I realize that I must take responsibility and ensure the safety of small dogs when my Wolfhound is around (my Dane is a puppy mill survivor who is very frightened of other dogs, so we manage her environment so she isn't around other dogs). However, small dog owners must also bear responsibility for their dogs behavior. A number of years ago, we we walking our two Great Danes. Our dogs were on leash. A small dog ran out from his yard, crossed the street and attacked one of the Danes. Our Dane did nothing--until the small dog turned on my husband and began to attack my husband. Our Dane (who was bitten quite badly) then picked the small dog up and moved it away. That killed the small dog. A neighbor of the small dog's owner saw the entire incident and agreed with us--this was the fault of the small dog. The small dog was unleashed, violated the "leash law" by leaving his yard and crossing the street to get to us (so he was not contained in a responsible manner), he bit one of my Danes (the bit required veterinary care), and bit my husband (also requiring medical attention). The Dane didn't "mean" to kill the small dog. We felt terrible, but had the small dog's owner been more responsible, this wouldn't have happened. My Dane was NOT aggressive and never "attacked" another small dog for this rest of his life. We had a small dog at home and she and my Dane were best buds. The owner didn't even offer to pay for our vet bill and medical expenses. Also, working with Dane/Wolfhound rescue, we often go to "meet and greets". We try very hard to take dogs that are well socialized and who get along with all kinds of animals and people. But I can't tell you how often we will be sitting there minding our own business when around the corner comes an "itty-bitty" on a retractable leash (with no owner in sight) who begins to growl and jump at the big dogs. We've never had an "incident" but we always gather up the "itty bitty" and return the dog to his or her owner. That is completely irresponsible on the part of the small dog's owner. Small dog owners have the responsibility to 1) socialize their small dogs to larger dogs so they don't behave in an aggressive manner to the larger dog (out of fear) and 2) to keep their small dog leashed (where they can actually see their dog) and responsibly contained (i.e., a fenced yard). Don't say "there's never an excuse" for the big dog to attack the small--I certainly agree that if you have a large dog you must socialize the large dog to smaller ones and must be responsible and keep your dog leashed and responsibly contained. But don't give the small dog (and the owner) a "pass" to attack a big dog while the big dog does nothing to protect him or herself. All dog owners have those basic responsibilities--regardless of the size of their dog.

Posted by: iwsrock | July 17, 2018 4:45 PM    Report this comment

This article is obviously bias and fails to place any responsibility on the owner of a smaller dog to control their pet. Far too many people fail to train their little dog with even basic manners. No dog, regardless of size, should be allowed to initiate an aggressive encounter. It would be considered self defense if a smaller man started a fight with a larger man and the larger man fought back. Why does the author of this article absolve owners of smaller dogs of all responsibility? You cant expect larger dogs to accept bullying from smaller dogs, thats unfair. Owners of small dogs need to be reminded that their failure to train and control their pet could ultimately lead to their pets death. Even if they dont think the incident is "their fault" it will be of little solace if their dog dies.

Posted by: Pkatzoo | July 17, 2018 12:23 PM    Report this comment

This article is obviously bias and fails to place any responsibility on the owner of a smaller dog to control their pet. Far too many people fail to train their little dog with even basic manners. No dog, regardless of size, should be allowed to initiate an aggressive encounter. It would be considered self defense if a smaller man started a fight with a larger man and the larger man fought back. Why does the author of this article absolve owners of smaller dogs of all responsibility? You cant expect larger dogs to accept bullying from smaller dogs, thats unfair. Owners of small dogs need to be reminded that their failure to train and control their pet could ultimately lead to their pets death. Even if they dont think the incident is "their fault" it will be of little solace if their dog dies.

