Another heart-breaking dog death in Dorset. This time a tiny Yorkshire Terrier killed by a Mastiff type breed at Hengistbury Head. I have no more information other than that published which said that the Mastiff type was holding a ball in his mouth then dropped the ball and attacked the Yorkshire Terrier. The Mastiff type owners reportedly fled the scene. Why did this attack happen?
At this stage, we do not know why. The most likely explanation is that the Mastiff was either resource guarding his ball, in which case, the owners should not have taken the ball out with them. Or the attack was predatory in nature and the ball was being used to distract the Mastiff type from other dogs. I make this assumption based on the fact that Mastiff breeds are more highly prey driven than many other breeds and Yorkshire Terriers are a frequently predated breed. Of course, I might be wrong and the attack may have been for a different reason. But let’s just assume I am right for a moment. What is the difference between resource guarding and a predatory attack?
Resource guarding is an emotionally driven aggressive behaviour (anger, frustration, sometimes fear) designed to maintain or gain a resource, such as a ball, territory or even an owner. The dog can become very angry if another dog tries to take the resource, or if he thinks a dog will take his resource and shows an aggressive response to prevent this from happening. If a large dog shows aggression to a smaller dog, this can have fatal results. This behaviour can be modified by working with a professional accredited behaviourist. Ask your vet for a referral.
Predation is a natural function with no emotional element and is unresponsive to behaviour modification. Much of the resolution of this problem relies on control and avoidance, which a professional behaviourist can help with but without suitable control, there is a risk the dog will predate again. The dog sees small furry bouncy animal, instinct kicks in, he runs at it, grabs it, shakes it and moves on. It’s an automatic response. Why do some dogs do this? Dogs have descended from the wolf, which has the following predatory motor patterns:
Orient (locate target) - Eye (fix eyes onto target) - Stalk (creep up on target) - Chase (speed up and chase) - Grab bite (take hold of target) - Kill bite (shake target, or bite in a manner that causes death) - Consume (eats target).
Although dogs are descended from the wolf, through domestication, many of these motor pattern sequences have been refined and the vast majority of dogs no longer have the last two steps in the sequence – Kill Bite and Consume. However, dogs still have the earlier parts of the sequence as these have been selected for in breeding domestic dogs. For example, Border Collies orient and give eye, they stalk and chase; they have been selected for this purpose in herding sheep. Many dogs still have grab bite, this is displayed when retrieving game or tennis balls and picking them up to bring them back. Most dogs do not do this to other dogs though. Although it may not be known why some dogs predate other dogs, it is possible this occurs through lack of early socialisation with a wide enough variety of other dogs or genetic inheritance. In other words, the predating dog does not realise these are dogs and treats them like rabbits. But as dogs today tend to be well fed, most don’t consume once killed.
The problem with this form of predatory behaviour is that it can be unpredictable and infrequent, lulling the owner into a false sense of security. Often, they try to keep the dog’s focus on them by giving the dog a ball to focus on. This appears to work, so they continue, until one day, a small fluffy bouncy dog is seen moving in the vicinity, the predatory response kicks in and a small dog is grabbed and shaken. So, how can this be prevented?
Sadly, wearing a muzzle may still not prevent a predating dog from causing serious harm as they can still attempt to chase the target and cause damage with the muzzle, and possibly claws through frustration at their inability to bite. Furthermore, in states of high arousal, some dogs can bite through the muzzle or pull the muzzle off. The only truly safe way to exercise these dogs is on a lead and wearing a muzzle, or off lead in a secure space where no other dogs will be encountered. However, they can only be truly safe, if other people keep their dogs away from them. It often appears to be the case that the owner of such a dog is walking it on lead under control when a smaller friendly dog goes up to it to greet. Then, quite suddenly, the small dog is dead. So, apart from the owner of the predatory dog having their dog safely under control, this relies on the rest of the dog owning public to do their bit. So, how can this be achieved?
Can any of us do anything about this? - How to be a lovely dog owner and keep your own dog safe
All dog owners should put their own dog immediately on a lead if they see another dog on lead. This is common courtesy for so many reasons. Clearly, if a dog is on lead, the owner is likely to be trying to keep their dog away from others. It is possible that the dog is injured, in season, contagious, elderly, frightened or aggressive to other dogs/strangers. Or it might just be that the dog does not come back when called. As a considerate dog owner, you should immediately put your dog on a lead any time you see another dog on lead no matter how well trained your own dog is. If you do not, it is highly likely your dog will cause distress to the other dog and dog owner and it is likely your dog may get injured too. For this reason, you should not even have your dog off lead unless you can call your dog back reliably; you may be endangering your own dog’s life if you fail to do so.
If the other dog owner tells you it is OK for your dog to greet their dog, please bear in mind, dogs are more likely to show fear and frustration aggression when on lead as their escape option is restricted by the lead. If you have a calm dog, greeting on a lead is likely to be fine if the other dog is friendly with dogs. However, if your dog then bounces all over the other dog, you can expect the other dog to object and this is a normal behaviour. It is usually wiser to keep a safe distance from dogs that are being walked on lead.
The way forward
ALL dog owners need to show consideration for others, these are dog walking rules that I follow, even though my dog is very well trained:
- I always put my dog on lead when in the presence of small children, no matter how friendly she is (and she loves children). Many children are frightened of dogs and run way screaming when a dog approaches them. This triggers a chase response in your dog and the next thing you know, you are trying to stop your dog chasing a terrified child.
- I always keep my dog on lead when there are signs stating Dogs on Lead Only. These signs are for everyone no matter how well trained your dog is, not just a few.
- I do not allow my dog to greet another dog that is in a confined space. You are more likely to see an aggressive response from a cornered dog.
- I always put my dog on lead if we are walking on a sports field when a sport is taking place. It is highly unlikely these people will want to greet your dog whilst they are engaging in sport and some of these people may be frightened of dogs. Many dogs will like to join in when people move fast, especially if there is a ball.
- I always put my dog on lead when I see another dog is on a lead. This puts both dogs in the same position and it’s less stressful for them and the other owner.
- I do not let my dog approach other dogs at speed as this is rude. Of course, if your dog knows the other dog this is different. If you have a dog that charges at other dogs, you should keep him on a lead and teach him that calm and slow approaches gain him access to other dogs. My dog indeed did used to charge at other dogs until I taught her the proper etiquette, although she may run up to dogs she knows well. It took a long time to achieve this.
- If you want to be a REALLY fantastic owner, teach yourself how to read dog body language so that you can assess how dogs are feeling in relation to your dog or yourself; here is a good starting point,
- If your dog shows aggression towards other dogs, keep him on lead away from other dogs and do not let him go near to other dogs. It's a good idea to get your dog to wear a yellow jacket with the slogan "My Dog Needs Space" then other dog owners will know to keep their distance. See Yellow dog link
We all just need to show respect for others sharing the same space. If we could all do this, our public spaces would be much safer and it would be more relaxing taking our dogs out for walks. non dog owners would be much happier and feel much safer too.
Please be safe – be dog aware and follow these guidelines to help our public parks be a nicer place for all of us.
Denise Nuttall M.Res, B.Sc (Hons)
Full member APBC, Full M
member TCBTS, Accredited Clinical Animal Behaviourist and Animal Training Instructor ABTC (regulatory body).
This article is for information only and should not be considered behavioural advice. You should seek the guidance of a qualified and accredited behaviourist for advice on how to resolve your own dog's behaviour problems.