There is one major rule about approaching an aggressive dog: don't. Whatever the reason he's upset, an aggressive dog may attack and bite. Instead, only approach a dog in a way that will not provoke him, and only approach if you have permission from his owner.
Dogs don't become aggressive because they're mean. Hunger, sexual instinct and illness can stir aggression in dogs, but usually they become aggressive because they feel threatened in some way.
Reasons Dogs Get Aggressive
Dogs are protective. This drive to protect what's theirs includes the drive to protect territory, members of their packs, food or their offspring. When a dog feels that something that's "his" is in jeopardy, he will defend it with everything he's got.
When a dog feels that his safety is threatened, he will likely become aggressive. This is similar to his drive to defend his territory, except that he is protecting himself. Fear can trigger aggression, particularly if the dog wants to get away from you but feels trapped or cornered. If the dog wants to leave, let him.
A dog might also become aggressive because he's hurt. Wounded dogs may believe you are going to hurt them or kill them.
Never approach a wounded dog. He won't know that you mean no harm. Call animal control if you find a wounded dog.
When a dog gets surprised, he might also turn aggressive or snap. Avoid running up to or otherwise surprising a dog; he won't appreciate being startled.
Social aggression usually occurs when he's frustrated or you try to take something away from him, particularly food.
Lastly, heat, the search for a sexual partner or a pregnancy can make a dog aggressive. Protective hormones increase in pregnant dogs, and a mother dog's instinct to protect her litter can turn even the sweetest dog violent.
Steer clear of any dog who's nursing her pups and never make a move toward her pups.
Signs of Aggression in Dogs
An aggressive dog can be a scary sight. If there is good news, it's that aggressive postures and behaviors tend to be obvious.
An aggressive dog will often:
- Become rigid
- Stare at you
- Bark with a deep, guttural bark
- Show teeth
- Snap at you
- Lunge in your direction, but not contact you
- Nip at you
- Mouth you and try to move you without actually biting
- Muzzle punch, or butt you with his snout
A dog might take one or many of these actions, sometimes simultaneously. What's important is to learn to recognize aggressive behaviors. Dogs typically don't attack without a warning and will usually give you the opportunity to take a hike.
Reading Body Language
Learning to read canine body language can help you steer clear of a dog that could be trying to warn you away.
Eyes: A dog who's barking and staring at you is often a sign of aggression and dominance. But if he is looking at you from the corners of his eyes, he is probably signalling an attack.
Mouth: Bared teeth, upturned lips and a wrinkled muzzle are sure signs of aggression in dogs.
Ears: Dogs raise their ears when alert to something, but if one flattens his ears against his head, he may be preparing to attack or fight.
Hair: Hair standing on end, usually along the ridge of the back, is a definite sign of fear and aggression in dogs.
Tail: Not all wags are the same. A wagging tail could signal wariness. A tail sticking straight up and waving like a flag or windshield wipers usually means the dog is prepping to defend something.
Dealing With an Aggressive Dog
If you should happen upon an aggressive dog, do not make the situation worse. Follow a few common sense rules and you should be fine.
Never try to run from a dog. Remaining calm, even if you're scared to death, will signal that you are neither threat nor prey. The last thing you want is for an aggressive dog to chase you with his prey drive ramped up, because he can and will outrun you. Remain calm and back away slowly.
Don't Smile or Stare
Smiling at people means you're trying to be friendly. Smiling to a dog means you're baring your teeth. Do not smile or show your teeth to a dog. Similarly, do not stare a dog in the eye; he will interpret it as a challenge.
Never turn your back on an angry dog. Instead, turn sideways and calmly step away from the dog. Do not give him a reason to chase or sneak-attack you.
Talk Softly, but Assertively
Be firm. Say "shh" or "hey," but say it coolly. Most dogs have owners and respond to basic commands and utterances like these. Just don't make any sudden movements when you vocalize. The trick is to make sure the dog stops seeing you as someone he can intimidate. Most dogs will lose interest once they realize you're no threat.
Take Up Space
Assume a calm, assertive stance and, if you happen to be carrying anything like a cane or umbrella, place it out in front of yourself. This will make you appear bigger to the dog and will tell him that you're not interested in his space, only your own. The calm, assertive posture lets him know that you are not afraid
How to Approach a Dog
Aggressive or not, any dog who doesn't know you can become defensive or aggressive if you approach him the wrong way.
Do ask the owner's permission to approach a dog.
Do listen if the owner says no.
Do approach quietly and calmly.
Do not rush over to the dog and speak in a high-pitched, whiny voice. This could startle the dog.
Do not play with the dog while he's on his leash. This could leave the owner with an overexcited dog to contend with.
Do turn your body sideways and avoid direct eye contact so the dog does not see you as a threat.
Do not reach out toward the dog. Instead, let him take a step or two toward you.
Do pet him gently on the head.
Do not try to touch his belly, legs or tail.
Do stay calm and patient. If the dog does not come to you, do not engage him.
Do not tell the owner, "It's OK," if the dog is overly friendly and jumps on you playfully.
Do pay attention to the dog's body language.
Do not make sudden moves toward the owner; you could trigger the dog's protective instincts.