Posted by: Pkatzoo | July 17, 2018 12:22 PM    Report this comment

I thought this was a great article until I got to the part about small dog owners and "never your fault". ALL dog owners are responsible for maintaining control of their animals, and if a small dog instigates a fight...well, yes, the small dog owner is at fault. This is common sense. I don't care what size your dog is - they should have basic training and know basic commands. I have seen too many little dogs who run around like maniacs and their owners simply hold the end of the leash like that makes everything okay. This past weekend I was at the vet for my Rottweiler's annual checkup. She has a strong prey drive - she hunts rabbits and squirrels in the yard, and I would not trust her with cats or small dogs. I had her on a short leash and was being diligent about maintaining control. We did just fine until a Shih Tzu charged us, snapping and baring it's teeth. That's when my Rott lunged at the little dog, nearly dragging me out of my seat. A vet tech jumped up to help and we moved my dog into the exam room and shut the door. I got really irritated when I heard the other owner laughing in the hallway. He would not have thought it was funny if I hadn't been able to restrain my 106# Rott...Had there been a physical altercation, you cannot tell me the little dog and the little dog's owner were not a fault, because my dog was sitting quietly, until the little dog instigated the conflict.

Posted by: TB | July 16, 2018 8:18 PM    Report this comment

This is a topic in great need of discussion and education for dog owners. I have a friendly 11.5 lb mixed breed female, well behaved, who's been traumatized by aggressive dogs, large and small. Fortunately, it never reached the stage of physical harm. But being pinned down by a much larger dog whose owner thought it was cute "play" was very frightening for her (and me!). After that, she would cringe and grovel if we came near that dog. The owner (a neighbor) never acknowledged that her dog was too aggressive, and I finally had to tell her forcefully to keep her dog AWAY from mine, whether or not she agreed that her dog was aggressive. And as for small dogs, one day in the park a chihuahua came tearing over to me and my dog, from a great distance over a large lawn, and began attacking us for no apparent reason. I tried to but couldn't kick it away. The owner finally got there and picked up the animal and I told me he had no business leaving such an aggressive dog unleashed. Having people like this in the neighborhood takes a lot of pleasure out of owning a dog.

Posted by: mml76 | July 16, 2018 6:08 PM    Report this comment

I am very fortunate that my 81.5 lb Lab mix simply *adores* small dogs. He will let them jump all over him and simply stand there, tail wagging. He's also *always* on a leash. To those people who allow your little ones to run loose, please leash them.

Posted by: HielandLass | July 16, 2018 4:44 PM    Report this comment

This was in general a good article until it got to the part where it says "It is never your fault if a larger dog attacks your littler one" I have owned three large dogs, a shepard a Bouvier and a Black Russian Terrier and never did any one of them attack a smaller dog but they have Been Attacked on several occasions by little dogs that were so vicious they looked rabid and insane. My 140lb Black Russian actually had a miniature dachshund bite him in the lip. If my dog had ended the dachshund right then and there it would have been completely justified, but he didn't he pinned the little dog by the throat and growled in his ear then he let the dog go completely unharmed. So don't give the little dog owner a complete pass, this fosters bad behavior in little dogs, also I have seen way more people especially kids, bitten by small dogs than big ones since they tend to be fear biters. It's time little dog owners own up to their responsibilities as well. But I am not saying there have not been tragic and heartbreaking things happen like what was in OP what I am saying is EVERYONE is responsible for seeing that these kind of things don't happen. Also I would advise every dog owner to carry pepper spray with them and if their dog is in real danger don't hesitate to use it.

Posted by: miked | July 16, 2018 4:42 PM    Report this comment

This article fails to mention that it is not always the fault of the larger dog and that unfortunate interactions can be the result of irresponsible small dog owners. I was walking my 75lb pitbull on his leash and harness and a woman in the distance had her Pomeranian running loose. The Pomeranian proceeded to run up to my dog with am aggressive attitude. I knelt down next to my dog and restrained him even though he just behaved in a curious manner. The owner of the Pomeranian however did absolutely nothing. There was no altercation because my well behaved, 75lb pitbull didn't react, but things could've turned out much differently, with my dog most likely to blame.

Posted by: JenMc | July 16, 2018 4:34 PM    Report this comment

When walking my dogs, I always carry a stun baton, which will generally quickly put a stop to any aggressor, whether it be a human or another dog. It works quite well, and does no permanent damage to the attacker.

Posted by: artfart | July 16, 2018 4:22 PM    Report this comment

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