Signs a Dog Is Not Enjoying Petting and Is About to Bite

Updated on October 30, 2016
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

You certainly should not pet this dog!
You certainly should not pet this dog! | Source

What Causes a Dog to Bite?

What are the signs that a dog wants to bite? There are countless stories of people claiming a dog bit them out of the blue with little warning. How can this be possible? Truth is, there are also subtle signs and it takes a somewhat trained eye to recognize them. A person may pet a dog and ignore these signs and then wonder why they got bit. There have been times when I saw people pet a dog and I had to intervene and tell them the dog has had enough affection and not to push it. They failed to see some important warning clues!

Often people believe that the only threatening signs a dog exhibits when about to bite are growling and lunging. There is much more to it than that! Also, not all dogs will growl or bark before biting! There are many cases where they don't emit a sound. Paying attention to the dog's body language and avoiding petting one in certain circumstances are two strategies that will significantly help reduce the chance of a bite.

When Not to Pet a Dog

Let's take a look at some circumstances where you want to play it safe and avoid petting a dog. Some of these are quite obvious while others are less. As a general rule of thumb, do not pet the dog when:

  • The owner is not around
  • The dog is a stray or unknown to you
  • It is behind a fence, inside a car or in an area perceived as its territory
  • It is tied up or on a chain
  • The dog is near food or other perceived resources (ie toys, bones, dead animal, food wrapper, trash)
  • The dog is sleeping or resting
  • The dog has puppies
  • It belongs to a breed that is by nature aloof (even though no generalizations can be made).
  • The dog is manifesting obvious cues of withdrawing from your touch, (ie moving away, shrinking, hiding between owner's legs)
  • The dog is manifesting obvious cues of asking you to go away, (ie lunging, barking, snarling)
  • The dog is manifesting subtle cues asking you to stop petting (we will see them in the next paragraph)

As a general rule, avoid petting a dog you do not know, and that is alone. You never know! It is in your best interest, and the dog's, not to pet in such cases. First, because you may get bit, and second, because biting you may cost the dog its life. Indeed, countless dogs are put down due to bites that could have been prevented.

Do Dogs Always Enjoy Petting?

It is a big misconception to believe that dogs are eager to be pet and look forward to it all the time. Truth is, that may be the last thing on their mind. When I see a dog in a pet store and people are eager to touch him (because all dogs in shops must be friendly!), I can often clearly see that the dog cares less. With so many other stimuli around such as other animals, shopping carts and the smell of food, these dogs may prefer to be left alone either due to stress or because there are other more salient stimuli to pay attention to. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but learning which ones they are is not worth the risk!

Even when it comes to the relationship with the owner, it is a big misconception to believe that the dog is eager to be pet 24/7 365 days a year. They have their moments when they are more open to attention and more closed. When your dog is left alone at home all day, and you come back home, he may be very open to being pet. When you sit down on the porch, and your dog is leaning next to you, he may appreciate some soothing strokes. When you are at the dog park, and he sees birds, squirrels and other dogs, petting may be the last thing on his mind. Same goes with feeding. There are countless owners who truly believe their dogs even want to be petted while eating! How would you feel about going to a restaurant for a juicy steak and being repeatedly pet on the face while you are eating?

Often, owners resort to petting their dog on the head to reward them for a job well-done. However, often owners do not realize that in some cases, the dog perceives the pat on the head as something aversive, versus something rewarding.

A vast array of dogs were selectively bred for working purposes. Rottweilers were pulling carts to meat markets, the Great Pyrenees were guarding flocks of sheep, Springer Spaniels were flushing game out of dense brush, just to name a few. Petting did not play a great part in the lives of these dogs unless you look at a few of those spoiled lap dogs belonging to the aristocratic. However, to some extent, many do seem to appreciate attention from their owners and some also enjoy it from strangers.

Dogs must also be in an appreciative and calm state of mind when they are pet to enjoy it to the fullest. If your dog is in a flight or fight response, with adrenaline pumping, being touched during this time may lead to a bite. While you may think your touch is therapeutic, your dog may not be in the right state of mind for such contact. He may, therefore, bite because he is too alert/defensive or simply because he is bothered by it. Whether this was intentional or not, is not important, what counts is to learn that a dog is just that and as such, does not always enjoy touch and can be helped to cope with its emotions in better ways.

How to Avoid Being Bitten

Viewer Discretion: Watch the Signs of an Impending Bite in This Dogo Argentino

As seen, dogs are not always that eager to be touched. Petting is ultimately a selfish act when the dog shows distinct signs of not appreciating it. Failure to recognize these signs though is not always intentional. At times, people simply do not realize that a dog is sending "leave me alone" and "that's enough, please" signals. The purpose of this article is to become an eye opener of these signs for educational purposes.

