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Beware of Silent, Stealthy Aggressors
They can be the most dangerous.
A silent, stealthy attack is a bad sign.

Threat displays can function to thwart serious aggression, which is why many of them occur without ever leading to real trouble. By showing their weaponry or signs of strength, dogs are communicating that it would be unwise to challenge them. Dogs can assess each other, and often one or more decide that to proceed would be unwise.

However, dogs who never give any warning before behaving aggressively are the most frightening and potentially dangerous. Many dogs who attack with silent stealth (not so much as a bark or a growl) have no intention of avoiding aggression and are the ones most likely to deliver uninhibited, seriously injurious bites.

Similarly, the scariest and most dangerous dog fights are the silent ones in which all the dogs’ energy is focused on the attack rather than the loud ones in which a lot of energy goes towards barking and growling. They are the ones that are most likely to lead to critical injuries or even death. Much less likely to cause serious damage are the ones that sound, to use a phrase that is descriptive if not pretty, “like dogs in a blender.” These are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The vocalizations and visual displays that often accompany dog fights are a form of communication. As long as the dogs are attempting to communicate with one another, there is some possibility that they are seeking to end the conflict. If the dogs have no interest in working out the conflict or to de-escalate the aggression, then the dogs are most likely serious about injuring each other. Quiet fights and quiet attacks involve individuals who are most likely actually trying to cause injury, rather than trying to reach a peaceful resolution.

Although personality differences in how much individual dogs tend to vocalize can influence how loud an attack or fight is, and a victim dog may make piercing yelps and screams while the attacker remains silent, I still generally find that quiet incidents result in the most damage. Of course, there are also tons of exceptions. Regrettably, many people and dogs are seriously injured by dogs making a big ruckus.

Though I’m describing a general pattern, I know of many exceptions to it. For anyone who has been unlucky enough to witness an aggressive dog attack or a fight between dogs, what did you observe? Have you seen a quiet incident that was extremely injurious? Have you seen a loud crazy fight that resulted in little damage? Or, did you see something else entirely?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Anonymous | September 28 2009 |

Thank you for this. I only wish I would have read it before two months ago, when I stepped in to break up my two dogs, who had gotten into a scuffle. It sounded so loud and scary that I went in and tried to separate them with my hands.

The result: A severed tendon in my ring finger, surgery, and two-plus months of recovery. I'm still struggling to properly read them - they don't fight often, but when they do, it sounds like they are going to kill each other!

From what I've read, it sounds like the best option to break it up is to make loud noises to startle them (i.e. pots and pans) or to use water...but I haven't tried those yet. It's just so tempting to jump in and try to separate them when you're in panic mode!

Submitted by Julia Lane | September 28 2009 |

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. As a dog trainer, I've seen plenty of "dogs in a blender" moments that (fortunately) were all bark and no bite. The challenge is educating people so they recognize the difference between a little spat versus a true fight. Some of my clients get nervous just seeing two dogs play roughly, i.e. flashing teeth, play growling. I invite them over to watch my five dogs play and learn about canine body language.

On a more serious note, my pit bull mix and my mom were injured by a silent, stealthy Great Pyrenees. They were walking in my semi-rural neighborhood when the Great Pyrenees escaped from her harness in the back of a pick-up truck, silently chased them down and grabbed the back of my dog's head. The Great Pyrenees then froze while still holding onto my dog. My mom had attempted to defend my dog and was bitten in the process by the Great Pyrenees.

It took three people and a large stick shoved into the 140-pound Great Pyrenees' mouth to get her to let go of my 65-pound dog. Thankfully, my mom and dog both recovered fully from the incident. The owner of the Great Pyrenees opted to euthanize her because she had been "acting strangely," almost "senile" for the past few months. Very sad.

Submitted by Anonymous | October 9 2009 |

I have an Australian Shepherd / Australian Cattle Dog mix, about 2 years hold, spayed female. She has nipped a couple of other dogs, without showing warning signs or any growls, etc. before biting. The first dog she nipped when he charged toward me. I'm not sure if this was a defensive action, but it seemed to be. She gave a sudden short snarl, lunge, snap, and then she ran off and seemed to lose interest - at least she didn't seem to be looking to start a fight. The other dog yipped - and then we found a 3 inch slash in his side, which needed emergency stitches.

She did another nip to a dog that passed her in the park - she showed no warning signs but when that dog jogged past her, she ran after for a sharp nip in the flank again. Fortunately this time didn't break skin. This almost seemed to be more of a chase drive, perhaps combined with her heeler backgroud for the biting?

