Defensive Dog Handling

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Female of a dog of breed a Rottweile.

Female of a dog of breed a Rottweile.

I got a very disturbing reply to one of my articles today.

Let me explain, it wasn’t “really disturbing” but it is disturbing to me!

I see the horrors of the dog world.

Most people see pictures and videos of fluffy Golden Retriever and Lab puppies playing in a field of flowers, but as a dog trainer and one who specializes and works with aggressive dogs, I see the horrors.

I see the dogs that bite children in the face.

I once worked with another dog trainer whose nose had literally been ripped off of her face by a 15# terrier mix.  She endured several surgeries but will never look the same nor be able to cover the scars.

And, it is not a surprise that she has post-traumatic stress disorder and can no longer train or have much of anything to do with dogs anymore.

I see the stories of the dogs that kill people.

And, I hear the stories from my peers of dogs that have tried to kill them.

I also recently went to a Sue Sternberg seminar where she reiterated a lot of points that I think need to be shared.

We don’t make the top 25 most dangerous job list, but we certainly have to keep our wits about us.

The trainer who’s nose was ripped off, was leaning in to kiss the cute little dog.

I very, very, very rarely kiss a dog.

Actually I have gotten to the point that I don’t even pet many anymore.

This is Risky Behavior

This is Risky Behavior

I have learned through experience that it is better safe than sorry, and I am lucky that I have never incurred a bite that needed stitches!

And, I have spent time in a dog bite suit, which significantly increases my risk of a bad or deadly bite.

So What Was the Comment

It is going to seem very innocuous and even kind to you.

It came from a handy man who regularly enters the homes of people he doesn’t know and has encounters with dogs who may aggress or be fearful of him.

He mentioned that he sits on the ground and offers his hand to them as a means of diffusing the situation.

In fact, isn’t that what a lot of us were taught early in life?

If a dog acts aggressively or fearful, get down on their level (kneel, sit, or bend) and extend your hand as a means of friendship and a way to allow the dog to sniff?

Most people, and especially children have heard this, and it works in some instances.

But I see the horrors of the dog world.

My mind pictures this lovely, kind man, sitting on someone’s floor, when a dog becomes more scared or more aggressive.  And, when you are sitting on the floor, you are much more defenseless than when you are standing or even kneeling.

I what happens with the dogs who may be sniffing the outstretched hand, when a siren goes off and startles the dog even more, pushing him past his bite threshold for more on understanding bite threshold click here

You see one stress, (the knocking of the door) added to another stress (the addition of a person the dog doesn’t know or like) added to another stress the siren or (a noise or some other stress that can’t be avoided) dramatically increases the likelihood of a bite.

And, let’s all agree that a 200 pound mastiff is much more dangerous than a 3 pound Chihuahua but both can give a hospitalizing bite if given the opportunity.

And, perhaps he was talking more about the Chihuahua, but my mind pictures the nervous and protective Mastiff.

What Do You Do?

So what do you do, when you are constantly faced with dogs you don’t know?Do it again fur

Assume All Dogs Bite

Hardly anyone, seriously almost NO ONE will admit to having an aggressive or biting dog.

People who come to me for behavior consults often start out by saying he has only one problem, he poops in the house.  Oh yeah, and I can’t get near his food bowl because he growls and threatens to kill me.

Even when they come to me for biting they will rationalize that “their dog doesn’t bite or isn’t aggressive”.

So don’t ever assume someone you meet on the street or in their home will admit that their dog has an aggression issue.

Most Owners Don’t Notice

Also, it is critical to note, that most dog owners don’t notice or read dog behavior for a living.

They don’t realize fluffy is closer to his bite threshold.

Most dog owners and regular people have no idea what a bite threshold is or what it means.

It doesn’t matter how much their dog is barking, growling, or snarling they will tell you he really isn’t aggressive.  Because they aren’t used to listening to what their dogs is trying to tell them.

Be Defensive

My parents taught me to drive defensively.

Never take for granted what you “think” another driver should or might do.

Don’t assume that car will yield or even stop.

Assume that everyone is drunk or under the influence, and give yourself space.  This tip has helped to keep me from having car accidents.

The same is true with interaction with dogs.

Assume all dogs can and will bite you.

Know that your entrance into anyone’s house (of whom you don’t know) is a stressful event for the dog.

Even excitement (or a dog that seems excited to see you) can cause stress and excited dogs are also closer to their bite threshold as well for more on that click here.

Listen to The Dog124

If the dog is scared and trying to run away, don’t force yourself on him.

