There are several important components to successful dog bite prevention – learning to recognize ALL the signs of a dog’s distressed body language, knowing what to do when faced with an aggressive or boisterous dog and knowing how to safely approach unfamiliar dogs.
Recognizing Body Language
Almost everyone recognizes that a snarling, growling, lunging dog is a bite risk. The problem is that not all dogs exhibit such dramatic signs of warning. Most dogs exhibit far more subtle signs of distress and increasing anxiety in a situation that the majority of people do not see or recognize prior to escalating to a bite. The claim that the dog snapped and bit someone “out of the blue without any warning” is seldom true. It is much more likely that none of the people present recognized the signs that the dog was displaying and therefore were surprised by the dog’s seeming ‘sudden’ aggression.
Some of the most common subtle signs are yawning when not tired, licking the lips repeatedly, widening of the eyes so that you can see the ‘whites’ (commonly referred to as whale eye), furrowing the brow, and an overall stiff body posture rather than relaxed. Very few people recognize these more subtle signs of canine distress/discomfort or respond to them.
One of my special pet peeves is watching a dog trying to turn away from a child, and even try to get up and remove themselves from interacting with a child only to have the parents force the dog to sit or lay back down and endure the interaction that they gracefully tried to remove themselves from. Trying to ‘get away’ should be body language that is easy enough to interpret, but alas all too often even that is ignored. Learn more about teaching dog safety to children.
Dogs will quickly learn what responses are successful in resolving stressful situations for them. If their range of ‘benign’ body language is ignored over and over by everyone, but snapping and biting proved to be successful in bringing the stressful situation to an end (from the dog’s point of view) then unfortunately the dog will quickly learn to use biting as the more successful tool. In order to prevent the escalation to more and more aggressive actions by the dog, then the people around them need to make the effort to learn to recognize subtle forms of communication the dog is using. You cannot prevent a bite if you cannot recognize that that the dog is plainly telling you it is not comfortable in the situation.
The following are the best links to pictures and videos that do a great job of illustrating distressed dog body language. In this case, the pictures really are worth a thousand words.
- Zoom Room Guide to Dog Body Language – 5-minute video with excellent clear pictures and informative captions
- Signs of Dog Stress – an entire set of tabs as well of good pictures and videos showing clearly the more subtle signs that most people do not read well
What to Do When Faced with an Aggressive or Unruly Dog:
The old adage “Act like a tree” is perfect for adults and children. Stand still and tall, fold your arms at your chest or clasp your hands together so you do not inadvertently wave your arms and hands around, and look down at your feet rather than directly at the dog.
Yelling, screaming, flailing your arms around, trying to hit at or kick at the dog, and running are much, much more likely to result in antagonizing the dog further and ending with a severe bite.
If you are running/jogging and the dog flies out to chase you, then you need to realize that you cannot likely outrun a dog on your best day. Most dogs chasing in that situation have no real intention of biting, and only intend to make you leave by charging, barking, and growling. So it is best to stop and turn to face them directly and then act like a tree. Once they settle you can back away slowly in a relaxed manner, and once you are far enough away you can turn around and walk calmly farther until you have put them behind you entirely.
What do you do if they do not stop but start leaping at you? Then you turn away and keep your back to them so they cannot get to your face and remain calm while continuing to act like a tree. If they knock you down, curl into a ball with your knees bent and your hands clasped at the back of your neck with your elbows protecting access to your face and neck, and try to remain as calm and non-reactive as possible.
If you run/jog and are faced with aggressive dogs chasing you, consider carrying some pepper or citronella spray (or a police whistle or air horn). Loud noises often startle dogs effectively enough to break their ‘run and chase’ mindset, long enough for you to be still and stop being a target. Once you have their attention, then use a firm “No” to your advantage.
