Prevent dog attacks: Keep your dog and other animals safe

Dog attacks are every pet owner's nightmare, yet they are more common than many realise. Knowing the telltale signs and triggers that can lead to aggression – both in your dog and other dogs – is the first step in preventing these stressful incidents.

Here, we don't just bark out generic safety advice; we have dug deep to offer practical tips that combine expert knowledge with genuine care for your pooch's well-being.

Our vet expert Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc), shares her insights to guide you in deciphering your dog's complex language and navigating public spaces while avoiding potential altercations. It's time to wag more and worry less with these comprehensive strategies to fend off dog conflicts.

Supervise interactions

According to Dr Holland, a well-socialised dog is less likely to be a victim or perpetrator of an attack. "Most commonly, dog attacks occur due to fear; well-socialised dogs are less fearful when they are out and about," she explains.

This highlights the importance of introducing your dog to other dogs and people in a controlled, positive environment from an early age. It also means paying attention when your dog is interacting with other dogs and recognising signs of fear or anxiety, such as:

  • Crouched posture
  • Urinating
  • Lip licking
  • Tail tucking
  • Trembling
  • Panting
  • Yawning
  • Averting eye contact

Supervised interaction doesn't just mean being present physically; it's about being present mentally. Watch for any signs of tension, give your dog space if they need it, and always be ready to intervene. This includes making sure they’re on a lead, keeping them distracted and moving them away from other dogs or people.

Dog communication is largely non-verbal, making body language a critical tool for interpreting their feelings and intentions. Before an attack, there are telltale signs of aggression that Dr Holland outlines for us:

  • Stiff posture with ears forward and tail erect
  • Eye contact
  • Showing the whites of their eyes
  • Growling
  • Teeth baring

"Dogs may also follow or seem to stalk you if they are considering attacking," Dr Holland advises. "If a dog does appear to be threatening, do not run from them or try to scare them."

Supervision is about being tuned in to the dynamics of the play or interaction. Is there a change in your dog's play stance? Are they tensing up or suddenly still? These could be signs that they're becoming uncomfortable or that the play is turning aggressive.

Choose safe outdoor environments

Loud environments, crowded spaces, and venues with restricted exits can heighten dogs' anxiety and lead to increased defensive behaviours. By selecting calmer, less-trafficked areas for outings, you minimise stress and potential triggers for aggressive displays, especially if your dog is still getting used to socialising.

Stick to areas with a reputation for well-behaved pups and owners. Look for spaces where dogs have ample room to move, interact, and retreat if needed. This isn't just about avoiding attacks; it's also about fostering positive experiences for your dog.

Private spaces for playdates can also be an excellent alternative, allowing for monitored encounters with familiar and well-matched companions.

Use a lead in communal settings

Leads aren't just for following leash laws. They're tools to manage social dynamics and keep pets secure in unpredictable situations.

"Wandering dogs or dogs not on a leash and not under good control by their owners are most likely to cause problems in public areas," Dr Holland emphasises.

Leads offer control and a sense of boundaries for your dog and others. They serve as visible indicators to other pet owners that your dog may require space, and they can prevent unexpected or unwelcome interactions, especially with dogs off-leash.

Understand your dog's triggers

Dogs, like humans, have their boundaries and triggers that can lead to discomfort or fear. Or in some cases, their triggers can stem from excitement, provoking their desire to chase or hunt. Understanding what these are for your pet and how to manage them is vital; undiagnosed pain, the encroachment on personal space, or specific postures from other dogs or cats that set them on edge.

"For some dogs, resource guarding such as food aggression or guarding a favourite toy or sleeping area, can lead to aggression," Dr Holland explains, "Dogs can also show predatory aggression if a smaller animal, or sometimes even a person, runs in front of them."

Sometimes, pet owners find it difficult to accept that their otherwise gentle dogs can react aggressively. But this is a natural defence mechanism. While it can be startling, it’s important not to punish these behaviours as this can cause them to escalate. Instead, when you focus on identifying triggers, you can work on desensitisation or find ways to manage them more effectively.

Avoid unsupervised play

Unpredicted changes in a dog’s behaviour can occur, and roughhousing can quickly escalate beyond the comfort zones of one or both parties.

Avoiding off-leash interactions without close supervision is best for less predictable interactions and dogs still learning social cues.

Structured play dates with known, well-matched companions can give your dog a social outlet without the risks associated with free-for-all play in public areas.

Build positive associations

Training isn't just about teaching your dog what to do, but building positive associations with people, places, and other dogs. Positive reinforcement training can help your dog feel more comfortable in various situations.

A happy, confident dog is less likely to react with aggression. They will feel safe, which is invaluable in preventing dog attacks.

Here are our top tips for building positive associations:

  • Start early: Puppies are impressionable and learn quickly, so begin training and socialisation as early as possible.
  • Keep it fun: Use treats, toys, and praise to make training a joyful experience for your dog.
  • Take baby steps: Gradually introduce new places and situations, allowing your dog to become familiar with each step before moving on to the next.
  • Be consistent: Use the same commands and techniques each time to avoid confusion for your dog.
  • Keep it short: Training sessions should be short and frequent rather than long and infrequent. This will keep your dog engaged and prevent boredom or frustration.

By building positive associations with people, places, and other dogs through training, you set your dog up for success in social situations. It will also help them feel more relaxed and confident, reducing the chances of aggressive behaviour.

When to contact your vet

In the unfortunate event that your dog is involved in – or the victim of – an attack, the immediate aftermath is not the time for guesswork. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible, regardless of apparent injury. They can assess your pet for shock, trauma, or internal damage that may require immediate attention.

From a preventive standpoint, your vet can be a valuable resource in understanding if there was a behavioural trigger or if there are any concerns to address moving forward.

Post-attack, some dogs may exhibit fear or aggression in situations that never bothered them before. This is why immediate post-incident care and a discussion with your vet and a veterinary behaviourist or animal behaviour consultant are so important. They can guide you in the next steps to ensure your dog doesn't develop lasting behavioural issues.

When to create an emergency plan

Having a plan in place is crucial in case of any emergency concerning your dog. This includes not only physical attacks but also natural disasters, accidents, or unexpected health crises.

Your emergency plan should include:

  • Contacting your veterinarian and identifying the nearest animal hospital that can provide urgent care if needed.
  • Having an updated list of any medications or allergies your dog has for quick reference.
  • Knowing the safest way to transport your dog if necessary (i.e. have a carrier or leash readily available).
  • Having a well fitted muzzle in case of an emergency (even if your dog is friendly).
  • Having an emergency first aid kit specifically for pets.

An emergency plan can help you act swiftly and with purpose. In an intense situation, remaining calm and taking decisive action can be lifesaving. Preparation doesn't just mean knowing what to do; it means having the confidence to do it when it matters most.

In the case of the unthinkable, SPCA Pet Insurance could have you covered with comprehensive coverage for accidents and illnesses. We aim to ensure you can provide the best care possible for your pet whānau without worrying about financial constraints.