Why Dogs Attack, And What To Do If A Dangerous Canine Approaches You

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Dog attacks are rare, but can happen. (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)
Dog attacks are rare, but can happen. (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

A 9-year-old girl died this week when three dogs attacked her in an alley behind her house. Police say the owner of the dogs was arrested.

It's a reminder that dog attacks do happen, and although rare, they can be fatal.

From 2005 to 2018, 471 Americans suffered death due to a dog bite injury, according to, a national dog bite victims' group.

The group found that 66% of those fatalities were caused by pit bulls. But Marjie Alonso, a professional dog trainer and executive director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABCT), says one breed isn’t more aggressive than another.

She says one study found that golden retrievers were responsible for more bites on children than any other breed.

“We could then easily say, ‘Well, golden retrievers are dangerous,’ and that’s not true,” she says.

So what causes dogs to become aggressive?

“What we can observe is that dogs that are highly aroused in terms of excitation, in terms of prey drive [or] in terms of protection will then kind of ramp up and the switch just flips and that's when dogs are really dangerous, especially in groups," Alonso says.

She says dogs tend to feed off each other's excitement. “I don't know if you ever been to a concert and you see large groups of people lose their minds — that happens with dogs too,” she says.

Alonso says the first safety step is making sure you take preventive measures within your neighborhood.

“This is a community issue. Get to know your neighbors if you can. Talk to delivery people. See if there are places that they know that there are problematic dogs. Your animal control officer is your friend,” she says. “And then we should avoid things if we can, even if it's not fair. If you can't walk by that house because this dog is always barking and it bugs you, don't walk by that house.”

If a dog is quickly approaching you, there’s two things you can do. First, Alonso suggests standing still, looking down and breaking eye contact — but only if you’re able to keep from screaming. Another method is standing your ground and walking directly toward the dog. She says this shows the canine that you’re nothing to chase and your presence is threatening to the advances.

If a dog is actively attacking you, then the main objective should be keeping yourself, your loved one or your pet alive. You might have to get physical or use a citronella spray against an aggressive dog in order to be safe. “Don't worry about the other dog even though that's very hard,” she says.

Below are International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants’ tips for what to do if you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation with a dog.

Tips For Avoiding Dog Attacks

If an off-leash dog approaches you on a walk:

  • Call out to the owner. “Come get your dog, mine is contagious!” often works.
  • Remove visual stimulus, get something between you (umbrella, car, garbage pail, blanket, etc.).
  • Try firmly telling the approaching dog a familiar cue, such as “sit” or “stay.”
  • Toss a large handful of treats on top of their head to startle them. The bigger the “treat bomb,” the more time you have to walk away.
  • If there is a dragging leash you can grab, loop the leash around an object like a fence or pole, and pull on the handle. Do not put your face near the dog’s face while doing so.

If a frightening off-leash dog approaches, do not:

  • Scream
  • Run
  • Flail limbs
  • Panic
  • Make eye contact
  • Jump up and down

If a frightening off-leash dog approaches, do:

  • Stay as calm as you can.
  • Use a firm voice. This isn’t to “assert dominance,” but to maintain as much control of yourself and the situation as possible, and to make any commands or cues you give the dog as understandable as possible.
  • Stand or stay upright.
  • Stay quiet and don’t scream.
  • Get on top of something.
  • Feed something to the dog by throwing the food away from yourself.
  • Back into a corner or against a wall so dog cannot get behind you.
  • If you have a stroller and can’t get away, yell at the dog, throw everything you have at him, from your shoes to toys to your diaper bag to distract them so you can get some space.

If a dog attacks:

  • Keep your hands and arms in front of your body to protect them.
  • Don’t put your hand near the fighting or attacking dogs’ mouths, or touch the dogs where they could easily turn around and bite you.
  • Do not grab collars.
  • If the dog bites you and isn’t letting go, move your arm or body part into the dog’s mouth, rather than trying to pull it out. This will prevent more damage to you through tearing.
  • Keep the dog from shaking its head or your body if they do not release.
  • Children should curl themselves into as tight a ball as possible and be as still as possible.
  • As hard as it is, teach children to not squeal or cry if at all possible - that only increases the excitement of the attacking dog.
  • If the very worst is happening, curl yourself over your child.
  • If the dog attacks your dog, do not put any part of your body between the two dogs.
  • Find objects to put in between the two dogs (chair, umbrella, garbage can lid, etc.).
  • Picking up your small dog is likely to cause the attacking dog to jump up on you, potentially causing you harm.
  • Not picking up your small dog is likely to increase the danger and harm to your dog. You’ll have to decide, given the situation, which is wiser in the moment.
  • If you do pick up your dog, don’t swing them back and forth facing the attacking dog. Try to place your dog between a barrier of some kind and yourself. Lean into a wall or even toss your dog into a fenced area if need be. Be aware that the attacking dog might be able to jump that fence.
  • Do not kick or punch the dog if at all possible (that might escalate in their arousal).
  • Once the attack is over, immediately get yourself, your dog or your child away. Don’t turn around, try to get further control of the situation, or try to find the owner. Just go.

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on August 21, 2019.

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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.



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