Preventing post-attack trauma

Dog pressed against a person, looking sad

Dog attacks are so terrifying and we never expect it to happen to our dog…

Typically we hear things like “he’s never done that before!” or “I didn’t see it coming – it came out of the blue!” and neither makes us feel better when it’s our dog on the receiving end.

Let’s unpack why it happens, what to do to prevent it, and how to handle it after it happens. 

Why does it happen? 

It can happen for a variety of reasons and you may not always know why: 

  • one dog is on-leash and one is off-leash – the restraint of one dog can lead to an incident easily
  • one dog is unaltered and the other is altered (more common in males)
  • one dog is a puppy and the other is intolerant of puppies
  • one dog is nervous and the other is a “bully”
  • one dog is reactive and triggered by the other
  • both dogs are over-aroused and triggered by the other
  • there is a great size difference between the two dogs and the smaller one squeals, yelps, or moves quickly (predatory drift)
  • there’s a resource in play (food, water, toy, etc…) 
  • …the list goes on… 

How do we prevent it? 

  1. Proper socialisation executed when our dogs are young – this is KEY. Check out our SMART Socialisation for Puppies course here.
  2. Learning about canine communication and body language is paramount. Check out our module on Canine Communication and Body Language in our Basic Manners course here.
  3. Teach your dog that they don’t have to say ‘hi’ to every dog on a walk; use games like Look at That to prevent them from getting frustrated on leash (this can lead to frustration-based reactivity and even aggression down the road!) 
  4. Get to know your local dog park well (if you choose to use dog parks), without your dog first. Getting to know the regulars can help you gauge whether or not this is a good place for your dog. Learn more about dog parks here. 

What if it happens?

Your dog may be the aggressor or the victim. Learn what to do in either scenario:  

Recognise that after an incident, adrenaline and cortisol are coursing through your dog’s system at top-speed. These hormones allow us to fight or flight when threatened. It’s natural and normal. Your dog will be agitated or even panicked. Adrenaline comes down fairly quickly once we get away from the scene. Cortisol, however, takes 3 days (approx.) to come down. Learn more about this by clicking here and scrolling to 1:13:48. Cortisol is going to make your dog feel like they have a shorter fuse and even act out of character. We have to be ready for this and help them relax for a few days so that they can fully recover. 

What do I do afterwards?

Emotionally, these incidents always leave a trauma as it would if we were attacked by a knife-wielding person. The trauma doesn’t always show right away and it’s common to see it pop up over time and especially during hormonal surges like in adolescence (6-18 months) or social maturity (1.5 years), which feels very confusing for us since it can show right away or show quite a while later. 

  1. take three days off; keep everything really calm, avoid dog parks and other dogs completely. If you have a backyard, use that instead of leash-walks for three days. 
  2. limit your dog’s on-leash greetings with stranger-dogs for now and only allow him to meet dogs you know they’re comfortable with.
  3. book playdates with reliable dog-friends who don’t overwhelm or play too rough, a couple times a week.
  4. avoid stranger-dogs but not in a stressful way – look at it as an exercise in A: changing the emotional response and B: teaching them to ignore some dogs and 😄 teaching them that they don’t have to greet ALL dogs on leash. We’ll talk about what this looks like in a minute.*
  5. avoid off-leash play with other dogs until you can enlist the help of a qualified trainer to determine if it’s safe to return. 

Here is your training plan: 

  1. *Avoid stranger-dogs but not in a stressful way – when you’re approaching a dog, move off to the side by using happy-talk and treats to encourage your dog to come with you. That buys you a bit of time. You can then keep walking past them without an interaction, or…
  2. If the other person wants the dogs to meet, you have some work to do first.
    1. Observe the other dog; is the dog loose and friendly? is the dog fixated or intense? is the dog a little over-the-top? The latter two would cause me to say “maybe another time…” and keep moving. The former would cause me to ask the question: is your dog friendly with _______ [ unaltered males ] or [ puppies ] or [ shy dogs ] or [ old dogs ]?”. 
    2. If the answer is a confident “yes” then look at your dog. Is your dog loose and friendly? Or hesitant, hiding, cowering, showing signs of stress, barking, worried, upset, etc…? The former would cause me to say “maybe another time…” and keep moving. The former would mean that we can meet, but with loose leashes and just keep it short – 3-mississippi and then call your dog away happily for a treat. 
  3. While on leash-walks, take every opportunity to change the emotional response to other dogs even if you’re not seeing signs of emotional trauma. To really solidify this strategy, check out this video: Scroll to 1:20:54 to learn more. (In fact, watch the whole masterclass if you can – it can really help!)

We want to prevent leash-reactivity or defensive aggression in our dogs – a common side effect of being attacked. We want to get on this like a dog on cheese if your dog starts showing signs of discomfort, whether fight or flight when faced or interacting with other dogs.