The closer you get, the more stress he feels.

Don’t hold your hand out, this looks aggressive and hesitant to a dog.  After all, we don’t do this to our own dogs, it only happens when the dog is scared and overly stressed which likely then increases the stress the next time he sees the same picture. Plus your hand is a very delicate piece of machinery that is not easily surgically fixed to the the prior state after a bad bite.  I NEVER want to be bitten in the hand.

I have had friends who have had fingers bitten off, and structural hand damage.  And, it is hard if not impossible to work without your hands.

Allow a scared dog to have space and allow him to get away from you.

If he is acting aggressively, again don’t present your hand and don’t take his space.

Ask his owners to put him on a leash or put him somewhere else where he can be more comfortable.

Don’t worry that the owner will take offense to your request or will think that you aren’t brave.  Instead think of it as the kind thing to do for the dog and the safest thing to do for yourself.

You don’t want to be bent over on the floor (working on something) and have the dog run up and attack you in the face.

Don’t Get Down on the Dog’s Level

Don’t get your face any closer to the dog than you have to.  I would much rather take a surprise bite to the leg or arm than to the face or belly.

If there is a dog that worries you, again ask for the owner to take charge, or shut yourself into the room if you must get on the ground.

If The Dog Rushes You

If a dog rushes at you, stand still and don’t give the dog eye contact.

Carefully avert your eyes while still trying to glimpse in that direction.

Pretend the dog is a bear and make yourself small and non-aggressive.

Don’t Make Quick Movements

Cover your belly area if you can, but don’t make quick movements.  Quick movements might incite a dog bite.

I have seen people disemboweled, so keeping your belly safe is important if you can.

You can also offer a better area if you think the dog is for sure coming in for a bite.

For example, I would much rather feed a dog my forearm than be bitten in the face, belly, or hand.  Remember that your hand is a very delicate piece of machinery that can’t be easily fixed if bitten or crushed.

Sweet, happy, squishy face!

Sweet, happy, squishy face!

Don’t yell, if you can help it.

Dogs are much less likely to deal with a human being aggressive in their own home.  So you might be able to scare the dog away in the street, but you will be much less successful in his own home where he feels most comfortable.

Calmly ask the owner to take charge but don’t scream or yell.

If the Dog Bites

If the dog bites you, do your best not to rip yourself away.

Puncture bites are bad, but ripping your body part out of the dog’s mouth creates a much bigger and deeper wound.

If you can, give the dog a moment and wait.

Most dogs bite and release if you remain calm and quiet.

If you fight, the dog will feel like he has to fight for his life and a much worse bite is liable to happen.

And, most will retreat after, however I always make it habit to look around and find an object that will allow me to protect or shield myself if need be and the dog comes back.

I would only fight if I felt like I needed to fight for my life.

Even If You Love Dogs

Even if you love dogs, not all dogs love all people.

When I know I will be facing a nervous or aggressive dog, I often carry a little bit of food (like string cheese) but I also realize that food can make some dogs more aggressive, so you must be careful.  The more food you carry, the more of a resource it is for the dog to possibly guard.

And, dogs can show serious life changing and life threatening aggression.

I have learned to only pet dogs that are soft and squishy (for more on what I mean by that click here) and those that actively show social, submissive signs and solicit my attention and affection.

And, I am very careful, how and where I pet them until I know them well.  I have to know a dog very well, before I allow myself to let my guard down.

After all, it is better to be safe; than to be in the hospital and be sorry.

There are 95 Comments

  1. Addlynn says:

    Hi, I thought this was a really good article, like most people, I bend down and offer a hand if I’m allowed to pet a strange dog. I have a 2 year old GSD and she is very sweet and loves people. When I am walking her, and if someone wants to pet her, I’ll say yes, but before they do I crouch beside my dog and hold her ‘chin’ area, with my fingers over her mouth, which keeps her mouth firmly closed. She has never bitten or nipped at a stranger, but again, better safe then sorry.


    Minette Reply:

    I would never hold a snout shut, this adds conflict to the situation. If the dog isn’t comfortable, don’t allow people to pet. If you are trying to keep the dog still (and the dog is not possessive), I put a small treat like string cheese in my hand and let the dog nibble as it is being petted. This simply teaches good maners when you have a dog that might jump, etc.


  2. Dail says:

    What an excellent article on aggressive dogs. I am a Certified Dog Trainer, but am not certified to train aggressive dogs. There were several/many points that you brought up that were very helpful. Thank you!


