Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Let's face it—nobody wants to become the target of an aggressive dog, but according to reports from veterinary behaviorists, a large percentage of attacks and dog bites occur to people that the attacking dog is unfamiliar with.
But what triggers these attacks? According to board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore I. Haug, fear is the driving force in aggressive behavior directed towards unfamiliar stimuli, even when elements of territoriality are present. Even threatening postures assumed by these dogs do not exclude the presence of underlying anxiety or fear.
There are many possible underlying causes for such fear-based aggressive displays including genetic predisposition, hormonal and neurological factors, and the impact of life experiences, just to name a few. In particular, socialization deficits are one of the most prominent causes for the development of behavior problems in dogs. Interestingly, a good number of dogs that attack unfamiliar people are not stray dogs, but dogs that are owned by people and that somehow got loose in some way or were purposely left free to run at large.
Fortunately, in many cases, dogs that bark and appear threatening are just alerting their owners of your presence and are asking you to provide distance. These dogs may not go on to deliver a bite without warning. Prior to attacking, they will display plenty of warning signs directed towards the unfamiliar person including barking, growling, lifting the upper lip and showing teeth, and lunging. However, there are always some exceptions to the rule: some dogs may bite stealthy from behind as you turn away.
So, what you do when faced with a dog who is barking in a threatening manner? Some steps you take can make the difference between a bite or you walking away scared but unharmed. With dogs that are prone to attack, the biggest problem is that there isn’t much leeway for error. Of course, animal behavior is never 100 percent predictable, so sometimes dogs may bite no matter what.
Aggression to unfamiliar people and dogs is inarguably the most common aggression issue addressed by veterinary behaviorists in dogs. Fear aggression is the most common diagnosis in dogs aggressive to unfamiliar stimuli even when elements of territoriality are present.
— Lore I. Haug, veterinary behaviorist
Why Do Dogs Attack Strangers?
Here is some general information about dogs that are prone to attack unfamiliar people:
- In general, when dogs are in groups with other dogs, they may be more likely to act bold and reactive, compared to when they are singled-out or alone. Dogs that are alone can attack too, especially when they are cornered with no way out.
- Some dogs may bite the moment you turn around to leave an area.
- In general, dogs act more confident the closer they are to their homes. Indeed, most dog attacks involving unfamiliar people occur on the footpath or road in front of the dog's property.
- Dogs are more likely to attack young children or the elderly because those in these age brackets are less likely to be able to successfully retreat either due to the inability to move in a coordinated manner or the inability to anticipate the event (they don’t know how to act around dogs or read dog body language) or a combination of both.
- Avoid approaching dogs that are behind fences, in a car, or chained/tethered. Also, avoid dogs that are eating, sleeping, playing with a toy, and mother dogs with a litter of puppies. Don't approach unfamiliar dogs.
- A silent dog that's heading your way very quickly may be more concerning than a dog that is barking its head off. However, despite the saying "dogs who bark, don't bite" consider that all dogs can bite regardless of their barking behavior.
How to Prevent a Dog From Attacking You
1. Avoid Staring at the Dog
While you instinctively want to keep an eye on the dog so to anticipate his moves, staring at the dog can backfire considering that, generally, dogs tend to be naturally prone to perceive direct eye contact as a threat.
2. Avoid Yelling
Screaming or shrieking can increase a dog's arousal levels. You do not want to add more commotion to an already critical situation as that's the equivalent of adding fuel to the fire.
3. Avoid Running Away
When we stumble upon what looks like an aggressive dog, our instincts may strongly tell us to run away, but this is often a wrong approach-unless you are two steps away from the safety of a car or building. Dogs are more likely to chase you if you're running away because they perceive you as an intruder and your running stimulates a dog's prey drive. And forget about outrunning a dog. Dogs are cursorial animals and will catch up with you in no time.
