Protecting a Small Dog Against a Big Dog Attack

There's a right time - and a wrong time - to scoop up your small dog in the midst of a larger, possibly aggressive dog.

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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.”

West Highland Terrier

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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Ok one question what if the attacking dog always goes to that dog park and he’s been good with all the other dogs every time he goes no problem but wen he sees people getting nervous once he’s goin in and they start picking up their dogs the attacking dog senses the tension or does he need any training or is it bad from the nervous owners to start picking up they’re small dogs?

  2. If the “attacking dog” goes to the dog park that would be the problem taking an “attack dog” to the park. If they’re known to be attack dogs and have no training they shouldn’t be taken to dog parks with other smaller dogs or any dogs. Attack dogs are known to attack at any moment without warning. On June 16th a day after that question was asked my dog got attacked outside my place for no reason whatsoever and unfortunately my dog passed

  3. thi8s just happened to my 30 lb dog and me yesterday… a very large and brawny pit mix bolted out of his garage and was on top of my dog trying to grab his throat before I even had time to pick my dog up … we were across the street too… He was on top of my little guy and all I could do is yell “NO” and try to pull my dog out from under his grasp with his harness and leash. I knew that this vicious dog would probably attack me if I tried to kick at him… I felt so helpless… this whole ordeal probably only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like a long time before the owner; a young woman; reached the vicious dog, and she had no control over that dog… she had to jump on top of him and pin him down to get him to stop, and even with that, the dog was trying to break away from her to get at my dog again… the man ran out of the house and also held the dog down…. I am sure only God’s Grace kept my dog from getting really hurt… he seems fine, but I hope no more than bruised… that dog was 3n times his weight, or close to it… I am going to carry a club with me from now on… You know, of course it’s the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog from attacking; however, that rhetoric doesn’t do a thing in reality… because if these people were responsible dog owners, that dog would either be socialized, or euthanized by now….. teaching a grown dog to get rid of dangerous behavior is alot like closing the barn door after the horse has long gone away…. filing a police report is probably going to do no good, but at least it will be on record, should this dog attack again…..and he probably will….

  4. This happened to me a few days back.

    A large Mastiff-looking dog came bolting out of the owners gate while I was walking my 14-week old puppy with my two 8-year old children. It saw my puppy went straight for it, grabbed it by the neck. I managed to shake the attacking dog off, and then it went for my puppy’s paw. I then ripped it off again and grabbed my puppy and held it to my chest., The dog kept attacking us both and bit me – I stand 6 feet tall, and this dog was up to my neck when on its hind legs.

    Meanwhile the owner of the attacking dog just stood there passively and then began to blame me for the situation.

    I cannot understand how the onus for something like this – and the veterinarian bills incurred – can ever be on anyone but the owners of the repugnant dogs that attack like this.

    • Loki – I hope you made a police report and a report to whatever agency handles dog control. Unfortunately rarely is action taken on the first report but if they get enough reports authorities hopefully will step in . The dog you described and the owner are partners in crime as the owner blamed you. This is a dangerous dog in the hands of an owner who should not even have a toy dog let alone a powerful predator breed. Mastiffs can be wonderful family dogs but in the wrong hands they can be a danger to innocent dogs and human children. And he better have paid your vet bills. Sometimes that is the only way to get them to start controlling their dog. They don’t care you and your dog got hurt- but they may care about their financial liability.

  5. This logic is far from effective. I experienced a dog attack on my smaller dog and he was also on leash. The attacking dog was large enough that it would have been taller than me on its hind legs. In no situation is it a good idea to risk getting your face ripped off. I knew better than to pick my dog up, he was too short to outrun the larger dog. My only defense was to keep a firm grip on the leash, scream very loud every time the larger dog tried to roll, or latch on my dog and then pull my dog out of his way. It was only a few seconds, but every scream made the larger dog hesitate just long enough for me to move my smaller dog out of the way. As soon as the owner appeared the larger dog was distracted momentarily and it was enough time for me to dodge into the nearest building with my smaller dog. My dog and I are both unharmed. Kicking the larger dog would have without doubt made it dangerous for me. Picking my smaller dog up would have been a disastrous and stupid thing to do. Don’t write articles telling people to pick their dog up. You will get folks mauled.

  6. Any normal human beings reaction would be to protect your dog by picking it up… I would do it every time over watching my puppy being suffocated by a huge aggressive dog.. what the hell are people doing having these dogs off a leash that are attacking other dogs… I would rather take a bite than allow my puppy to be killed!! A mother’s instinct definitely kicks in. If you wonder why I’m so angry it’s because i have taken my puppy out on two walks today, the first 4 dogs set on him and had to be pulled off so i decided to take him on the lead in a field by my house where a lady confirmed her dog loved puppies and then he smothered my puppy growling and she stood back as she was scared and I managed to pull the dog off but he was snapping at me and she couldn’t get her dog back on the lead but kept pleading this had never happened before !! 2 attacks on 2 walks so why are these owners letting their dogs off leads!! I feel like starting a campaign to have dog owners checked as they are totally irresponsible and stupid!!!

  7. Lost our dog Pomeranian cross yesterday to an attack by Japanese Akita hunting dog which jumped the fence and mauled our dog to death have evidence of injuries dog hair on the fence etc caught the offending dog next morning who had jumped the fence and was sniffing where our dog had died . The council rangers were notified and came out to view the injuries and spoke with the offenders owners this gig should be put down

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