Dog Attacks: What To Do, How To Prevent Them

Updated April 13, 2021

Emergency Info (details to follow):

If Your Dog Is Being Attacked

To separate dogs, try:

  • Water sprays or buckets
  • Aerosols and sprays (pepper spray is only legal in WA)
  • Personal duress alarm (hold buttons on each side of an iPhone down for 5 seconds)
  • A beach towel thrown over the aggressor
  • Picking the aggressor up by the back legs (wheelbarrowing) is dangerous and should only done by the dog’s owner

Do not try to pull the other dog off. That’s up to their owner to do. You will get badly injured. Click here for your closest Adelaide Emergency vet.

Do not blame yourself. Often there’s nothing you can do due to the size and determination of the aggressor. You’ll probably also fail to get the owner’s details in the heat of the moment.

Now dive deeper…

This week all of us have been devastated by the loss of one of our puppies. He died after being mauled by a dog during an evening walk.

You can raise a puppy to be as social as you like but you still have to watch out for the other dogs. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

How Common Are Dog Attacks?

Despite the ever-present fear, attacks leading to death seem rare. I would hear of roughly one a year. However, the problem is far less studied than dog attacks on people.

However, dog attacks in general are far too common. Here’s one survey from March 2018 for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT:

  • One in two Guide Dogs have been attacked by another dog while working
  • 78% of attacks on Guide Dogs were caused by an off-lead dog,
  • 52% of those who reported attacks said it occurred within the last year

Although these figures seem high, there’s no reason to doubt them. According to data from the SA Dog & Cat Management Board, only 1 in 5 dog attacks involving private citizens get reported.

How Dog Attacks Happen

Most attacks happen on a walk, and the serious ones are almost always from a much larger dog. A survey of 132 people here in Adelaide found that dogs get attacked in these places:

  1.   In the street (36%)
  2.   Public park (22%)
  3.   Beach (17%)
  4.   Dog park (16%)
  5.   At home (5%)
  6.   Friend’s house (4%)

Fatal dog attacks are not part of normal dog aggression. A typical serious attack goes as follows:

  • You are out on the street, park or beach
  • An off leash larger dog runs towards your dog
  • Often there is no growling or barking
  • The dog appears fixated and cannot be distracted
  • Submissive behaviour by your dog does nothing
  • Biting is immediate, often followed by vigorous shaking
  • Injuries are rapid and horrifying

Breeds & Owners Responsible

Great care must be taken when talking about the breeds involved. Although you often hear aggressors called Staffies or Pit Bulls, it’s clear that these labels reflect existing community bias.

Additionally, as we also found, dogs called one breed by their appearance usually end up being something else completely.

In one study, 75% of dogs identified by an adoption agency as having specific breeds in their ancestry did not have any of them on DNA analysis. Accuracy can only be worse in a chaotic dog fight. This is why vets say that legislation to ban dog breeds will never work. Just look at this example.

What is clear is that these dogs have been badly treated. Their owners are much more likely to be known by the police, and the dogs themselves have usually been attacked in the past and are very poorly socialised with dogs.

These dogs do not need to be euthanased. I know plenty that could be dangerous, except that they are properly controlled, by muzzles, good fencing and responsible owners.

Preventing Dog Attacks

Prevention therefore must focus on two things:

  1. Better control by the people responsible for the attacks
  2. Avoidance strategies by other dog owners

Getting dangerous dogs under adequate control is critical. All vets know that the owners responsible for these dogs are often repeat offenders. They usually live in denial of the true seriousness of what is happening, and make excuses for their dogs.

I believe that better enforcement is essential.

What To Do If Your Dog Is Attacked

First focus on the health of your dog. Any injury that breaks the skin is likely to get infected. Many injuries can look minor on the outside while masking serious internal damage. Therefore, a visit to your vet is almost essential.

Then we want to prevent it happening to other dogs. A weakness of our system is the use of local councils for enforcement. Although they do their best, and usually have an officer dedicated to the task, they are not the police. Their abilities to pursue and prosecute offenders are much, much more limited.

This is especially true if the offender leaves without providing accurate details. This is all too common. Even if they do, dog owners often choose not to pursue them out of a misplaced feeling of sympathy, or because it’s difficult.

I encourage everyone, no matter how large or small the injury, to report the offence. Even if you only have limited details, it will build up a picture that might help other dogs eventually. And despite the limitations of councils, they are serious about controlling this problem. They can:

  • Issue a warning
  • Give an on the spot fine
  • Take direct court action in more serious cases
  • Impose a control order
  • Place a penalty of $2,500 to $5000

Money is usually the last thing on someone’s mind when this happens, but treatment costs can be substantial. The offender is usually liable for veterinary fees if your dog was on leash and their dog was off in a public area.

Avoiding Dog Attacks

What can an individual dog owner do to reduce the risk or improve enforcement? Here are some suggestions:

  • Walk at times when there are other dog owners around
  • Avoid unknown places, especially on your own
  • Consider owning a wearable camera
  • Offer help to other dog owners even for minor attacks
  • It’s illegal to carry a weapon but you could have a sonic device or bright light
  • Call out bad owner behaviour, especially in dog parks

While on the subject of bad behaviour, the picture from the start of the aggressive dog only tells half the story. Here’s the full image.

dog attacking seal

What can we say about people who not only let their dogs harass wildlife, but actually post the pictures?

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

Further Reading

Ragatz, L., Fremouw, W., Thomas, T., & McCoy, K. (2009). Vicious dogs: the antisocial behaviors and psychological characteristics of owners. Journal of forensic sciences54(3), 699-703

Schilder, M. B., van der Borg, J. A., & Vinke, C. M. (2019). Intraspecific killing in dogs: Predation behavior or aggression? A study of aggressors, victims, possible causes, and motivations. Journal of Veterinary Behavior34, 52-59

Thompson, P. G. (1997). The public health impact of dog attacks in a major Australian city. Medical Journal of Australia167(3), 129-132

Voith, V. L., Ingram, E., Mitsouras, K., & Irizarry, K. (2009). Comparison of adoption agency breed identification and DNA breed identification of dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science12(3), 253-262

One Reply to “Dog Attacks: What To Do, How To Prevent Them”

  1. Thank you for this article Andrew.

    Yes, an informative article for dog owners, & myself included:
    # At times I also have had to use the hose, on my girls. One is now on a medication which has calmed her down, to a degree.
    Prior to thar she was on a mission! “Get rid of her”
    # The amount of times I have been walking my three, ( x2 then x1), and I have encountered so many dogs who are JUST allowed to run freely at my local park , ( signage everywhere ” Dogs must be on lead at all times”).
    # Regardless of the amount of times, I have had to CALL OUT ” Please put your dog on a lead…..I have…[the breed] here”, or I have to redirect my dogs walking path. However, their key role was to hunt game & if challenged they won’t back down.

    I like the suggestion with throwing a towel over both errrrr , ( constant juggling 2 in – 1 out), and given my predicament.
    Also, baby bates to block off part off my home and with a cover.

    Doing my best here, yet once again a much needed article for those dog owners who think just allow their dogs to run off-lead is fine.

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