  3. Margaret Caffrey says:

    The first thing I look for in an approaching dog, is that the tongue is hanging but without panting; he puts his ears back and wags his tail at the same time. I let him/her come to me and sniff. Just because the dog wants to investigate you does not mean that he/she necessarily wants you to pet. Keep calm and stay relaxed- arms folded/bent means that one is tense, without realising this. Keep them down. I will not put my hand down suddenly and pat the head, but slowly if the signs are right and rub under the chin……. M.


  4. Wendy says:

    I enjoyed reading this article, i’ve always been taught not to trust any strange dog. I have two, and one is a blue cattle cross boarder collie, she always growls at larger dogs then herself, which is a problem when other dogs come to investigate, when I have asked the owners to call there dogs or put them on a lead I have been abused. I do believe parents should teach their children not to approach strangers dogs ever, or try to pet or kiss dogs. Dogs are animals not humans, I love my dogs but I feel sorry for any burglar if i’m not at home. Hope they can run fast.


  5. Mary says:

    Thank you for this article! When I was a kid, I watched as my younger brother ( 3 years old at the time ) got bit in the face by my uncle’s Dalmatian. He was doing nothing wrong from what I saw – only petting the dog’s head. And we were never warned that the dog was aggressive. This was a very scary situation, and 15 years later my brother is still somewhat skeptical of befriending dogs. It’s especially important to teach children how to respond to dogs. I would say don’t even let a kid near one that you don’t know very well.


  6. Asma says:

    I got my GSD when she was only eight weeks old . She was a lovely puppy and is now an eighteen month old beautiful bitch. She is quite nice to my house employees but lately she changes her behaviour with them,whenever I sit outside in my lawn. She would not even give access to my cook or driver for them to bring me tea or a drink. She does not bite but restrains them by holding their ankle in her mouth and leaves them alone once they retreat. She starts guarding me this way as long as I sit outside my house. She does not do this when I am standing or am indoors. Any suggestions how I can change this behaviour ?


    Minette Reply:

    That is a bite. Teeth on skin is a bite, and a liability. It sounds as though you have money to protect, too, so I would get in contact with a veterinary behaviorist as soon as possible before this turns into a very serious bite and a very scary situation for all of you. You can find a veterinary behaviorist at any veterinary college and there are some that have private practice.


  7. Asma says:

    Thank you I find your articles on dogs most useful. The basic message is that the best way to love your dog is to recognise that its a beast and however gentle it may appear it can have beastly moments which may cost you your beloved dog. So better be safe than sorry. Take responsibility for your dog and be very careful of other people’s dogs. Very timely article for British people where hospital admissions for dog bites has risen to the highest level ever and the vast chunk of victims are children.


  8. Pat Massey says:

    I found these articles to be extremely helpful & useful. Anyone with dog or even a cat should read all of these. Dogs are a lot like people they either like you or they don’t. All of these articles are excellent reading.


    Minette Reply:

    Thank you!!!


  9. Eloise Sikora says:

    I enjoyed reading your articles on biting dogs. I always went up to dogs and petted them. The only dog that bit me was my little daughter’s Springer Spaniel. i had given him a bath and was trimming a few little knots around his testicles with short rounded scissors when he moved. Well, he came after me so I curled up quickly and the only thing he bit was the tie on my 2-piece swim suit. I returned him to the kennel, but I was “on his list” the entire day. He never liked training sessions either. Had 6 Saints at the time. They were so easy to train. My first and last (#9) were house dogs. the last one would get in bed with me and slm his body spoon fashion against me, or if I was facing across the bed, he’ld step over me and put his head and leg across my body!!
    My last dog was a Bichon who lived to be just short of 16 years.


  10. Dorothy Smith says:

    But how do I correct the behavior??? I have two dogs adopted from the shelter. Both are loving, quiet dogs as long as only my husband and I are home. Both go ballistic when someone comes in. After a while, they can accept the person, but the first outburst is upsetting to everyone, even people they know. Both are elderly, 12-15 yr old.


    Minette Reply:

    You have to work on training. Teach the dogs quiet. Put the dogs on leash and teach them to go to their bed instead of greeting people.

    Teaching them what to do is more important than what not to do, because there are so many options with what not to do but so few with what you really want.


  11. Andrea says:

    I thought current behavior with a threatening bear was to make yourself bigger,make noise and fight back if attacked or stalked.


    Minette Reply:



  12. Judi Kudelka says:

    My 8 month old puppy barks and whines when he wants attention even after we just played. It is not aggressive behavior. I cannot continuously play with him. What do I do?


