If you have ever been surprised by a sudden display of aggression, the following can help you safely diffuse the situation and prevent it from happening in the future. Once you do so, immediately call a qualified training and behavioral professional to help you determine the cause and also give you techniques to teach the dog new ways to cope with aggressive triggers.
Be calm. If a dog growls over a bone, snarls at another dog or lunges at a child; your first instinct is most likely to yell “no”. Aggressive behavior is unacceptable, dangerous and should not be tolerated from any pet dog. However, loud scolding can cause the dog to become more defensive and attack. If the dog is on a leash, quietly guide yourselves away from the target of aggression. By adding distance to the situation, you give the dog an opportunity to recover.
If the dog is off leash, safety tactics can be a bit trickier. If you are approaching the dog, stop immediately. Continuing to walk towards an aggressive dog indicates you are not backing down. Contrary to popular information, attempting to “dominate” an aggressive dog cause to feel threatened and actually make the situation worse. You can take pressure off the situation with an off-leash dog by stopping, slightly turning your head or lowering your gaze and relaxing your body while remaining still. This communicates to the dog you are not a threat and this can ease tension. Do not turn your back, run, scream or flail your arms about. All of these can exacerbate the situation or put you in a vulnerable position.
When the guardian of that dog or a second person comes into the room ask them to show the dog something of interest as far away from you as possible and confine the dog immediately. Though a treat tossed into another room may reward the nasty behavior, safety is the number one goal.
Practice prevention. If the above happens, make note of what caused the aggression. Was it a toy? Did a new person approach the dog too quickly? Was the dog attempting to protect another person? A good trainer can help you identify the causes but until you can schedule an appointment, you must practice management to prevent putting yourself and the dog in the same position again. Leashes and gates are a great way to slowly and safely introduce the dog to children, other dogs and strangers. The dog should be behind a gate and an approaching child told to walk slowly as an adult human praises and treats the dog for happily accepting the novel little person. You prevent bites and unnecessary stress to everyone with well orchestrated introductions. It is important when acclimating a dog to a new home to repeat introductions over and over again to assure the dog is completely comfortable with new surroundings. Treats should never be used when introducing another dog. But, once you develop a relationship with the dog, tons of verbal praise and short interactions can interrupt percolating aggression before a perilous attack occurs with dog introductions.
Understand body language. In my line of work I meet a myriad of aggressive dogs, some with very serious bites in their past. Nonetheless, I remain safe because I am very observant of what dogs are attempting to communicate to me. Indications that a dog is close to becoming defensive are: hard stare, tightening of the mouth, pulsating (not wagging tail) and tense body posturing. If the dog positions his or herself between you and another person, runs away with a toy and hovers over it in any way or completely moves and turns away from you, do not push it! While I agree dogs should not be permitted to do these things, tense and uncomfortable moments are not the time to train a new behavior. In those situations, do not walk up to the dog. Take the pressure off by using your body language and when the dog is in another room, pick up the toy and place it in a closet or keep the person at a further distance.
Never punish any of the above. If you get in a dog’s face who has already surpassed tension and is growling, snarling or snapping you could get attacked. If the dog’s bite history and capability are unknown, you could end up in the emergency room. Applying force to an agitated, uncomfortable and volatile situation can cause serious injury to you. If the punishment is extremely harsh, some dogs stop communicating for fear of punishment. Teaching a dog not to growl before a bite is very scary!
Prevention and understanding are the best ways to keep an aggressive dog calm. However, in the face of a surprise, look away and remain calm yourself. Once you are safe, call a trainer to get the help you need.