4. Use Your Peripheral Vision
Looking downward or obliquely, using the corner of your eye, prevents you from making direct contact (which, as mentioned, dogs perceive as threatening), while still allowing you to monitor the dog using your peripheral vision.
5. Be Boring
It may be tempting to tell the dog in a commanding voice to "go home" or tell him "no," but once again, the dog may feel threatened by this. Talking softly in a soothing tone of voice is often recommended, however, not all dogs like to be talked to by a stranger.
It may be more effective to simply ignore the dog and act boring like a tree. Dogs don't attack trees because trees don't do things that dogs may feel provoking. If you stand still without waving your arms or moving, keeping your arms and legs to the side, the dog may eventually lose interest and leave.
6. Slowly Back Away
Instead of running, slowly back away removing yourself from the area. Walk backwards, considering that most aggressive dogs are fearful and may be more likely to bite you in the rear rather than attacking you head-on. Be careful not to trip on anything as you back away.
If the dog seems to get more aggressive as you move, there are chances you may be getting closer to his or her territory, so perhaps try moving in a different direction always away from the dog. Try to move in the direction of a safe area such as inside a car, telephone booth, or building. Alternatively, you can try to stand still and hope the dog leaves. This may work if you're not too close to his territory.
7. Drop Some Goodies
Finally, if you happen to have some dog-safe food on you or a pocket full of treats, drop them to ground in hopes of attracting the dog as you slowly leave the scene.
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How to Defend Yourself Against an Attacking Dog
Sometimes, things don't always go as planned. You may have made a wrong move or the dog is just determined to attack, no matter what you do. In such cases, it's important to have a back-up plan.
Use an Object as a Shield
If the dog advances with the intent to attack, you can hold an object such as your bag or rolled up jacket as a shield in front of your body. If available, you can even pop open an umbrella in hopes of startling the dog. Allow the dog access to such objects to redirect him in hopes of him biting those rather than your body.
Roll in a Tight Ball
If the dog knocks you over, roll in a tight ball and protect your head and throat by keeping your hands clasped behind your neck.
Don't Pull Away
If the dog grabs a body part, try your best not to pull away as doing so will cause dogs to instinctively tighten their hold and it may even trigger them to shake their heads, leading to severe and profound lacerations.
Seek Medical Attention
And of course, see your doctor if you have a bite wound (for minor wounds you can preliminary wash the wound with soap and water) and contact the dog owner to verify whether the dog who has bitten is current on the rabies vaccination. If the dog is a stray or you cannot track the owner, contact animal control.
When it comes to animal behavior, there is no "one size fits all" solution for all situations. For example, there may be instances where none of the above methods will work with a dog that is really aggressive and out of control and there may be instances where other methods may work in having the dog retreat.
- Canine Aggression Toward Unfamiliar People and Dogs, Lore I.Haug DVM, Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, Volume 38, Issue 5, September 2008, Pages 1023-1041
- "Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats" by Karen Overall
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Did you successfully prevent a dog attack? Comment below.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 17, 2020:
Pamela, You are very lucky that no dog has ever come towards you in an aggressive manner, it can be very scary! In my area, it tends to happen more when you are walking dogs and there are off leash dogs nearby their properties.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 30, 2020:
Your tips sound excellent to possibly stop a dog from biting. I have never had a dog come towards me in an aggressive manner, but I am glad to know your tips just in case. Thank you for sharing this information.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 07, 2020:
Devika, not showing fear is certainly a valid strategy as when we are fearful we may instinctively do things that would make us a target such as screaming in fear, moving fast and running away.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 07, 2020:
Thanks Peggy, my dad was once bitten by a dog who took the coward approach attacking him the moment he turned around to leave.
Devika Primic on January 07, 2020:
I know that if one tries to runaway from a dog trying to attack them it would attack fiercely. I do not show dogs i fear them they sense ones fears and attack viciously. Thank you for this hub.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 05, 2020:
These are all good tips to know. Thanks for writing about this topic.