Talk to the Animals
Zoologist and animal behaviour expert, Sally Hibbard, is interested in the relationship between people and their pets. She’s a fan of frogs, scared of spiders and can be seen spotting stick insects.

Talk to the Animals: Why dogs attack, what to do about it

All dogs have the potential to attack, but they can be trained to avoid it. 
Photo / Thinkstock
All dogs have the potential to attack, but they can be trained to avoid it. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm watching a large and very impressive police dog lunging at the arm of a petite 16-year-old girl. No, I'm not at the scene of a crime, I'm running a course for teenagers interested in careers with animals. The equally impressive handler easily calls his dog back and seconds later the young 'criminal' is giving the dog a friendly pat with no hard feelings. This powerful dog is expertly trained and under complete control.

Many NZ Police dogs are bred from Eastern European bloodlines due to their high scenting ability, prey drive and trainability. These genetic characteristics are carried through generations and molded by strict ongoing training.

However, not all genetic traits in dogs are good and this tends to be the case with the more controversial dog breeds. Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, Brazilian Fila and the American Pit Bull Terrier were originally used for hunting or fighting purposes and are banned from import, though still present in NZ.

Years of controlled breeding selecting for traits such as aggression, pain tolerance, bite strength and stamina, combined with the size and power of these breeds means they are dangerous when not trained and socialised correctly by experienced handlers.

Supporters of these dogs argue passionately that they are great family pets when properly trained. I agree, but not when they are kept by irresponsible dog owners, many who keep them simply for appearances. Some individuals are just not equipped to deal with these potentially lethal animals. Irresponsible owners keep poodles too, however the key difference is that an out of control poodle will not inflict anything like the sort of injuries that a Pitbull could.

All dogs have the potential to react aggressively in response to certain triggers, as demonstrated recently with the terrible attack on Sakurako Uehara. The offending Staffordshire Bull Terriers are not considered a dangerous breed, though they are powerful dogs, especially when acting as a pack. As details emerge we may know more as to what caused the dogs to behave so aggressively.

Aggression in dogs is generally caused by:

Fear: Dogs bite when they feel they must defend themselves, for example, if cornered or a hand or object raised.

Boredom and frustration:: Dogs may bite when they are tied up or confined for long periods, especially when they aren't getting much exercise.

Lack of socialisation: All dogs must be socialised with other dogs, children and adults from puppy stage. Failure to do so will make the dog mistrust other animals and people often resulting in aggression.

Possession aggression: This can apply to toys, food or even the couch. Some dogs will also show possessiveness of their house and backyard. This behavior can be corrected with specific training.

Dominance behavior: Dogs have a natural tendency to assert their position in a pack, even when that pack is human. Becoming your dog's pack leader is about respect, not fear, and can be done in simple ways such as walking through the door first, eating before the dog does and having clear boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Prey drive: Dogs usually retain the instinct to chase a moving object as this is how they obtained food prior to domestication. Prey drive is what makes dogs fetch, chase cars, and is what makes police dogs pursue offenders. If not properly socialised as a puppy, running or squealing children can be perceived as prey to be chased and bitten.

International dog expert Cesar Milan advises the following to avoid your dog biting you or someone else:

Avoid aggressive games: If you start a wrestling match, tug-of-war, or even a particularly energetic game of fetch with your dog, you may be accidentally bitten.

Teach submissive behavior: Your dog should be trained from an early age to give up food without growling or biting, lie on his back and expose his stomach, and other submissive behaviors. If your dog knows that you're the pack leader, you'll be able to stop any unwanted or dangerous behaviors in their tracks.

Desex your dog: Not only is this a good idea for population control, it also reduces aggression in dogs. Dogs can be
excitable enough without extra hormones in the mix.

Do not leave your dog alone with babies or small children: This can have tragic consequences. Children are prone to poke or hit dogs or play inappropriately, which can provoke a bite.

What to do if you encounter an aggressive dog (sourced from

Stay calm and don't shout or kick at the dog.
Stay very still and do not run.
Avoid direct eye contact and turn to the side. This demonstrates that you are not a threat.
Place any object you have in front of you.
If possible, let the dog attack a loose piece of clothing that can be pulled off and slowly back away. A shoe, bag or water bottle can also be used in this manner, allowing the dog to have a 'piece of you'.
Protect your face, chest and throat and keep hands in a fist to protect fingers.
If you are bitten don't pull away as this will cause tearing injuries.
If possible lift the dogs back legs off the ground which can disconcert it enough to release its hold.

Ultimately the frequency of dog attacks could be significantly reduced by good training practices by owners of all breeds, keeping dogs securely on properties and under control in public areas. Current suggestions of enforcing owners to allow dog-free access to a front door and restricting the numbers of dogs on each property makes good sense to me and may even have prevented the recent tragic attack.


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