Once you have learned to screen which dogs you should pet and which you should not, you should only be left with a handful of ones you can pet; those that the owners have given you permission to pet. Yet, this is not enough to ensure a pleasant experience for both of you. There are, indeed, dogs who may be eager to be pet one moment and then may drastically change. The owner may be aware of the problem, and if he is, he should not allow any interactions. Yet, there is always a first time. This is when owners claim, "He has never done that before! I am shocked and so, so, sorry!" You don't want to hear that. You want to be able to recognize problems before they present. So how do you approach a dog and what are the signs of an impending bite?

How to Approach a Dog

1) Ask the owner if you can pet the dog (keep in mind though that not all owners are honest about their dog being friendly).

2) Approach the dog correctly. They do not like fast, direct, frontal encounters. Indeed, in the dog world, they like to meet in curves. Frontal approaches and direct eye contact, are considered rude and are perceived as a challenge. Dr. Sophia Yin in her article on preventing bites suggests a sideways approach using your peripheral vision.

3) Watch the dog's reaction. Look for distance decreasing signals, with the dog wanting you to come closer. If the dog approaches you, solicits attention and appears happy and friendly, you can proceed to pet him. If he cowers, backs away, lunges forward aggressively or fails to approach, he is sending distance increasing signals. In this case, simply admire the dog from a distance and thank the owner.

*Note: not all tail wags are friendly! As a dog trainer I often hear clients say "but he was wagging his tail!" A happy dog will be relaxed, will wag its tail, and all his body will be wiggly in what Patricia McConnell calls "a full body wag." An unhappy dog will be still and have a tense, rigid body with the tail raised high moving back and forth slowly and nervously. A tip: don't only focus on the whole; look at the whole picture!

4) If the dog appears to be friendly, make sure you don't loom over him and avoid petting his head. It is best to pet over the chest or under the chin.

5) Keep the interaction short and sweet. There are countless reports of people petting dogs and getting bit when the dog started getting uncomfortable. Remember; the dog doesn't know you and may not appreciate tedious, over affectionate greetings that are like if you met a long lost friend! When you meet a stranger a brief handshake is all it takes, how would you feel if this stranger started hugging you and never let go of you? Very likely, extremely uncomfortable! Many bites could have been avoided if the petting had stopped BEFORE the dog starting giving signs of getting tired. While it is true some social butterflies will nudge at you when you stop petting asking for more; it is also true that many dogs prefer a few pats and then wish to go on with their lives.

Warning Signs of an Impending Bite

So how does a dog let you know that he has had enough and that you are getting too close and personal for his taste? There are many signs. While growling, barking, snarling, snapping and biting are quite obvious outward manifestations, there are often many "leave me alone; I have had enough" cues worth paying attention to. Let's take a look at some of them:

  • Stiffened body
  • Licking lips or nose
  • Yawning
  • Turning head away
  • Whale eyes (whites of eyes are exposed)
  • Aggressive pucker (air makes lips look puffy
  • Piloerection (raised hackles)
  • And of course, growling, snarling (not to be confused with submissive grin) lunging, snapping and biting

If you notice any of these signs, remove yourself and give the dog some space. It takes a bit of eye to recognize fast tongue flicks, but you get better at this with practice in watching dogs around you. When you move away, you may see signs of relief such as scrolling the fur or appearing more relaxed, almost as if the dog takes a sigh or relief.

*Note: some cowardly dogs may bite right when you are turning away to leave. Watch your back!

While it is true that some dogs are good at tolerating inappropriate approaches from non-dog savvy people (bless their hearts for their patience), just as people, some may not do well with such interactions and have no problems telling you off. As a general rule never hug a dog, never try to kiss one or put your face in his face, avoid staring directly in the eyes and watch for signs of an impending bite. Note: men are at times guilty of overdoing it: they like to pet roughly; they pull the ears, give strong pats, mess up the dog's hair and tease.

So there you have it: when not to pet a dog, how to pet one (once the owner gives the green light,) and signs of an impending bite. This guide should help protect you from future bites, yet, keep in mind that dogs are animals and as such, they rely on instinct; even the friendliest ones may bite and there can always be a first time! Use extreme caution and if you are unsure, go the better safe than sorry route and admire a dog from a distance. As the song goes "you can look, but better not touch."

Viewer Discretion: Watch How Looming and Moving Into This Dog's Space Causes a Bad Bite

If a dog bites a person that pets it, whose fault is it?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli


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      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 2 years ago from USA

        Thanks for stopping by Catherine, my mom also has some fear of them because as a child she was exposed to dogs who jumped on her and scared her. She is very reluctant to interact with any dog, but this summer she actually did well with some dogs I had over for boarding (including a big German shepherd) On one of my latest trip to Italy we went on a cruise that allowed dogs on board and I took the elevator with my Rottweiler and there was also a dogo Argentino. A person fearful of dogs had to take the elevator with us, and she said that that had to be the best form of therapy for her to overcome her fear--as long as she made it alive all in one piece. Of course, all went well and she thanked us for the opportunity and was able to even pet our dogs! thanks so much for stopping by and thanks for the votes up!

