Why do dogs attack other dogs?
‘Attack’ isn’t quite the right word to use, as dogs don’t go around looking to attack others. Dogs are social animals and tend to steer clear of situations that might get aggressive.
Dogs usually become aggressive only when they feel they don’t have another choice. This could be because they got a sudden fright, or because signs showing they are uncomfortable are ignored.
Sometimes, a high ‘prey drive’ will give dogs the instinct to chase and bite small pets or farm animals, especially if they are running away. Owners of dog breeds that are well known for this should take steps to make sure their dog can’t accidentally hurt other animals. This may include making your home and garden secure and keeping them on a lead when outside.
Dogs should always be kept on a lead around livestock. It’s a serious crime to allow your dog to injure or kill a farm animal and this could lead to serious penalties for both yourself and your dog.
What are the signs a dog might attack?
Dogs rarely bite without warning. There are clear signs of aggression that dogs are likely to display, including:
- Baring teeth
However, dogs often show signs that they feel anxious or uncomfortable way before these.
If another dog shows signs of aggression towards your dog, the best thing you can do is walk away calmly but quickly. Don’t get too close, but try to put a visual barrier like a gate, fence or car in between your dog and the other dog.
Don't let your dog approach as this will make the other dog more nervous and could make the situation worse. Many people are bitten trying to break up a dog fight.
It is important to learn signs your dog feels uncomfortable as they try to ‘talk’ to us way before they start to growl. Never punish a dog for growling as they are just communicating that they feel uncomfortable. Usually many signs will have been ignored before this and a growl is often a last resort before a bite. If a dog learns not to growl and early signs of anxiousness or stress aren’t being recognised, it may appear that the dog will bite ‘out of the blue’ or without warning.
It's worth looking out for earlier signs a dog is uncomfortable too, since not all dogs will growl, snap or bear their teeth before they go to bite. If a dog is uncomfortable, they may show signs like the following:
- Licking their lips
- Ears going backwards, flattened on their head
- Showing the whites of their eyes ("whale eye" – look out for a white half-moon shape)
- Turning their face away
- Trying to move or turn away from the other dog
- Standing crouched or walking low to the ground.
Be aware of your dog and their body language. When you notice these signs, give your dog some space. Sometimes dogs just need a break from the company of other dogs or people and then they may be happy to play together again. Don’t force them to deal with other dogs or people if they are showing signs that they are stressed as this can make them even more uncomfortable.
Always ask an owner before you or your dog interact with their pet. Even if the owner of another dog says it’s fine, you both still need to keep an eye on both dogs’ body language and gently lead your dog away if one of them is starting to show these signs of discomfort.
Remember that a dog on a lead has less of a chance to ‘walk away’ from a situation they are finding stressful, so they may be more likely to show signs of discomfort or even aggression to try and keep their own space.
What to do if your dog is attacked by another dog
- Try not to panic. If you panic, you make your dog (and the biting dog) worse. Try to stay calm and focused.
- Don't try to separate them yourself. It might be hard, but if you try to pull your dog out of harm’s way you could end up with some nasty injuries, too. You could also injure your dog further if the other dog hasn't let go.
- Try to distract the other dog from a distance. Hopefully, the other dog's owner will also be doing this, but see if you can distract it with a loud noise like a clap. Don’t shout at or make eye contact with the dog as this can make them feel more threatened and make things worse.
- Call your dog away. You may be able to call your dog away. The owner of the other dog may be able to do the same.
- Report the incident. If your dog has been injured, you can report it to the police by calling 101 and report it to your local council's dog warden.
- Collect details. Get the owner's contact details and a photo of the other dog (if you can) and note or photograph any injuries your dog has. If you can, check if the other owner has third party or pet insurance for their dog as this may cover you for any veterinary care required. You may also want the contact details of any witnesses.
- Take your dog to the vet. Even if your dog's injuries don't look serious, take them to the vet straight away to get checked over. Many bite injuries are a lot worse than they look due to damage to the muscles and tissue underneath the skin and the bacteria carried in dogs' mouths.
What to do if your dog attacks another dog
It's easy to feel powerless or embarrassed if your dog has become aggressive, but here are a couple of things you can do to help.
- Stay calm. If you become agitated, this may make your dog feel more worried.
- Distract your dog from a distance. Try to avoid shouting at or making direct eye contact with your dog as this can make them more aggressive. Call them away if you can, or use their favourite toy to distract them. If you have a leash or a large coat you can throw this over your dog to help you distract them for long enough for the other dog to get away, and then get them under control. Hopefully the owner of the other dog will also be trying to remove their dog from the situation.
- Get them back on the lead. Be careful when you do this as they may be highly stressed and you don't want to get bitten yourself. A slip lead may be safer (you can make one with a normal lead by putting the end of the lead through the handle to make a loop). If you cannot get a lead onto their collar or over their head safely, you can try to put a slip lead under the dog’s tummy, just in front of their back legs. Remain calm and try to take them somewhere they can't see the other dog and can calm themselves down.
- If your dog is aggressive towards another dog, you need to take precautions for next time. If this was a one-off thing, it's possible something scared your dog - possibly the size or the way the other dog approached yours. Work with your vet to make sure there's no medical reason for the sudden aggression. If this is ruled out, it may be helpful to work with an accredited behaviourist. They can help to make sure your dog is able to cope with all the situations it might find itself in without feeling they need to use aggression.
No matter how your dog behaves around other dogs, it is a good idea to muzzle train them anyway. Some owners find that muzzle training helps with vet visits if your dog finds them stressful or even if they’re known to eat things they shouldn’t out and about!
If your dog is always aggressive towards other dogs, this can be a learned behaviour. They may need to wear a basket muzzle in public and you will need to adjust the times you walk them so as not to meet as many other dogs. In the long term, it’s best to ask your vet to refer you to an accredited behaviourist so that you can help your dog to understand that other dogs are not a threat.
What to do if you're bitten by a dog
- Wash the wound thoroughly. Run under a cold tap for 10 minutes, even if the skin isn’t broken.
- Speak to the owner if possible. This might be easier if you know them. Let them know what’s happened and that they should get advice for their dog from a veterinary behaviourist.
- Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Tell your doctor or medical practitioner that you have been bitten by an animal.
- Report the bite. Taking photos of the wound straight after it happens can be helpful. Your police and local authority’s dog warden should be informed of any dog bites to take steps to prevent this happening in future. They may also be able to give you advice to prevent it happening again in future.
How to avoid dog aggression
- Socialise your dog and train them with positive, reward-based training. A well socialised dog is less likely be aggressive towards other dogs. If your dog has good recall then you can help them avoid potentially dangerous situations.
- Keep your dog on a lead in unfamiliar places. This way you always know where they are, especially if their recall isn't the best.
- Be aware of other dogs. Never let your dog go bounding up to an unfamiliar dog - you don't know how they will react. When you see unfamiliar dogs, it's best to keep your dog close to you.
- Keep an eye out for signs of aggression. If you start to see your or another dog behaving aggressively (even if it's not towards your dog) get away from the situation immediately.