Dogs are supposed to be man’s best friend, right? But what about when they bite? Are they biting because they’re aggressive, or simply misunderstood? With about 85 million dogs living in the United States, and 4.5 million people reporting dog bites each year, dogs do not always appear the best of companions. Although these statistics are alarming, most bites can easily be prevented. Peaceful coexistence with a species who speaks a totally different language may be challenging, but by acting with respect and learning to communicate, you and your pooch can be best pals. Here are six ways to virtually eliminate bites from strange or familiar dogs. 

#1: Learn to read a dog’s body language

Learning to communicate with dogs is one of the most important ways to avoid bites. People say, “Oh, he bit without warning,” when the dog actually gave numerous warning signals that were ignored or missed. Learn to identify the common body language cues that indicate a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or nervous:

  • Yawning 
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking
  • Brief body freezing while the dog decides how to react
  • Whale eye, or showing the whites of the eyes as the dog turns their head away, but keeps looking at you
  • Head turning
  • Furrowed brow
  • Tense jaw with a closed mouth
  • Hugging onto the owner
  • Low tail carriage 
  • Raspy, dry-sounding panting
  • Twitching whiskers 
  • Shaking 
  • Drooling
  • Sweaty paws
  • Erect hair on the neck and spine 

These stress signals can be brief and easy to miss unless you’re paying attention. If a dog does not show typical “happy dog” signs, such as a softly wagging tail, relaxed grin, and a loose, relaxed body, keep a close eye out for stress signals instead. These cues commonly occur as a warning before a bite, and the dog retaliates when people fail to recognize the signs and act appropriately.

#2: Never approach a strange dog without the owner’s permission

Whether an adorable dog is on the other side of a fence or walking calmly on a leash next to their owner, never approach them without the owner’s permission. They know their pet best, and how they’ll react to an approaching stranger. Some dogs are territorial and will protect their property or their owner, while others will delight in the unsolicited attention, but you may not know which dog is which until it’s too late.

#3: Avoid leaning over dogs

Put yourself in a small dog’s paws. A tall stranger leans threateningly over you and reaches out with a long arm to do who knows what. You panic and snap at the appendage, but you’re scolded for warning off the stranger. Such a situation can be downright scary when a strange person towers over you to pat you on the head. Instead, greet dogs on their level. Crouch or kneel down, turn your body sideways so you’re not facing the dog directly, and scratch their shoulder or chest. Petting on the head can also be construed as threatening, so avoid that area during the initial greeting.

#4: Teach children to interact respectfully with dogs

Children are most at risk for dog bites. Not only are they often in easy biting distance, but also they often don’t understand how to interact respectfully with dogs. Ensure your children know to never pull on a dog’s tail or ears, jump on them for a ride, or hit them. Instead, have your children ask your dog to perform tricks for treats, and play low-intensity games.

#5: Never bother a dog while they’re eating, sleeping, or playing with a favorite item

Dog bites often occur when a dog is startled or because they’re guarding a resource. Never wake your dog abruptly by looming over and petting them. Instead, call their name from across the room. Also, never bother your dog while they’re eating or chewing on a treat. Food is often a touchy subject for dogs, and they may bite if they think you are going to take away their prize.

#6: Be a responsible dog owner

Always be an advocate for your dog, since they can’t speak up for themselves. If you know your dog is uncomfortable around small children, tell kids “No” when they ask to pet your pooch. Engage in responsible dog ownership by training your pet to walk politely on a leash, socializing your dog throughout their life, and exercising them every day to help ward off problem behaviors. Choosing the right dog for your family and lifestyle is also an important part of responsible ownership, and can help prevent bites.

Dogs can bite unexpectedly for many reasons, including when startled, when eating, or if they’re in pain. Ensure your four-legged friend remains happy, healthy, and pain-free—and current on vaccinations—through regular wellness visits with our Mill Creek Animal Hospital team. Give us a call to schedule your pet’s appointment.