When you are out and about with your dog, or even just on your own, sometimes a situation arises where a dog may approach you in an unfriendly or threatening way. This can be scary and potentially dangerous.
There have been anecdotal reports of more of these encounters occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased dog bites reported. It is thought that the upheavals, stress and anxiety of the pandemic situation are likely to be impacting our canine companions too, including them sensing and reacting to people’s stress. This may result in pets perhaps being more anxious, stressed and reactive than normal.
Note that many of the reported dog bites have occurred at home and involve children . This is likely to be related to humans, including children, spending more time at home with their pets, often with more restricted outings and space. This highlights that it is very important to always supervise your children with your pets and to allow your pets some quiet alone space and time when they want it.
Below we have given some advice to help you keep yourself and your dog safe when you are out and about.
General advice to improve safety when walking your dog:
- Keep your dog on a leash. If your dog is not used to walking on a leash or seeing other people and dogs, it is a good idea to do some training to help them to be calm in these situations. See these articles on leash training and socialisation for more information:
What equipment should I use when teaching my dog or puppy to walk on a leash?
How can I socialise my puppy during the COVID-19 pandemic?
How can I teach my dog recall (to come when called)?
A short leash is best as it helps you to socially distance from others, avoids your dog getting too close to other dogs and people, thus avoiding fights with other dogs and people having to intervene. A short leash minimises risks of entanglement and also facilitates a quick retreat in case you are approached by a roaming or unfriendly dog or a person you want to avoid.
- It is also a good idea to get your dog feeling comfortable with seeing people wearing masks before going out. See this article for advice on how to do this.
- Make sure that you have trained your dog to have good recall. You want to ensure that your dog will return to you in case you drop the leash, or they get away from you.
- Look ahead and survey the path you are taking to check for other people, dogs and traffic so you can be prepared. It is important to be respectful of others and recognise that people may be particularly concerned about dogs getting too close to them at the moment. If your dog tends to get excited or nervous about pedestrians, cars, cyclists or other dogs approaching, move to a place that avoids close encounters until they pass, i.e. cross the road. Alternatively, use your voice to calm and ask your dog to sit until they pass.
What signs should I look out for?
It is important to know what clues to look for that indicate a dog might be anxious or uncomfortable, as feeling stressed or fearful can lead to aggressive behaviour.
Watch out for these early signs that can warn you that a dog is anxious or uncomfortable so you can take early avoidance action:
- Licking their lips
- Ears backwards or flattened on the head
- Showing the whites of their eyes (“whale eye” – this is a white half-moon shape around the coloured part of the eye)
- Turning their face away
- Trying to move or turn away
- Standing crouched or walking low to the ground
- Low or tucked tail
- Head held low and avoidance of eye contact
- A tense body position, shrinking away
- Lunging towards you (not a friendly bouncing towards you like a dog that wants to play but a lunge forward, often with a stiff tail, tense body position, ears forward and/or flat, direct eye contact).
Signs that a dog is not just anxious or uncomfortable but likely to be aggressive include the following:
- Baring teeth
A dog who is restrained on a leash has less choice to remove themselves from a situation which they find stressful. This may lead them to feel uncomfortable around other people and dogs. Consequently, it may make them more likely to behave aggressively to try and maintain their space and sense of security in a situation they find stressful.
Avoiding an unfriendly or aggressive dog when walking your dog
It is best for you to walk away calmly but quickly. Try to avoid getting too close to the other dog and, if possible, put a visual barrier between you and the other dog (for example, a car, gate, hedge or fence).
Our Dog conflict toolkit below gives advice for a situation in which you are unable to avoid conflict between the dogs.
If your dog is aggressive to someone else or their dog
It is important to know the warning signs that your dog may give if they are feeling stressed or uncomfortable. This will help you take action to prevent your dog initiating an aggressive interaction with someone else or their dog. See What signs should I look out for? above.
Our Dog conflict toolkit below gives advice for a situation in which you are unable to avoid conflict between the dogs.
You should never punish a dog for growling as this is the dog communicating to you that they feel uncomfortable. You need to know this so that you can remove them from the stressful situation and avoid escalation. A growl is often a last attempt of a dog to tell you they need to get out of a situation before they resort to biting. Often the dog will have tried to warn you in other ways first (see the examples given in What signs should I look out for? above) but these may have not been noticed or were ignored. If you punish a dog for growling, they may learn not to growl. Then, if early signs of anxiousness or stress are not recognised, the dog may appear to bite without notice.
If your dog is aggressive towards another dog or a person, it is important that you take precautions to avoid this happening again.
- If it has never happened before, carefully think about the incident to determine if your dog might have reacted in that way because they were afraid (e.g. perhaps the other dog was very large or approached your dog in an overly energetic or threatening way). If there was a clear reason, then this is something you should work on in training with your dog to habituate them to that situation in a safe way, so they do not react aggressively if it happens again.