    Minette Reply:

    Exhausted puppies don’t bark, so that tells me that he is not tired. Remember dogs are athletes and you may think you are providing some play… but my guess is he needs more with training.

    Also you can look up articles in the search bar for bark and quiet.


  13. Ginjah Knuth says:

    I love your articles and have learned so much about dogs and about me….I have a very intelligent dog – still a puppy, not quite a year old. It is a lab german Shepard mix and has been quite a challenge since she came to live with us at 7 weeks old. She’s a biter – very mouthy – and on walks in the woods (we live in the woods) she would bite my feet and I would stop and make a high pitched sound (supposedly the way a litter mate would do if being hurt) and she would stop for a second – I would click to enforce the good behavior of her stopping the biting…and then it would happen all over again. I went through 3 pairs of boots this winter from her biting and ripping them – sometimes I would have to hand onto a tree from the force of her biting and pulling at my foot. I learned to get her out of this situation as soon as possible, but when you’re in the woods, you have to get home…often I was dragging her home because she wouldn’t let go of my boot….yes and there was blood and ripped pants as well. She doesn’t do that very much anymore – now she jump up and tangles her leash and pulls and it takes a lot of strength on my part to hold on to the leash. I know about the injuries that can happen to her neck/throat, so I use a halter so she doesn’t get hurt. Also I’ve tried the device that pulls the chin down so she won’t keep pulling, but she lies on the ground and eventually gets it off her – so that doesn’t work either. She’s getting better and her walks with me – but she is so hyper outside – all the scents and the critters – we come across deer often and she wants to chase them and I have to hold her back (not easy) and find a tree to wrap the leash around to help me hold her back. She gets so wild outside. Having said all that, she is a very different dog inside – that’s where we do our training and she is so smart and does so well and I spend lots of time with her – she sits and stays on command….comes when I call her – I click and give her a treat. We play ball – she loves to fetch the ball (again, inside) and I say “get the ball” and click when she gets it – then I say “bring it” and she brings it to me it to me so I click then I say “leave it” and she drops it, I click and give her a treat….we do this over and over again – she loves to play – she loves to have my undivided attention – and I love this dog and I know she is the perfect dog for training because she wants to do these things….outside is a different matter – it’s so hard to be outside with her —she has to be on a leash because it’s not only deer and raccoons and turkeys and rabbits and squirrels she chases – it’s also people who might be walking down the dirt road. Once our neighbor (and thank god we are good friends) was checking her mailbox – and my dog loves her and was so excited to see her, she ran and I could hardly hold her back – (I have one of those leashes that expands) and the dog ran around and around my friend to where her legs (my friend’s legs) had the leash wrapped around her legs several times and fell over….I was able to unwrap the leash – but OMG if that was a child or anyone else, that could have been terrible. I know it’s up to me to train her and I try and I want to and I care about this dog and I know she has what it takes to be a wonderful dog – even a service type of dog – but I am struggling. I am 66 years young – I say that because I am in very good shape from being a yoga teacher for over 40 years – I am strong and flexible – but this dog is much stronger – she already weighs 76 pounds. So, i keep reading your articles and doing the best I can – right now I’m working on sustaining eye contact – and when people come over I put her on the leash, inside the house – and bring her to a different room because she gets so excited and jumps on everyone. When she calms down I bring her out again, but if she starts jumping up on our guests again, it’s back into the other room. So I want to end this on a positive note – when I leave her at home to go to work, she never destroys anything – she doesn’t have separation anxiety…I trust her….. She was crate trained and never ever messes in the house. She is a good, smart dog, and I need to meet the challenge of training her ell. Wish you could come here to see what I mean. OK – and thank you….Ginjah


  14. Polly Schmidt says:

    Thank you, I will share this article.




  16. Carol Neff says:

    I wasent passing off business cars to a local foster program. One of the volunteers asked if I wold be willing to train her dog-aggressive dog. I said I would. Training has not begun yet. I read this article and realized the approach I was going to use, would not have been good, as it was a hands-on training. Thank you for writing this, I now know that would have been a grave mistake. I am still fairly new to the business, and already know that 1 mistake could have cut my career very short.


  17. Caroline says:

    Your article is great. I have a rescued dog from Cyprus who has started biting my husband. She is scared of him. She barks at him every time she sees him apart from when he is eating. Then she will sit at his feet and wait for scraps. At night she won’t let him in the bed and bites his legs, arms, hands. She furiously barks at him. As soon as he is lying down she snuggles with him and lets him pet her. Please can you give me any advice with stopping the barking.
    Many thanks


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