Needless to say, she remains leashed at all times around other dogs now. We have two other dogs, and she's been fine with them. I won't risk her biting another dog. The strange thing is that I still don't feel like she's "aggressive"....more reactive, and with a strong drive, instead. What would you call this?

Submitted by Karen London | October 12 2009 |

It's hard to say exactly what's going on without seeing it myself, even with your detailed description. It does seem as though your dog did give a little warning in the form of a snarl in the first incident. The fact that she retreated after each bite suggests that she was not interested in inflicting massive damage, which is good. I do consider dogs who bite other dogs enough to cause injury to be aggressive, but you are absolutely right that her reactivity and strong drive appear to be factors. Overall, in answer to what I would call this, my overriding feeling is that I call this a situation in which a very responsible human is making sure that no further injury occurs by using a leash to prevent trouble. Kudos to you!

Submitted by Debbie Casteel | June 1 2010 |

I have often read with little interest the articles on dog parks,,our community has several and all seem to be well kept and the people and dogs controlled. All that changed for me two days ago. My husband and I decided to take our dogs, a rottie and a scottie to one of the newer dog parks. We have all been there before and had no problems, Our dogs entered and there was the usual sniffing and greeting that goes on and before I could hook our leash on the fence I turned to a see a blue nosed pit bull with my scotties' neck in his mouth and out of nowhere his companion pit bull grabs my boys back end and bites. There was no warning,no growling, nothing, It is a miracle that my husband was able to choke the one that had him by the neck enough that he released him and the other one ran off also. It was the most horrific thing to witness, but I do not blame the dogs. The owner and his young child were unfazed by this and just took their dogs and started to leave. When the police and animal control arrived, they were extremelly empathetic but told me that you enter at your own risk, and that unless we were bit or needed vet bills paid there was nothing that could be done. This was the 2nd time these dogs had been called on for aggressive behavior. You may have your dogs under control, but not everyone does, or even cares if their dogs bite. So my longwinded point is,,be very careful, because you can loose your beloved dog in an instant without any warniing, and no amount of financial compensation can make it right.

Submitted by BWS | July 3 2012 |

I am retired law enforcement, and made enemies of some less than gentle people. I got a mixed breed puppie, parentage including Doberman, Great Dane, Standard Poodle, G. Shepherd, and Staffordshire Terrier. He was rasied with my children, fed by my wife and trained by me. He was taught respect for the family, and to accept strangers that were introduced to him, and he would not show aggresson toward them although they were watched closely. He was very attuned to my wifes feelings, and if she was fearful or angry all bets were off. My wife came first, then the children, and then me on the protection scale. He was, without being trained completely silent when he did attack. Case in point, I came home one night at 2:30 A M in a strange car, walked to the front door inserted the key and opened the door. The only sound I heard was his toe nails digging in the carpet and called his name. 128 pounds of serious dog hit me and knocked me back against the door casing. His teeth bruised both sides of my jaw and throat, but he did not bite. He did however make a true believer of me. He was able to jump an 8 foot wall, but never jumped over our 5 foot fence, even when he went after a peeping tom that turned out to be a neighbor. The guy got over the fence and with only 87 stitches in bites. In the state we lived in at the time any dog bite caused the dog to be confined for 14 days, and since he would not eat or drink away from the family we worked out a deal. The peeper would not tell which dog bit him, and I wouldn't kill the SOB for peeping at my wife. I did promise to turn the dog out when he was on the street if I ever saw him around our property again. He moved within the month. That was one great dog.

Submitted by T. Black | December 13 2013 |

I have 2 dogs: a Siberian Husky & a Husky Hybrid. They're perfect with me, great with people, love children, but are not trustworthy with dogs. My husky hybrid has become predatory as he has become an adult. He is very reactive if another dog attacks, otherwise he just consistently goes after any small animal with a very excited predatory drive. He doesn't look dominant or aggressive, no snarl, no teeth. He just stalks, circles, & quietly excitedly bites. He's never hurt anyone, but he did catch a bird in the backyard. My Siberian husky is typically my perfect, obedient dog working to please me, but has unpredictable, intermittent, silent aggression toward other dogs. He's very easy to control on a leash & he's getting better about listening in that mode, but I don't know what to do about it. I would love some advice! Every trip to the dog park has been accompanied by my dog delivering a silent attack unless I keep him on leash. But he loves to play with most dogs & needs to run. What makes it worse is all the bystanders pity my dog & try to make it okay because he's pretty while I'm trying to warn or correct the situation. How can I make my loving pets safer?

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