A couple weeks back, a reader asked about a neighbor’s pit bull who raced into her yard and attacked her unsuspecting Labrador retriever. The situation brought to mind a frightening bullying episode in my sweet Whoopsie’s past. My reaction to the readers question was swift and–I confess–too brief. “You can’t do anything for the dog! Protect your own. Call the police if it happens again.” That was what I told her to do, but not why. I’ve been regretting it ever since. I dedicate this piece to her, and others whose dogs are targeted by a bully in the neighborhood.
What is the definition of a “dog bully?” It’s a dog who mindfully uses aggression to frighten other dogs into submission: a dog who would rather attack and hurt than play and explore. It is most often a dog who has been stressed by neglect or abuse, but sometimes the neighborhood bully is just untrained or poorly socialized. The owners are either oblivious, victimized by the dogs themselves, or mean. What to do?
The first and most important step is to understand what you and your dog are up against. Like kids, dogs need leader to respect and provide structure. This person becomes an anchor and reference point. The leader should provide daily routines, structured activities and love so that the dog will feel secure and thrive. Some dogs are shy and need more love, others are more independent and willful and need more structure. Each person has to rise to the needs of their dog.
A dog without a person to follow and model is lost in an unpredictable world—determined to interact and feel connected to their life experience, they often act inappropriately. Some become fearful, some hyper. Then there are those that spiral out of control, resorting to primitive, territorial and protective behavior. These dogs use aggression to regain their sense of balance.
I have witnessed enough dog aggression to make this hypothesis: in the heat of the moment, an aggressive dog is getting a high--a rush that invigorates their psyche and defines their identity. Aggressive dogs often get feedback that reinforces their behavior–fear or submission– and the cycle continues.
So back to the question my reader asked--what can she do to protect her dog? If the she feels an attack is imminent or is in progress, she should not dive in. Human interference escalates the tension and often encourages fighting. She could create a more serious situation and be injured as well. A simple and reasonably safe deterrent is a garden hose. A quick jet of water is startling and effective.
In most cases, dog fights resolve themselves. In my reader’s case, her dog submitted and the bully relented, as is often the case. Bullies just want the rush of dominance. Once their intended victim is cringing, they move on to their next one who crosses their path.
Sadly, she can’t help the neighbor’s dog. That is the responsibility of its owner. If the situation continues or escalates, she should contact the police. An aggressive dog is a problem, but an unrestrained, poorly managed aggressive dog is a significant threat.
Keep the questions coming. Share your experiences with bullying dog, or if you have a bully—get help. Like kids, the bullies are the ones who are really suffering.