Case file: dog victim of dog attack

I recently received this email from a friend, in regards to her intact male Great Dane. The following is my response!


I know you normally deal with very aggressive dogs but I have a question about the victims. For the last 6 months, B has become the target of aggression by many dogs. It got really bad about a month ago when a dog slipped its collar at the school while he was playing with some other dogs and singled him out of the group from 30 feet away and made a beeline for him, attacked him  and tried to kill him. I had to pull the dog off of him. B was not fighting back and actually was trying to move away to avoid being bitten but he tripped over some smaller dogs and fell and the attacking dog saw an opening and just clamped down on his neck. After I finally got the dog to let go of B they took it away and B was completely fine with everything. He wasn’t afraid and we went to the other side of the field and kept playing.

About two weeks ago, I was at the field again and he was playing with two dogs that he has played with before. One of them is a golden retriever who is about a year old. Everything was going fine until the retriever was being pet by its owner and it laid on its back to have its belly rubbed. Just then, B went over to it and started sniffing at its belly and the retriever went nuts and started attacking B. Once again, he did not fight back and he did not act afraid but just moved out the way to avoid getting bitten. We had to physically restrain the retriever to make it stop.

Other times there is growling or hair up from the other dogs and once again, B is totally indifferent to them. He just stands there or he walks away from them. His posture to me does not look aggressive or challenging but apparently to the other dogs it is. Sometimes as he walks away, the other dog will follow him and try to get a reaction from him and he just ignores them and plays with his toys. It’s weird.

It seems to me that for some reason, B is failing to communicate to the other dog that he is not a threat and I am concerned that I have done something wrong to make him like this. Is there anything I can do to help him learn how to communicate with aggressive dogs better? Also, other than avoiding all other dogs completely or getting B fixed, do I have any other options?

My response:

From what you’re describing, B is communicating exactly as he should to tell other dogs he’s not a threat. He’s got three big things working against him: his size, his youth, and the fact that he’s intact.
Any smaller dog is going to go on the aggressive-defensive if it feels like B might be threatening. Not if the other dog feels B is aggressive, but if they feel like they might get stepped on, for instance. Because B is big, this is pretty much every dog at the park. So, the first thing to do is to call him off any dog that’s in a vulnerable position: lying down (belly up or back up; doesn’t matter), getting mobbed by several dogs, being chased by several dogs, and a dog that is playing hard and B goes to see what they’re up to. (If he trots up to two dogs playing hard with his head up, he’s saying, “Are you guys playing or fighting? Do you need help?” Those dogs may turn on him for trying to “help” or even join in, because playing hard gets the blood going and fighting hard is only a half step away. If he butts in where he’s not wanted, their frustration at that may easily turn to aggression.)
Now, his youth is an obvious thing: he’ll outgrow that in another year or two. In the meantime, young dogs are more exuberant and bouncy than older dogs; combined with his size, his bounciness may provoke defensiveness in another dog who is worried about getting bounced on. Young dogs are notorious for not realizing their size and strength, so older dogs will tell them to back off preemptively.
Finally, him being intact will make him a target. This isn’t a “get him neutered now!” problem, but more of a “be aware of dogs running at him” problem. A dog that has a tendency toward aggression will target him. The best thing you can do when you see a dog running toward him is call him to you, step between him and the other dog, and when the other dog is close enough charge it yourself and try to kick it in the abdomen. Don’t worry; despite my best attempts, it’s impossible to kick a dog in the abdomen. When you try, though, they tune in and leap out of the way. At worst, they’ll attempt to get around you and attack again, and at best they’ll hesitate and decide what to do, giving you or an owner a chance to grab the dog.
The good news: B is helping you out. Because he’s willing to run away from them, he’ll be far more willing for you to step between them and take care of the problem. If he ever does get the confidence to say, “I’ll help Mom get them!” chase him off (either then, or as soon as the danger is over) so he learns that’s not acceptable. It will only make the dog fight much, MUCH worse. After everything is over, praise him like crazy for running away or staying behind you. This does two things: reinforces that you don’t want him fighting, and bringing his mood up so the whole experience doesn’t become traumatic. He’ll walk away going, “Sure, there was a scary bit, but then we had fun!” That’s what you want.
Finally, if he gets snapped at or told to back off and he does, praise him again. A few seconds of praise and playing with his toys is perfect; we want bouncy, happy energy coming from you for a moment, so he knows for sure he did it right. (I often tell my dogs how proud of them I am, and scratch all along their sides to produce the wiggliness I’m looking for.)
I have all these same issues with Cash, but they’ve mellowed out as he’s mellowed out and learned to ignore dogs in vulnerable positions (or at least come away when I call). The target thing is still there, because he’s intact, but mostly dogs are okay with him. Hang in there, and start calling him away!