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When dogs attack: Experts offer advice to deal with aggressive canines

FARGO, N.D. - The mixed-breed dog came "bulldozing" across a south Fargo street in the direction of Cyndy Raeshke.

"I knew he was going for my dog," Raeshke says.

She was right. The dark-colored dog attacked her German shepherd, Luecah.

"You just panic," says Raeshke.

But it's not just other dogs that can be the object of canine aggression. Human adults and children can also be targets. And handling the situation well can be the difference between a close call and injury or worse. We talked to a number of individuals in the area who offered tips for dealing with aggressive dogs in a number of situations.

As for Raeshke's beloved German shepherd, he came through the ordeal "traumatized," but "thankfully," uninjured, she says.

If it looks dangerous

Remember that dogs are territorial. If you approach a space that they perceive as their own, the canine can see it as an approaching threat. So if you see a dog that looks suspect, make a clear move away from it. Let it know you're not venturing onto its turf.

Also remember that dogs are intuitive. Kari Waller, community service officer with the Fargo Police Department, says, "I don't let any dog see my fear because they can sense that, and then they are winning."

She says you want to be cautious, but you don't want to act as if you're afraid.

The standoff

If a dog starts to confront you, remember this first rule: Don't run.

"It's a game to them then," Waller says.

Running from a dog sets its "prey-predator" instincts into motion, says Laurie Bauer, a veterinarian at Casselton Veterinary Services.

Rather, stand as still as you can and remain silent, says Mary Higdem, a professional dog trainer who lives near Barnesville, Minn. If you're carrying something, hold that object between you and the dog.

Move your stare downward and away from the dog, watching the animal in your peripheral vision, and turn the side of your body toward the dog, Higdem says.

"Dogs will assume that you are going to attack them if you face them head-on and make eye contact," Higdem said via e-mail.

Turning sideways also helps shield the more vulnerable parts of your body.

Keep your arms flat at your sides, and clench your fists to protect your fingers, Higdem says.

"Staying calm and stationary can be a real test of your nerves," Higdem says. "But it is the best thing to do as long as the dog is not actually biting you."

Dogs have a short attention span, and the hope is that it will lose interest in you, at which point you can leave the area, moving away relatively slowly.

If the dog is motivated by fear, it may try to circle around and attack from behind, so slowly move to keep your side turned toward the dog. But as you do so, Higdem says to work your way away from the dog and toward a safe place, like a nearby house.

If a dog attacks ...

Try to stay on your feet if the dog actually attacks, Higdem says. "If you get down on the ground, you're done," she says.

Take hold of the dog's collar - from behind if possible - so that you direct its mouth away from your body, Higdem says. If it doesn't have a collar, she says she would try to grab the skin right along the jawbone, under the dog's ear. Again, this allows you to keep the dog's mouth away from you.

In the event that you do end up on the ground, Higdem advises assuming a tight tuck position, covering your head and ears with your arms and hands.

If the dog is able to get you in its grasp, Higdem says to employ your full body weight in striking the dog, using your knees and elbows. Work to get on top of the dog, and concentrate your force on areas such as the dog's throat or ribs. If you can straddle the dog and apply force to the back of the neck, it will immobilize the animal.

Often, dogs don't understand the difference between tearing flesh and tearing clothing. Higdem advises allowing the aggressive dog to take hold of an article of clothing and tug on it to buy some time for help to arrive or to reorient for escape.

If a child is involved ...

The first priority is, of course, protecting the child. Higdem says that she would try to get the dog to focus on her so that the child can escape. That could mean actually acting aggressively toward the dog to attract its attention, if need be.

"I would go toward the dog to protect my child," she says.

If that doesn't work or isn't possible, pick up the child so that he or she is up away from the dog. Try to keep the child's legs out of harm's way as you hold him or her as high as possible.

If an automobile or other tall object is nearby, Bauer recommends placing the child on top of it.

Dog eat dog

Higdem says you should never grab two fighting dogs by the collar because you could be bitten - even by your own dog.

If you are going to try to break up a dogfight, the best way is to grab the back legs of the aggressive animal, lift them high and pull back, she says. Then hold the dog's legs until it calms down or help arrives. But she also adds that one can be easily injured during a dogfight.

If a water hose is handy, spraying down the fighting dogs can work, as can striking the aggressive dog with a stick or other sturdy object.

Read the (warning) signs...

Like people, dogs have body language. And that language can offer clues as to when a dog is potentially aggressive.

  • If the ears of the dog are lying flat against its head, that's a warning sign, says Becky Hodnefield, a licensed veterinarian technician at Animal Health Clinic in Fargo.
  • If the hair along the dog's back is raised, that can be an indication of potential aggression.
  • Waller says that if a dog is curling its lips and showing its teeth, that's a sign that it's "angry enough to bite."
  • If it lowers its head a little, turns sideways and gives you that "death stare," it means it's at least going to lunge at you, Higdem says.
  • A potentially aggressive dog may hold its tale high, wagging it quickly, but not in the full range of motion as it would if it were a happy wag, Bauer says.