Dog On Lead in Park

You may have noticed that more and more people are experiencing dog bites than seemingly ever before. The newspapers seem to have a new story on the matter every week. And, you may not want to believe it, but your own dog is capable of delivering a bite just as much as the untrained pit bull down the road. 

It's a fact that every dog is capable of issuing a bite, whether that be to another dog, an adult, or a child. So, how can you know if your dog is heading that way, and how can you keep them safe?

Why do dog bites happen? 

Before we can explore how to stop dogs from biting, we must first understand why they do it in the first place. The most common cause is because they feel threatened and are trying to protect themselves - offense is the best form of defence, as they say. It can also happen in play (generally these don't inflict damage), or it can be a learned behaviour, such as in the bite sports (e.g. Schutzhund or Mondioring). 

How can I protect my dog from feeling like they need to bite?

As most bites happen out of a need to defend themselves, the best way to prevent a dog bite is to help your dog, or any dog around you, feel safe.

One of the ways you can do this is to not approach a dog head-on: that's actually a very intimidating behaviour for them. A good rule of thumb to have is to not approach another dog at all, instead letting them come to you. This lets the dog have control over the situation, so they can back off if they feel uneasy - without the need to resort to aggression. This also applies to the age-old way of greeting a dog, where you put out your hand for them to sniff. Any dog is capable of smelling you just fine without you putting a hand out, and us reaching out to their face is incredibly threatening for them. 

Dog Greeting Cartoon

You should also be aware of any key resources around that the dog may be protective over. This includes things such as food, water, chews, their bed, even their human - anything that they may deem valuable. Some dogs can start to feel on edge when we move towards these resources, and it can escalate the closer we get. This is even more true if the dog is engaging with the resource at the time. If you notice that a dog becomes nervous when you approach something, try to calmly leave that situation and defuse it.

It's also incredibly important to advocate for your dog in all situations. If you know your dog is uncomfortable with people approaching, off-lead dogs bounding over, or children trying to stroke them, it's your job to speak up and keep your dog feeling safe. If you try doing this and nothing happens, it's more than okay to turn around and leave with your dog - your and your dog's safety come above social etiquette!

How can I tell if my dog is preparing to bite?

A lot of people who have witnessed a dog bite will say 'it came out of the blue, there was no warning'. But, whilst this can be true in certain cases, the vast majority of dogs will only resort to a bite if their previous signals weren't being listened to. 

Our dogs are always talking to us, and most dogs will have a full repertoire of signals that they will use to tell us they're gearing up for a bite. It's on us to make sure those signals are heard and listened to! These signals include:

  • licking their lips out of context (i.e. if there's no food around) 
  • yawning when they're unlikely to be tired
  • panting when it's not hot and they'e not just been running around 
  • whale eye (when they open their eyes so wide you can see the whites of their eyes)
  • raising a paw
  • rolling over to show you their belly (sometimes this is an invitation to pet them, but it's commonly misinterpreted - only do this if you're sure that's what your dog is communicating)
  • freezing and stiffening up 
  • tail either right down between their legs, or really high up
  • growling
  • snarling
  • air snapping
These signals are often referred to as 'calming signals', as they represent the dog trying to defuse a situation and keep everyone at peace with one another. Dogs will usually start of with small gestures, such as lip-licking, and then escalate through different behaviours if they're not listened to (e.g. if a person keeps approaching them and doesn't back off). This is known as the ladder of aggression. The final step to this ladder will always be the bite. 
Dog Aggression Ladder Illustration
This ladder will look slightly different for each dog, as not every dog will display every behaviour, and they won't always be in the same order. But if you know the signs to look out for, you should be able to recognise them when they happen. 

What should I do if I see these signs?

If you see any of these signals, even the milder ones lower down the ladder, you should help your dog to feel more safe. What could be causing your dog to worry or feel threatened? This could be a dog running up to them unexpectedly, someone trying to cuddle them when they're not wanting it, or a child screaming nearby. Once you know what it is, you can work to reduce or eliminate that trigger. For example, you can ask the other dog's owner to put their dog on-lead (and, if that doesn't work, turn and walk away, throwing a handful of treats down as you go to distract the other dog). You can tell the person trying to cuddle them to give them some space. Or you can move them away from the screaming child. 

The big thing is to help your dog feel like they don't need to protect themselves. If they feel safe and listened to, they're much less likely to deliver a bite. 
If you're concerned about your dog showing signs of aggression, it's important to get in touch with a qualified and accredited behaviourist. 
Written by Alyssa Ralph MSc BSc(Hons), Clinical Animal Behaviourist for Holistic Pet Services. 
Behaviour/trainingFirst aidHealthcare

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