When Dogs Bite

Before adding another dog to your family, unincorporated communities like Topanga would do well to consider the welfare of the current dog population.

On July 11, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion to increase the residential dog limit from three to four in the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County to help reduce the shelter population.

For dog owners and pet sitters it’s challenging enough to balance the safety and care of a client’s best friend and be diplomatic within the community where neighbors are often complacent about leashing their dogs. With the commingling of more dogs obtained from shelters, the need to better understand, manage and socialize our dogs is critical for a more harmonious, dog-loving community to co-exist.

Within ten days of my last two Topanga gigs combined, my client’s dogs were charged at three times by the untethered freedom of off-leash dogs placing them, me and my dogs at high risk because each dog under my care viewed the oncoming display in completely different ways creating a highly stressful scenario with a potentially bad outcome.

I’m just your average citizen, but today I felt like a police officer. I was walking my beat, protecting the three dogs under my care, looking out for their safety and mine when a very large, unleashed shepherd mix charged us.  My heart pounded, the adrenaline rushed through me, I tried to quickly decide what to do to protect my dogs and me: Do I use the pepper spray? Do I kick the dog? Do I calm two of the dogs who want to retaliate? Or do I reassure the one scared dog that’s cowering and completely petrified from fear that’s thinking she’s going to be attacked. AGAIN! 

In the essay, “Dog Social Behavior and Communication,” John Bradshaw and Nicola Rooney explain that besides a dog’s size and height, overt signals such as moving tails and raised hackles are interpreted by the “receiver” dog who then decides what manner to adopt, whether to ignore, retreat or approach and interact with the other dog. 

“Such choices”, they conclude, “are limited if dogs are on a leash, when the chance of interaction occurring is significantly reduced, partly as a result of physical restraint, but also because the capacity for signals to be displayed and viewed [author’s emphasis] is reduced.” (The Domestic Dog It’s Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People, 2nded. Edited by James Serpell, Cambridge UP, 2017 p.141).  

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ website (aspca.org), approximately 1.6 million dogs are adopted each year and 47 percent of the dogs in their 2015 National Rehoming Survey are rehomed because of pet-related reasons including aggression; a close second to those dogs rehomed to friends or family are taken to shelters.  Once there, a dog-to-dog behavior assessment is conducted in a controlled environment to evaluate the likelihood of future aggression, yet in a post-shelter uncontrolled environment, we can’t predict how a dog might behave when meeting a neighbor’s dog, but we can at least better maintain unmanageable events by first getting them back on leash.

Animal behaviorist, Jill Goldman Ms.C., PhD, CAAB (drjillgoldman.com)explains the off-leash dog accompanying his three leashed pals that charged my client’s dogs the first time, was essentially acting alone because it was not properly managed. Goldman advises, “It would be prudent to take preventative measures giving interest to each individual dog because with more uncontrolled variables the more risk(s) we take. The better we can manage our dogs, the less opportunity there is for such an event to take place.”  

As a result of the many uncontrolled variables, many of us are on guard every time we walk our dogs because the threat is more often from a domesticated animal than the wild ones who share the mountains with us.



Participate in your dog’s well-being and safety. Take the time now to train your dog—and yourself. Your dog will remember for its lifetime with occasional reinforcement from you.  

  • Observe the Leash Law—While California does not have a statewide leash law, it does allow local governments to pass their own ordinances. The Los Angeles County Animal Care & Control Leash Law (10.32.010) prohibits dogs from running at large on any public street, park or other public areas or upon private property other than that of the dog owner. A dog must be restrained by a substantial leash not exceeding six feet and be in the control of a competent person when off property.
  • Train your Dog with Professionals—Learn proactive measures through basic commands (sit, down, come, stay) and acquire productive ways to better communicate with and manage your dogs.


  • If you suspect any number of behavioral problems, your veterinarian can direct you to a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) or to a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT). 
  • The Animal Humane Society has an extensive Pet Behavior Library online (animalhumanesociety.org) for managing and evaluating situations. 


Next Up:  Classical or Classic Rock? Music as Therapy for Your Dog. What is your dog’s favorite song or genre of music?


Kelley Frances Smith owns a dog care business with clients from Long Beach to Woodland Hills including Topanga and Malibu. She volunteers for a rescue and foster organization, is an advocate for shelter animals’ rights and fights for funding to support responsible adoption practices. Kelley has degrees in journalism and creative writing and, together, her two favorite passions—dogs and writing—come together for the Messenger Mountain News


By Kelley Frances Smith


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