What Not to Do:
Even though it seems counterintuitive, these are the least effective ways to defuse the situation:
- Continuing to run
- Hopping around
- Waving your arms
- Trying to hit at the dog with a stick
Approaching Unfamiliar Dogs
The most common way for people to approach unfamiliar dogs is to rush toward them, exclaiming various unintelligible (to the dog) things in a high loud pitch and then promptly loom over the top of them while shoving a hand in their face and staring directly at them, or worse yet trying to kiss their face. Everything about that description is actually wrong, and unfortunately most people are totally unaware of that.
Just because your dog loves that sort of stuff and is used to it, does NOT mean that every dog does. Not every dog in the world can handle strange people rushing up to them and laying hands on them. Learn to recognize the signs that you are causing a dog distress and discomfort so you can back off before bad things happen. YOU need to recognize them, because most people that own dogs do not even recognize the more subtle signs that their dog is not handling the interaction well.
Do not move toward unfamiliar dogs quickly, but instead move slowly which allows them time to take in the situation and realize that you are not a threat. Speak in a low calming voice, and if you cannot manage that, then actually you are better not to speak at all.
Leaning over the top of a dog can be very frightening to them especially when added with reaching for the top of their heads. Likewise staring directly at them can be intimidating or challenging to many dogs and so is your face coming at theirs quickly. Part of knowing how best to approach a dog is paying close attention to the dog and knowing the subtle signs of distress. Their reactions are the best guide as to how well they are taking your approach IF you have educated yourself on what to look for.
Basically, if the dog is attached to an owner, always ask if you can approach first. However, no matter what any person has to say, it is up to YOU to pay attention to what the dog you are approaching is saying to YOU ! If you are told that the dog is not good with strangers then STOP trying to interact with the dog and smile and say, “Thank you for telling me.” The most common phrase uttered by adults that are bitten by dogs in a controlled situation is without fail, “No, it’s ok all dogs love me!” No they don’t, and that assumption is dangerous to you as well as the animal you are trying to interact with.
If the dog is unsure, just stand there with your side to the dog rather than facing them frontally full on, and do not look directly at them. Give them time to relax and make the first move toward you rather than reaching out to them right away. Most dogs will do better if you can lower your height in their frame of reference by sitting or kneeling down and let them come to you. Do be careful about changing your position if the dog is really unsure because kneeling down or getting back up often involves a lean over them if they are close and that can trigger a bite. Be low key, quiet, and let them make the first moves in your direction. Treats are always a help in making you seem less threatening, and if they will not take them directly then you can toss them nearby.
If you have a dog exhibiting any sort of aggression please realize that EARLY intervention is the key ! The longer you wait, the longer the dog has to cement the use of that new tool in its behavior toolbox. Most of the time aggression is its own positive reward for dogs and therein lies the problem and the reason it often escalates so quickly. A snarl, growl, and snap usually brings a quick end to whatever situation brought it on (even if it was ‘successfully’ chasing away the delivery man from the door). Biting worked and all that subtle stuff did not as far as the dog is now concerned. Stepping in earlier rather than later is crucial in dealing with aggression issues.
Forget thinking about which breed won’t bite. There is no such thing. Breed actually has very little to do with predicting a dog bite. Socializing, training, and handling have a much bigger role in preventing dog bites. ANY dog can bite with the right (or wrong) stimulation in a situation. Any dog, small or large can cause serious injury. Small dogs very often bite hands, and hand bites are some of the more serious liability and injury causing bites as they often involve joints, tendons, and loss of function.
Finally, if you have a dog known to be a biter, then be responsible about it and do not sit around in denial. Denial is dangerous for everyone, especially your dog. Speak up and tell people not to approach the dog ! Do not be quiet and ‘hope for the best’. As the owner of a dog that does not enjoy strangers, I understand how oddly judgmental people can be when you tell them not to pet your dog. They look at you like you have spit on them, mainly because a disturbing number of people in the world are under the delusion that every dog is as open and friendly as their own.
If you have a potential biter, by all means work with them to improve the way they handle themselves in different situations, but openly work on your dog’s behalf with others too. Be the dog’s advocate so that he or she does not have to deal with the situation all by themselves – no one will be happy when they do, not you, not the stranger, and not the dog either.