Dog Biting Series Part III – How to Avoid Being Bitten by a Dog
Did you know that approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur each year in the US? Wow, that’s a lot. And if I had to guess, I’d say that 9 times out of 10, those dog bites could have been prevented. Okay, I’ll admit that maybe I’m being somewhat unrealistic in my estimation. At Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, we have the pleasure of working with mostly well behaved, family dogs, with minimal bite risk. So it’s possible that my experience has caused me to be overly optimistic. Or maybe… just maybe… my experience with dogs is good because I have been trained by Holiday Barn to know how to protect myself from being bitten.
Dogs will warn us when they’re thinking of biting
It’s simple, really…simple in concept, but complicated in scope.
The number one key to preventing a dog bite is understanding canine body language.
It’s our dog’s primary way to communicate, and they will “tell” us when they are upset. Our dogs communicate by giving us clues or “warnings” as a prelude to biting. Sometimes these are very subtle clues, sometimes very pronounced. We looked at some of these clues or “signs” in Part I, Why Do Dogs Bite? and Part II, How to Train a Dog Not to Bite of our Dog Biting Series, but now let’s get more specific.
14 Warning Signs a Dog Might Bite
Listed below are some of the indicators of fear, stress, discomfort, anxiety, agitation and other motives that would cause a dog to react by biting. Most do not occur singularly, but several at once. You need to look at the dog’s whole body – from his head to his tail – to assess his emotional state and the best way to deal with it. For our purposes, we will break these clues down into separate actions.
- 1) Probably the most common sign… we’ve all seen it… is when the hair stands up on a dog’s back. “Raised hackles” is the proper doggie terminology. Dogs don’t do it voluntarily… it’s automatically triggered by the nervous system in response to a boost in adrenalin.
- 2) Rigid, stiff posture. When a dog is anxious or agitated, his body goes completely stiff. Instead of that loosey-goosey wiggly relaxed look (that we all love), he kind-of looks like he’s frozen… ears and tail erect, eyes cut and/or wide and direct, body tense.
- 3) Speaking of eyes, if you see the unyielding whites of a dog’s eyes, it’s not a good sign. Sometimes referred to as “whale eyes”, the dog will turn his head away slightly, but keep his eyes fixed and wide, revealing the sclera (or “whites”).
- 4) Growling. There are two types of growling and it’s pretty obvious which one I’m talking about, but allow me to clarify. Many dogs growl while at play. My own dog growls when we play with his toys. I’m talking about the other kind of growling. The kind that lets you know that the dog is not happy … he’s afraid, or he’s uncomfortable…and is attempting to diffuse the situation before he has to resort to other methods (like biting). Keep in mind, if he’s growling, you’re lucky. You got the warning. It’s seriously time to back off.
- 5) Snapping. Growling and snapping often go hand-in-hand, but not always. I’d say snapping is the last warning a dog will give before he bites, because it’s the closest thing to a bite without actually breaking skin or making physical contact.
- 6) Lunging. I almost put lunging and snapping in the same step, because it could very well be the distance between you and the dog that determines whether he will lunge or he will snap. They are similar in intent. Lunging is not always a prerequisite for biting… many dogs will lunge at you “affectionately” because they are so so excited to see you that they can’t contain themselves.
- 7) Showing of Teeth. Not to be confused with a doggie smile…yes, they happen… The baring of teeth is usually a sign that the dog is agitated and nearing its breaking point. They lift their little upper lip up into a snarl and expose their upper teeth. Watch closely to determine his motive. If your dog shows his teeth accompanied with stiff posture and whale eyes, that’s a definite sign that he is not happy and may bite.
- 8) Displacement behaviors such as yawning and licking. Dogs can show stress in the weirdest ways, the most commonly seen being yawning and licking. Yawning – that has nothing to do with sleep, and licking – that has nothing to do with food, are self-calming tactics for dogs. They are good indicators of stress, which, when not relieved, could escalate to a biting situation.
- 9) Some dogs will whine or whimper when they feel uncomfortable. It could be a situational or a personal discomfort. Regardless, something isn’t right and it may impel them to bite.
- 10) Cowering, tucking of the tail. This behavior indicates a dog is nervous, fearful, or just overwhelmed with whatever the circumstances are at the moment. It also shows a lack of confidence, which can lead to fear biting. It’s a definite warning sign.
- 11) Tail wagging. What? Yep, it can be a bad thing. Is his body tense but his tail wagging? That’s not good. A happy wagging tail is accompanied by a relaxed posture. A rigid wagging tail, accompanied by a stiff body is anything but relaxed!
- 12) Pinned-back ears. Many dogs will draw their ears back and lay them against their head when stressed, fearful, or uneasy. I’ve seen dogs pin their ears back when they are being submissive and affectionate too. Again, we need to try to determine the emotional state of the dog to know how to proceed.
- 13) A direct stare. If a dominant dog stares directly into your eyes, he may be challenging you. Whatever you do, don’t stare back at him… look at ears or his toes. Then you need to determine if the stare is to intimidate you, or if he’s just happily looking at you. This is another one of those times where you need to look for other signs… Is he staring at you and his body is rigid? He is likely being confrontational. If he’s looking into your eyes and wiggling and acting goofy, he’s probably just saying hi.
- 14) Excessive panting for no apparent reason. Dogs with anxiety will sometimes pant. It’s called “behavioral” panting and has nothing to do with being too hot and needing to cool down. Behavioral panting often pairs with other displacement type of behaviors such as yawning and licking. (Note: If your dog suddenly begins panting when there does not seem to be a circumstantial cause, it may be a good idea to check-in with your vet. Excessive panting can be the symptom of a medical issue.)
8 Scenarios You Should Avoid to Prevent Being Bitten by a Dog
Now that we have broken down what to look for in canine body language, let’s look at some scenarios whereas we should avoid interacting, or be very careful interacting with a dog, to avoid being bitten:
- 1) When a dog is a stray.
- 2) When the dog doesn’t know you.
- 3) A mother dog with puppies.
- 4) The dog is sleeping (let sleeping dogs lie).
- 5) A dog that backs away from your presence.
- 6) The dog is eating or has a chew bone.
- 7) The dog is on a chain, inside a fenced yard, in a car, or in a pen/enclosure.
- 8) A dog is in his owner’s lap and stiffens as you draw near.
So you’ve done all you can to avoid being bitten, and are out walking when a dog comes after you. Joggers, bikers and runners are particularly at risk because their motion can trigger a dog’s prey drive. What do you do? Stay calm and be still. Don’t run or he will chase you. Curl your fingers in and don’t make eye contact. Try to keep your body sideways towards the dog. Hopefully, this will be enough to cause the dog to lose interest and walk away. If not, stay still until you get help.
Have I been bitten at Holiday Barn? Yes, twice…both occurring as a somewhat new employee. And as I look back, I should have seen them coming. One was a Chow who stared me down prior to biting… an obvious warning by a very dominant dog. Another was a very old brown lab in Grooming who would have probably rather been in his comfy bed at home than coming to the spa that day. Hindsight is 20/20, right?
Interested in learning more about dog biting?
Explore the other two posts in this series from our dog trainers to learn everything there’s to know why dogs bite, how to train them not to, and how to avoid being bitten.
- Dog Biting Series Part III – How to Avoid Being Bitten by a Dog