Visiting Vet: Dog aggression — take it seriously

Don’t downplay it until it is too late.

Careful supervision and teaching are needed for young children to be near a dog. —Mali Desha

I’m running late. April 7 was the start of National Dog Bite Prevention Week, a project sponsored by a coalition of the American Veterinary Medical Association, State Farm Insurance, the Insurance Information Institute, and Positively Victoria Stilwell (a celebrity dog trainer), with a goal to educate folks about dog bites and give tips on prevention. I’m a big fan. In my line of work, every week is Dog Bite Prevention Week. I hang out with many wonderful dogs, and become friends with most. I snuggle new puppies, and help old-timers navigate aging and end of life. But I also am privy to too many distressing cases of dog aggression.

There is an old saying: no bad dogs, only bad owners. Sadly, this is not completely true. While it is true that inappropriate handling by owners can create behavior problems, it is also true that certain dogs may have an inherent predisposition for aggression. It can be breed-related. It can be from lack of early socialization, or other environmental factors. Canine aggression is too complex for a comprehensive discussion here, but let me touch on a few major points and share some words of advice. If your pup shows any signs of aggression, please consult your veterinarian, veterinary behavior specialist, and qualified trainer. Don’t downplay it until it is too late.

Let’s talk briefly about dog-to-dog aggression. The occasional minor altercation between dogs is normal. If interactions are short, de-escalate quickly, and neither party is seriously injured, these may not be cause for concern. The problem arises when aggression exceeds the “normal” threshold. Skip ahead if you’re squeamish. My worst case involved two housemates. Dog One, a 60-pounder, attacked Dog Two, a beagle-ish mix, over their food bowls, grabbing her by the neck. When Two arrived at my office drenched in blood and saliva, but no longer bleeding much. I expected typical puncture wounds, maybe lacerations needing stitches, antibiotics, and pain medication. But I heard the oddest whistling noise. As I explored Two’s neck, I identified the source. One had literally torn a huge hunk out of Two’s throat, ripping apart her windpipe.Two was breathing through the exposed end sticking from the gaping wound. The damage was too extensive to repair. We had to euthanize her.

Those owners never expected such an altercation. The dogs knew each other. It happened in the blink of an eye. This is why you need to keep your dog leashed when walking in public areas. But my dog is friendly, you say? This drives me crazy. Maybe your dog is friendly. Maybe MY dog is not. Or maybe my dog is fearful, anxious, or protective. Your dog running up to mine can provoke an unexpected reaction from both. Maybe you don’t know your dog as well as you think. Then there’s prey aggression. Dogs are instinctively programmed to chase, and sometimes kill, things that run. It’s what wild canines do. Big things. Deer, cars, bicycles, horses, joggers. Little things. Squirrels, bunnies, skunks, cats, toddlers. A dog may not differentiate between wild animals and humans. Prey aggression may be heightened when multiple dogs are present. A veterinarian in England was recently killed by seven dogs belonging to a friend staying at his home.

Which brings us back to Dog Bite Prevention Week. Even one dog can cause serious, potentially lethal, damage to a person. Never approach an unfamiliar dog without permission. If there is no owner present and you feel threatened, don’t run or scream. Don’t make eye contact. Stand very still until the dog leaves, or move away very slowly without turning or running. In the unlikely event that you fall down and the dog continues to attack, curl up in a ball and protect your head, neck, and face. Of course, fatal attacks are extreme situations. Most dog bites aimed at humans are single, but more than 800,000 people receive medical care for dog bites in the U.S. every year.

Most veterinarians agree we are seeing more dogs these days with aggression issues. Why? First, an ever-increasing number of “rescue” groups are moving dogs all over the country, sometimes adopting out poorly socialized dogs that are not appropriately screened for temperament, or suited to the lifestyle or capabilities of the adopting person. Then, the pandemic created issues with dogs raised during shutdown without adequate exposure to outside stimuli now going from this sheltered existence to more social interactions. Dogs bite people for many reasons. Stress, fear, bring startled, feeling threatened, protecting toys, food, or owners. Dogs can bite because they are sick or in pain. They can even bite by mistake. I have known many colleagues who were badly injured by their patients, but dogs who become aggressive at the veterinarians need a whole column of their own. Suffice it to say, our profession is always trying new methods to reduce patient anxiety and increase doctors’ safety.

For the family dog, the first step in preventing bites is to select your pup carefully. Pick a breed whose size and temperament is right for your situation. Next socialize and train your pup, gently and intelligently.The most common injury is the family dog biting a 5- to 9-year-old child. Crate training is a great way to give dogs a comfortable place to be away from rowdy kids when needed. Teach children not to approach the dog when he’s eating, to stay out of his bed or crate, to seek out an adult if he steals one of their toys, rather than trying to retrieve it themselves. Learn to read canine body language. Erect ears and tail, stiff, straight-legged gait, staring gaze, hair on end, lips drawn back. All these signal impending aggression. That dog feels threatened. Teach your children these signals, but also be smart. Don’t leave little kids alone with dogs. Have a physical barrier between the dog and youngsters. Give your pup space so he can be that quintessential Good Boy and everyone stays happy and safe.