- It is a good idea to contact your vet, to check if there could be some medical reason for their reaction.
- If there is no clear reason, or this is not the first time, consider consulting with an accredited behaviourist or a trainer who uses reward-based training. Working with them can help train your dog to cope with a variety of situations without them feeling fearful and threatened.
Dog conflict toolkit
General advice for a situation in which conflict cannot be avoided:
- Stay calm and try not to panic. If you panic, this is likely to make the situation worse as it can make the dogs even more stressed and reactive.
- It is important that you do not try to physically separate dogs who are fighting. Putting any part of your body physically in the middle of fighting dogs is likely to end with you being injured. In addition, if you pull one of the dogs away you may cause more injuries, as the other dog may be holding onto them with their teeth when you pull.
- Try to call your dog away and, if the other dog’s owner is present, they may be able to do the same.
- It is best to try distracting the dog from a distance, some strategies you can try are:
- Try to distract the dog with a loud noise like a clap or a loud metallic noise like jingling keys forcefully. You can even be prepared just in case and carry something with you that you can use as a distraction e.g. a can with some coins in it or two metal objects you can strike together to make a noise.
- If you have something like a large coat with you, you could throw this over the fighting dogs.
- If you have a water bottle, you could throw water over the dogs.
- It is best not to shout at or make eye contact with the dogs because they may feel more threatened and it may worsen the situation.
- Once you have been able to distract and separate the dogs, make sure you get your dog back on the leash (if they got away from you) and away from the other dog as soon as possible. Move them somewhere they can calm down away from the other dog. Just be very careful as you put the leash on/touch your dog as they are likely to be very stressed and reactive and may bite you, even if this very out of character for them. If it is not safe to get too close, you can use a slip leash to remove them from the other dog until they calm down (you can make one with your normal leash simply by putting the end of the leash through the handle to make a loop and placing this over their head).
- If the owner of the other dog is present, it is a good idea get their contact details. If possible, take a photo of the dog.
- Photograph and record any injuries to your dog. It is also a good idea to get the contact details of any witnesses.
- Report the incident to the council, especially if your dog has been injured.
- Take your dog to the vet and encourage the owner of the other dog to take their dog to the vet too. Even if you cannot see any obvious injuries or the injuries do not look serious, it is important to take them to the vet promptly for a complete check. Dog fight injuries are often worse than they look because bites tend to do a lot of damage to the tissues underneath the skin which you cannot see but which can be serious. Also, the bacteria in dogs’ mouths can easily cause serious infections.
- If you have been bitten or injured in any way, see your doctor (or go to the emergency room of the hospital) to be checked. If another person was involved in the incident, encourage them to see their doctor if they sustained any injuries.
Specific advice if you are approached by an unfriendly or aggressive dog while walking on your own:
- Stay calm and try not to panic.
- It is best to face the approaching dog and stand still, keeping your arms folded in front of you. This prevents you accidentally swinging your arms around which might make them a target for the dog to bite.
- Do not make eye contact or shout at the dog.
- If the dog then barks and backs away (which many do), you can back away slowly in a calm and relaxed manner until you are some distance away and the dog is not following you. Many dogs will walk away once they realise there is nothing to chase. Once the dog walks away, you can turn and walk away.
- If the dog does not leave but instead starts jumping up on you, remain calm and turn your back towards the dog. Keep your back to the dog so the dog cannot get to your face.
- If the dog is trying to bite you, you can use something to act as a shield between you and the dog. Use whatever you have with you or can find around you but something wide and flat works best (for example, a large bag, a sturdy umbrella you could open up, or bin lid).
- If the dog knocks you to the ground, roll up in a ball with your knees bent and your hands around the back of your neck and hold as still as possible.
- The incident should be reported to the council.
- If the owner of the dog is around, get their contact details and a photo of the dog.
- Photograph and record any injuries you have. It is a good idea to get the contact details of any witnesses.
- If you have been bitten or injured in any way, see your doctor (or go to the emergency room of the hospital) to be checked. Dog bite injuries are often worse than they look because bites tend to do a lot of damage to the tissues underneath the skin which you cannot see but which can be serious. Also, the bacteria in dogs’ mouths can easily cause serious infections.
 Dixon CA, Mistry RD (2020) Dog Bites in Children Surge during Coronavirus Disease-2019: A Case for Enhanced Prevention. The Journal of Paediatrics, 225: 231-232.
This article has been based on information from these resources, where you can get more detail if you’d like:
- The Pet Professional Guild Australia (you can join the Pet Professional Guild Australia as a pet owner free of charge as a member and access detailed advice on many topics)
- Pet Professional Guild (you can join the Pet Professional Guild as a pet owner free of charge as a member and access detailed advice on many topics)
- Veterinary behaviourist Dr Sophia Yin