      • CatherineGiordano profile image

        Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

        I actually have a fear of dogs and avoiding being near them and only reluctantly pet when the owner insists I do so (and mostly not even then). This is a very well done article. I can see that you are a great dog trainer. And a great people trainer too. Voted up ++

      • ladyguitarpicker profile image

        stella vadakin 3 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

        I think you know as the owner if your dog will bite. I know my dogs and which ones you never pet unless I am home. Great Hub. Stella

      • Aquamarine18 profile image

        Aquamarine18 3 years ago

        Very well presented. I love dogs and have always lived with dogs and this is one of the most comprehensive articles on dog behavior I have ever seen

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

        People often assume all dogs are friendly-especially if they belong to breeds that are believed to be that way, so it's our job to block them so to not put the dog in an unpleasant situation and risk people from getting bitten. Thanks for stopping by sgbrown!

      • sgbrown profile image

        Sheila Brown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

        Both of my dogs are leary of strangers and I always warn people not to pet them. I have a Siberian husky and a Labrador Retriever. It's obvious to me when they are ready for that attention, but most people don't pay enough attention. Great hub! ;)

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Dog Fond, great advice on keeping kids safe and advocating good protocols of not approaching unknown dogs! I wished more parents were conscientious as you! I evaluate aggression cases where sometimes children are involved, and those bites could have often been prevented! When you see a lot of this case after case, you know you can never err on the side of caution.

      • profile image

        dogfond 5 years ago

        Very, very helpful alexadry. I always remind my kids to never approach dogs unless they're hours of course. Thanks for posting the vid as well. I guess we need to get rid of the "patting of the head" thing.

      • Solaras profile image

        Solaras 5 years ago

        Wow pulling their tongues. So awful; I wonder how he would have liked that for himself lol.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for stopping by Solaras! Many people are inclined to put their faces too close to dogs they don't know. Don't want to generalize, but I also have seen several men engage in behaviors dogs aren't comfortable with. We had a neighbor who had started to want to tease our Rotties, pulling their cheeks, grabbing their tongues and other things myself won't do to my dogs...we never invited him over again.

      • Solaras profile image

        Solaras 5 years ago

        Great hub and great advice. I hope people listen as I have seen this happen before. - The German Shepherd video was so painful to watch. You could see the dog licking his lips and recoiling, may hair stood up when I saw the reporter lean further in - what was he trying to do? Kiss the dog? I have noticed that men, more than women, like to grab dogs on both sides of the face and stare into their eyes. When things go wrong, they don't want to give up. The keep trying to take control of the situation.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        I am happy you found my article on signs a dog is about to bite useful! thanks

      • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

        Susan Haze 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

        Wonderful tips and advice. Fascinatinf video. It's funny how we can see the signs more clearly when someone else is involved. I learned a long time ago not to pet dogs when they are eating or sleeping. Up, awesome, useful, and interessting.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for stopping by Monis Mas, your insights are always appreciated!

      • Monis Mas profile image

        Aga 5 years ago

        You have some great knowledge! I love dogs, and all animals, and enjoy a good read, which can teach me something new. Thanks!

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for stopping by Kasman. I am owned by two large ones too, two Rotties!

      • Kasman profile image

        Kas 5 years ago from Bartlett, Tennessee

        Have 2 large dogs at home and this hub had some great information in it that related. Enjoyed it.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        I agree, the policeman should have been 'scanning" better his dog and the reporter's behavior. It looks like the bite caught him really off guard and he did not expect it. Nobody should ever put their face that close to a dog they do not know and no dog owner should allow that.

      • crissytsu profile image

        crissytsu 5 years ago from Texas

        In the video where the K9 police dog bites the reporter...Is it just me, or should that police officer have never allowed the reporter to get that close to a dog "he barely knew"...seems to me like the police officer wasn't such a hero for pulling the dog's choke chain...more like he was irresponsible for not knowing more about dog behavior in general and pretty much responsible for putting the reporter in harms way. The policeman surely knew something about dog behavior in order to be working/training a dog for police work, regardless of whether or not he knew this particular dog. You could tell the dog didn't like being patted on the head during the entire video too.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thank you purple pearl! I am happy you found it helpful, best wishes!

      • Purple Perl profile image

        Purple Perl 5 years ago from Bangalore,India

        Real excellent tips on approaching to pet a dog. Also even more comprehensive guide on when to totally avoid dog petting. