Reading dogs 13: Attacked (a case study)

Penny, Juno and I were attacked by a neighbour’s dog last week. The dog was protecting his garden. None of us were bitten. I fell down, but wasn’t badly hurt.  Since this is a good example of canine territorial aggression, I am using it as case study.

What happened

In Vancouver, a laneway runs behind most residential homes, parallel to the street on which the houses face. Access to the rear garden of a house as well as to the free-standing garage or car port is from the lane. It’s a sensible and pleasant arrangement. The photo on the right is not the lane behind my house, but is similar to it.

About ten days ago, in the middle of the afternoon, I came out of our garden with Penny and Juno, on leash, and walked down the lane. A Labrador retriever lives in a house about four houses away from us, on the left side of the lane. When we were opposite his garden, he came charging out, running very fast toward us. Juno has been attacked by this dog twice before. When she saw him, she panicked and screamed. Penny barked. Both of my dogs darted between me and a long wooden fence a few feet to my right. They pulled hard on their leashes, winding around me as they tried to get away from the Labrador. I toppled over, first hitting the wooden fence and then falling onto the ground.

The dog was about six feet away from me, hackles fully raised, standing tall on his feet, leaning forward and barking, showing his teeth. The dog’s owner came running out of his garden, yelling at his dog who continued to threaten my dogs and me until the owner was very close to us. The Labrador backed off a couple of steps. As the owner turned away, toward me, the dog charged again and my dogs screamed again in terror. The owner kicked his dog hard in the side. The dog ran into his home garden.

I had difficulty figuring out how to get up from the ground. I wear a brace on one knee and had never fallen down with it before. Penny and Juno were agitated, too, and continued to pull on their leashes. The Labrador’s owner held the leashes for me while I got up. Other than offering to help me up, the owner didn’t say anything to me.


The dog is a large, black Labrador retriever. From the grey on his muzzle, he’s probably at least eight years old. Since we’ve lived in our house for more than seven years and the Lab has been an adult all that time, I think the dog is probably closer to 10 and could be older. He’s overweight, much like bench-type show dogs. I estimate him to weigh around 90 pounds.

This is the third time the dog has attacked me and one of my dogs. The first time was about a year ago. Juno and I were walking down the lane when the Labrador charged us. The owner called the dog off. I told him to keep his dog confined to his garden, but he didn’t say anything to me. I avoided the lane until last summer when, having neither seen nor heard any sign of the dog for several months, I walked Juno down the lane and the big dog charged us again.

The owner came out of his house and called the dog off. I told him that he had to do something to prevent the dog from attacking other people and dogs. He went back inside his house without saying anything to me. I reported the incident to the City of Vancouver Animal Control office. They called me a few days later to tell me they’d met with the owner: he would ensure that the Labrador had no access to the lane.


The dog was being aggressive

“Aggression” is defined as “attacks, attempted attacks or threats of attack by one individual directed at another individual.” (O’Heare 39) The dog was being aggressive as shown by his full threat display (O’Heare 52).

He probably considers the lane behind his house to be his territory. I suspect that he would not have reacted so strongly if I had been walking there alone. It’s most likely that he was intending primarily to threaten Penny and Juno. They were certainly convinced about the dog’s intentions. They were panicked and trying to get away from him.

Without a strong genetic predisposition, dogs don’t want to fight. In The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson notes:

[Dogs] have evolved highly ritualized forms of aggression. They are capable of aggressing without fatal or maiming force. They have, in fact, a huge spectrum of threat levels and means of resolving disputes that, although spectacularly scary looking to humans, result in minimal damage to the victim. (Donaldson 1996; see also Donaldson 2004)

The purpose of an aggressive display is to increase distance between the aggressor and the target. But if the target doesn’t move away or otherwise display sufficiently appeasing behaviour, the dog will spring to attack. And so, when I fell down, I was in a dangerous position because I’m not able to get up quickly from the ground and I had both of my dogs with me. My frightened dogs, plus the furious Labrador who is nearly three times their size, plus me on the ground, add up to a potentially nasty outcome.

He was doing his job

The Labrador was simply doing his job, as he understands it. In fact, his past success—displaying threatening behaviour that resulted in me and my dog leaving his territory—reinforced his behaviour. That is, he’d made us go away before, so he knew his threat could work again. Growling, barking and showing teeth are part of every dog’s repertoire

While I’m very glad that he didn’t bite me, Penny or Juno, he could have done so if he’d wanted to. Despite what people may imagine, even elderly dogs are always faster than humans. If the dog wants to bite, he will. The Labrador did not attempt to bite despite being in a situation that he considers to be highly dangerous: a stranger, with two dogs, had invaded his territory. Territorial aggression is associated with fear and is usually worse when other members of the dog’s household are present (American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, 2014). A number of intense triggers are required before the dog bites (Donaldson 2004).

The owner kicked the dog in the side to make him leave the lane and go back into their garden. While that could seem like a way to stop the dog from attacking me or my dogs, it won’t teach the Labrador not to take aggressive action in the future. He was defending his home. The next time someone walks along the lane behind his house, not only will the dog still feel he needs to defend his territory, but he may also feel additional anxiety about how his owner may respond to him when he barks or runs to confront an interloper. Moreover, kicking the dog doesn’t tell the dog what the owner wants him to do

I don’t think the dog should have been punished. From the dog’s point of view, his behaviour was predictable and appropriate because he was guarding his territory.

The real problems are:

  1. The dog had assumed territorial control beyond his own garden, into the public laneway.
  2. Because it had happened before, the owner knew that his dog would attack someone walking down the lane, past the house, if they had a dog with them.
  3. Despite knowing that the dog would attack, the owner had not confined him to their property.


The curious thing, to me, is that the dog’s owner has never spoken to me. Other than offering to help me get up from the ground, he’s never said a word to me. I’ve told him three times that his dog poses a significant danger and should not be able to get out of their garden, but he has never said anything. Since there was no other way to be sure that he got the message about his dog, my only option a year ago was to make a report to the city’s animal control department. When his dog attacked us again, last week, making another report was the only option, again.

I’m not one to involve officials quickly, but doing nothing could leave other people at risk of being attacked by the Labrador. I was fortunate to have only a scrape on my face and a black eye from my glasses colliding with the fence; someone else could have been badly injured if they fell down. And if the dog’s owner hadn’t been there, I am certain that he would have launched himself at me. I could have been very seriously injured and my dogs could have been hurt as much or more.

The animal control officers have visited the owner and are requiring him to put a gate in the garden fence so that the dog can’t get out. They will check to be sure that he’s done it. However, I won’t be walking down the lane anymore. Since this has happened twice before, I have no assurance that the owner will be diligent to ensure that the dog can’t get out of the garden. It’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

Many dogs show “barrier frustration,” charging at fences when someone or something is on the other side. Many dogs bark at strangers or anyone they consider to be intruders. In domesticating dogs, we have retained their territorial nature and their barking. It’s often good to have a watch dog! But we need to understand what that “watching” really is, what the dog believes he’s doing and what additional safeguards we may need to use to keep the dog and other people safe.


American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Decoding Your Dog. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2014. Print

Donaldson, Jean. The Culture Clash. Berkeley, Calif.: James & Kenneth, 1996. Print.

Donaldson, Jean. Fight!: A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression. Wenatchee, Wash..: Dogwise Publishing, 2004. Print.

O’Heare, James. Aggressive Behavior in Dogs. 2nd ed. Ottawa: BehaveTech Pub., 2014. Print.


Next: Reading dogs 14: Prey drive