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What you need to know if your dog attacks someone

Whitney Coy is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus, OH, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She writes frequently for SheKnows, as well as several other websites. She writes on topics including parenting, pets...

The reality behind dog aggression and what to expect if your dog acts out

It's every dog owner's worst nightmare, and it often comes out of nowhere. Your precious pup suddenly acts out against another person or animal.

What do you do? What can you expect to happen? We talked with a few experts to help you figure out exactly that.

Always expect it

Most owners of dogs who have been on the offensive side of an attack say they were taken completely by surprise. Bryan Bailey, a nationally recognized, award-winning animal behaviorist, says that's probably true.

"All dogs have the potential to bite," he said, explaining that most people tend to perceive their dogs as another person in their family, rather than an animal — leading to a big surprise for owners when dogs fall back on their natural instincts.

"People tend to believe their dogs have the same moral consciousness and governing rules as humans. They don't," he added. "At the end of the day, they are still a domestic wolf. They share 99.98 percent of their DNA with wolves."

Bailey says dogs tend to attack for one of two reasons. Either they view someone as an opponent or as a threat. Unfortunately, owners aren't always great at predicting what will cause those feelings or picking up on them when they happen.

Recognize the signs

Bailey explained that though some signs your dog may become aggressive are obvious, like growling and showing teeth, there are other signs that people often misinterpret completely.

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"A wagging tail is a physical response to conflict," he said. This means that when you're walking down the street and see a dog with a wagging tail, you interpret that as a pup that's happy and friendly. In fact, it's a dog that is trying to decide how to react to you.

It's also important to know your dog and pay close attention to changes in its demeanor or stance. "Your own natural observation of your dog can tell you a lot," said Bailey.

Know what comes next

Chances are, if your dog attacks another person or animal, you're going to have a lot to deal with in the aftermath.

Bailey explained that there are two kinds of liability statutes states may use when it comes to dog attacks. The most relaxed liability statute, exercised by only four states in the U.S., hold the owner responsible only when there is reason to believe the owner knew the dog might attack. This is usually because of past aggressive behavior patterns.

More: 6 Signs your dog desperately needs obedience training

In 46 states, however, a strict liability statute is in place. Under this statute, dog owners are held liable regardless of what they knew about their dog. Under this statute, you are at fault if your dog attacks — no matter what.

According to Anthony Sebok, professor of law at Cardozo Law School, the strict liability statute means that though you will not likely be charged criminally if your dog hurts another person (unless you were using your dog as a weapon, which is a whole different story), you will be responsible for any medical costs the victim incurs from that attack.

That statute does not hold you responsible for veterinary costs if your dog attacks another animal. However, Sebok said you'll probably still have to pay up in that situation, this time under common law negligence.

In some states, your dog can be put down following their first attack, but this varies from state to state and often depends on the situation and the severity of the attack.

And those "Beware of dogs" signs everyone posts to warn off visitors? According to Sebok, they don't do much. They may release you from liability if the victim was on your property illegally, but if he or she had a reason to be there, it probably won't help.

Should you intervene?

If your dog attacks a person, your first instinct may be to jump between your dog and its victim. And you may have to. "You have to safeguard that human's life," said Bailey.

Your first act should be to instruct the person to be as still as possible. "Dogs don't continue to bite things that don't move," he explained. "Be still. Become a tree. Put your arms against your chest and don't make any eye contact."

More: It's still not OK for your small dog to bite

If those instructions don't work, or the victim is too panicked to follow them, you may need to pull your dog away from the other person. "As a last resort, try everything you can to keep that human safe," he added.

The story is completely different when it comes do dog-on-dog fights. "Most dog fights look and sound horrendous but serious injuries rarely occur," he said. "Stand back and watch, be safe and don't intervene." He added that pulling and tugging to separate the dogs actually tends to escalate the fight and up each dog's chances, as well as your own, for injury.

How to prevent attacks

Bailey explained that the best way to prevent your dog from attacking is to know your dog and know its triggers. Sometimes, those triggers are simpler than you think.

"A leash causes more dog bites than any other tool," said Bailey. "They get into that fight or flight state of mind, and because of the leash, they can't go with flight."

It may surprise many dog owners, but Bailey says sometimes the best way to avoid aggressiveness from a dog — especially one that has already attacked — is with pharmaceuticals, specifically antidepressants.

"It's a great tool when we're trying to deactivate behaviors. It gives them a chance to calm down and view the world from a different set of eyes," he explained, saying that after some time on antidepressants, dogs often come to the realization that not everything around them needs to be feared.

Your next responsibility is to teach your dog that you are the leader and you handle any situation. "Dogs feel we are inadequate to deal with a threat," Bailey said, which is why their aggressive sides tend to take over when they perceive a threat or opponent.

Assure your dog of your "top dog" status by being assertive, taking control and taking the lead in any and all situations.

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