With almost half of owners saying that their dog has been threatened by another dog when out on a walk – and an equal number saying their dog has been barked at, growled at, or bitten by another dog*, there is no doubt that there is a problem when it comes to canine social interactions.
There are lots of potential reasons for this. There are over three million more dogs in the UK since the first lockdown** and so there are just more dogs out there. Most of these have missed out on the usual socialisation, puppy classes and training help that have been a usual part of dog owning in the past. And many are owned by inexperienced dog owners whose working life has never enabled them to have a dog before – and they are largely struggling through this on their own.
Knowing the reasons why however doesn’t help if you and your dog are in the middle of a park and you find yourself facing an aggressive dog. What do you do? How do you keep you and your dog (and anyone who is with you) safe?
Well first of all, this isn’t the question you should be asking! The reality is that breaking up a serious dog fight, even for experts, with everything they need to hand and someone competent and willing to help them, is a serious – and dangerous – business. The good news however is that these kind of dog fights are extremely rare. Most ‘fights’ are about noise and posturing, and look far worse than they are – and it is often the actions of the owners that can escalate them.
That doesn’t mean you should be relaxed about this. Encounters with other dogs that are frightening, stressful or worse, result in injury, can alter your own dog’s behaviour around other dogs in the future, and run the risk of your dog deciding that other dogs are ‘trouble’ and acting accordingly.
Prevention is the Number 1 goal
Your main goal at all times is to avoid these kind of encounters. I know that sounds obvious but take a look at people out walking their dogs – and see how few are actually paying attention to what their dog is doing and keeping them engaged and focused on them. So…
- Be mindful. Watch your dog and engage with them so their focus is on you and not on other dogs
- Be aware of what is going on around you. Notice if there are other dogs around, watch their behaviour (are they calm and relaxed around other dogs or are they running up to them and trying to interact (in either a friendly manner or a more threatening manner)
- Avoid dogs you don’t know. Take a different route, turn and go the other way, or just keep your dog focussed on you and take a wide berth. If you can’t keep your dog focussed on you to do this safely, put them on the lead.
- Does 3 seem mean or overly cautious? Maybe… but it isn’t up to you to decide if a dog is friendly or if an interaction is going to be positive. You don’t ‘speak dog’ and so it’s easy for you to get it wrong.
- Don’t let your off lead dog run up to other dogs they don’t know – especially if the other dog is on-lead. This is how canine arguments start (and in the case of 65% of reported aggressive encounters*, the offending dog was off the lead!)
- Never let dogs interact with each other on the lead. They can’t show natural body language and this is how canine misunderstandings happen.
The vast majority of conflict situations with other dogs can be prevented – and this should always be your goal. Your walk with your dog should be about you and them interacting together and having fun, rather than playing with strange and unknown dogs.
What is ‘normal’?
Just a note here on ‘normal’ dog behaviour. While some dogs love everyone and are happy to play with any dog they meet, always be aware that these are very much in the minority. It is not ‘normal’ for a dog to be that much of a social butterfly. The vast majority of adult dogs are ‘dog selective’. They like and will play with their own doggie friends (dogs in their household or dogs they know and have been introduced to properly) but are either indifferent or even somewhat hostile to unknown dogs.
The socialisation we do with dogs when they are puppies is designed to teach them social skills and to enable them to listen to you and be happy when there are other dogs around – not learn to love everyone!
Don’t have unreasonable expectations from your dog – or from other dogs.
But what if..?
There will however possibly be occasions when you and your dog find yourself in a sticky situation with another dog. So what do you do?
- Try and assess the other dog – is it overly-friendly and just annoyingly bouncy and rude? Or are you worried about potential threat? Learn as much as you can about canine body language as this will help you.
- Stay calm. Panicking, shouting or grabbing either dog can inflame the situation and also you risk injury.
- Still avoid an encounter if possible. Break the eye contact between the two dogs by turning your dog away and not having any interaction with the other – and walk away. Sometimes this is enough to defuse the situation and they will move on to more interesting targets.
- Look out for the other dog’s owner and ask them to remove their dog. Don’t be fobbed off by “oh he’s friendly”… That normally means “sorry… I’ve not trained him and so have absolutely no control of him”! It is their dog (and them) that is at fault.
- In most cases, dogs have many different ways to avoid a fight – and are far better at sorting out these social encounters than we are. But to do this, they need to be able to show natural body language in order to communicate. Often where you can’t avoid an encounter, dropping your lead if it is safe to do so will let your dog ‘negotiate peace’.
- If you really feel under threat, be aware that shouting, making loud noises or throwing things at the other dog are likely to exacerbate the situation – and frighten your own dog as much as the strange dog. Your best strategy is probably to throw a handful of treats in the approaching dog’s face. This will distract them and hopefully (unless they are really intent on an attack) give them a different focus (picking up the treats). This gives you time to remove your dog from the situation.
Are any of these failsafe? No. And they won’t stop a serious dog fight. They will however stop the vast majority of canine misunderstandings.
Be your dog’s advocate – don’t have the expectation that all dogs should love all other dogs, and instead be mindful when you are out, focus on your own dogs, and avoid encounters with dogs you don’t know.
*tails.com survey 2021
** PFMA 2021