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 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

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.


  1. Im soo sick of seeing this article that places all of the blame on the larger dog. I replied the last time and the editor chose to repost this biased crap. Im canceling my subscription.

  2. This is a very informative article to a point. Most if not all cities have leash laws – therefore both small and large dogs should be retrained at all times. Second, the article states that the large dog should be retrained until the “owner is confident.” This is another problem, the confidence of the owner is often misplaced. The owner can easily have a blind spot about the possible aggression of their own dog or think they have trained the dog to ignore triggers, such as the frightened yelp of a small dog or overreaction of the small dog’s owner. This is the reason most cities have mandatory leash laws.

  3. I am a dog walker/pet sitter and unfortunately I often encounter large dogs off-leash while I’m walking a smaller dog. We have Civil Codes that states this is unlawful, but haven’t seen any police enforce this. It’s not until a dog or human is attacked that the police or animal control officer may become involved. The best way to stop the larger dog is to get behind the large dog and grab the back legs a few inches from his paws and pull up. I once had to quickly tuck my dog’s leash under my belt (you could also tie around waist) and lift up the back legs of the large dog. We call it the ‘wheelbarrel lift’. The higher you can pull up the hind quarters the better. If the large dog owner is present, instruct him/her to get behind their dog, grab the legs a few inches from the paws and pull up. If the large dog owner isn’t comfortable doing this, have them take the leash of your dog and then you can disable the large dog.

  4. When a large dog attacks a little dog or a puppy at our dog park, my 145 pound 30″ Newfoundland pushes between them so the little dog can get away. Sometimes he distracts a teenage dog by getting him to play, sometimes he just knocks the large dog over. But it rarely comes to that point, he just has to trot in their direction and the large dog moves away. Little dogs trust him. Not all big dogs are the same!! I’m a lot more scared of a smallish pit bull (and yes I’ve known some sweet ones) than a Newf or a St. Bernard or an Irish Wolfhound. This article is talking about medium to large breeds with a strong prey drive and no training, not giant dogs.

  5. I agree that this overemphasizes large dogs as the aggressors. They are not always. Every dog is different and often the small dogs incite the large ones (out of fear or not, they tick off the otherwise calm larger dog). So both large & small must be properly trained. My 80lb dog (a rescue, so I don’t know her backstory) is mistrustful of most dogs except puppies, but is less frequently aggressive towards small dogs (unless they are barking and snapping or lunging at her) than dogs her own size or larger. She’s fine with all calm dogs, but any quick movement towards her or incessant barking sets her off. It’s sufficiently unpredictable that I would never take her to a dog park. She’s had 5 tussles (2 larger, 1 same size, 2 smaller, all but one of the smaller dogs were off leash – she was always on leash ), none with injuries, thankfully. The last one was with a larger dog she was becoming friendly with (a reversal – IT didn’t react well to HER enthusiasm unrelated to it … and it was her yard) has made her wary of that dog. So we have to start from scratch again with the two dogs, though both are otherwise friendly dogs. There are lots and lots of dogs in the neighborhood and on walking paths, most owners are good about leashes. Off leash is a problem. I now carry pepper spray. The problem isn’t usually the dogs, large or small, it’s the owners.


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