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When Dogs Attack | Why Do Some Dogs Turn on their Owner

Picture of a aggressive dog

Since time immemorial, man has been sharing his home with his most loyal friend: the dog. Dogs fill our lives with joy, laughter, and unconditional love. Just the thought of life without their favorite furry friend can bring a tear to even the most stoic person’s eye. Since we are most accustomed to dogs who greet us with the deepest of affection, it takes us off guard to hear news of a dog who seemingly out of the blue attacks his owner.

Dog attacks are particularly frightening. With a mouth full of teeth as sharp as kitchen knives, dogs have the ability to use their mouths for good or for harm. Through years of domestication and centuries of building secure relationships with human caretakers, dogs have become trusted companions. Yet every now and again, we hear news of a dog, having previously shown not even an ounce of aggression, who suddenly turns on his owner, with disastrous consequences. Why do dogs attack, and when they do, what is the responsible course of action to take? 

Why Dogs Attack

Contrary to popular opinion, it is exceedingly rare that a dog attack is not preceded by some sort of warning. Dogs are logical animals and have other “weapons” at their disposal they would much prefer to use before resorting to an attack. More than this, dogs don’t want to attack a human any more than a human wants to be bitten. If an attack has occurred, there is generally a reason why and some warning signals that were ignoed before things escalated to the point of a dog bite.

Here are some reasons why dogs might attack:

Prey drive
Though dogs are highly intelligent animals capable of detecting the differences between a quick moving animal and a child or small adult, instinct powerfully compels dogs with high prey drive to go into “chase” mode first and ask questions later. Owners of dogs with high prey drive must do their due diligence to keep their dogs well contained and to prevent access to their yard by well-meaning neighbors with small pets or children.

Dogs with prey drive do not lack a solid temperament; they are simply breeds bred with a very specific job in mind, and prey drive is essential for them to accomplish that purpose. However, since many owners do not intend to allow their dogs to hunt, it is essential that any situation that may be considered a hunt for prey be minimized to prevent tragedy from occurring. A dog with high prey drive who is allowed to run up and down the length of a fence chasing a small dog or perhaps a child who is teasing the dog is bound to become severely agitated and may react in a fashion that is out of character for the dog’s true temperament simply because he is overstimulated.

Defending territory/possessions
Many dogs view their home as their castle, and they don’t take very kindly to anyone approaching without their consent. This can also extend to things that they view as their “own” such as bones, food, dog beds, and sometimes, even a favorite a person. A typically mild-mannered dog can turn into a fierce, teeth-baring piranha if he feels that something he cherishes is being threatened.

Stress
Dogs are very much creatures of habit, and they thrive on routine. Yet, life is not always as consistent as we would like it to be, and dogs do undergo a large amount of stress as a result of the upkettling of their daily schedule. Things like having overnight guests, holidays, and even fireworks being set off in the neighborhood have a detrimental on our pets. Even dogs who seem to take things in stride suffer from a certain amount of anxiety as a result of change. When stress becomes too great for a dog to handle, he may react unpredictably and attack another member of the household. Most often it is another canine or feline resident, but it could just as easily be a child or adult member of the family as well.

Pain
Humans experiencing pain can become shadows of their former selves. It is the same with dogs as well. The cause of the pain may not even be evident to an owner as dogs are masters at disguising when they are hurt. However, pain certainly is a strong motivator for a dog to lash out. Stepping on a limb that is sore or even sitting too close to an aching body part may cause a normally docile family pet to lash out with teeth. When an animal is in pain, it is instinctive to react aggressively towards whatever it appears is causing the pain. If a dog suddenly begins reacting negatively to situations he would have normally taken in stride, a visit to the vet is the number one priority.

Handling by someone unfamiliar or who is not careful with the dog
Some dogs do not respond well to handling, particularly by someone the dog does not know. This is why it is important for an owner to always be present when a dog must be handled such as at the groomer’s or even the vet’s. But more than this; no matter how trustworthy you may believe your dog to be, he should never, NEVER, be allowed to be alone with children. Children are not always as careful as they should be with a dog. But children also are just naturally excited to have a puppy to play with, and they can inadvertently handle the dog in a way that is uncomfortable for him. If the child does not heed more subtle warnings and finally a growl, he will resort to using his teeth to find a way to get out of the situation that is distressing him. Proper supervision is critical when children and pets are together. Children should be taught to respect dogs and their boundaries, and dogs should be removed from play with children should they show signs of being uncomfortable or stressed. Always remember that a bite that takes place with a child will typically affect the facial area as a dog will strike the area that is closest to him. With children, that area is the face and neck.

Mental illness
Though much rarer, some dogs do suffer from mental illness and can just snap. This is particularly frightening and heartbreaking as in most of these cases there was no precursor to indicate this type of attack would one day occur. In cases of mental illness, the dog in question must usually be euthanized to prevent future incidents.

What can be done?

There is no question that as owners, it is our responsibility to protect our pets and to protect all of those that come in contact with them. The very first step in ensuring this happens is to maintain regular health and wellness visits to your vet. A healthy pet is typically a well-adjusted pet. You want to catch any conditions while they can still be treated and to alleviate any pain and suffering related to health problems or simply to advanced age. Regular bloodwork is an important part of this strategy. By ensuring your dog’s blood is checked regularly, you will be able to rule out things like thyroid issues and even cancers which could lead to erratic, and at times, aggressive behavior that was previously unseen in your dog.

Secondly, you must be your dog’s advocate. Know your dog well and what your dog can handle. If your dog doesn’t like children, don’t force him to be around them. Give him a space he can retreat to where little hands and feet won’t intrude on him, and he can feel safe and protected. If fireworks leave your dog scrambling for cover, consider a Thundershirt and an herbal medication such as Zylkene to take the edge off his nerves. By understanding your dog and his likes and dislikes, you can help to set him up for success.

If your dog has shown signs of reacting poorly to what he perceives as threats to his property or belongings, begin working now with a professional trainer who can help you build confidence in your dog. Resource guarding can become a very serious issue if not properly addressed and can lead to bites and attacks.

It is also important to educate yourself in “dogspeak.” Dogs will show much more subtle signs that they are uncomfortable, and it is important to be on the lookout for them, so that you can intervene long before it reaches the point of an attempted bite.

If a pattern of unpredictable aggressive behavior emerges in your dog, it is not something to be weathered alone. By consulting a canine behaviorist and your veterinarian, you can formulate a plan to help your dog and the people who share their lives with him. A dog who is acting out by biting is not a happy dog. Dogs generally attempt to bite to keep something they fear away from them. If your dog is biting, your dog is afraid, and you must find ways to help him learn to feel at ease in his environment again. It may be take a combination of desensitization to environmental and/or emotional triggers and a psychotropic medication to help your dog find peace. Sadly, in some cases, it is simply in the best interest of all parties involved for a dog to depart this life for the next. It is not a decision to be undertaken lightly, but as a loving dog owner; if all other means have been exhausted and your dog is still reacting aggressively and unpredictably, it may be far kinder to let him go than to allow him to continue to live out his days in anxiety and stress.

When dogs attack, it is a tragedy for all involved. The best course of action is always prevention. Should you see signs your dog is not quite himself, seek help from your vet and a qualified animal behaviorist today. It just might save his life!

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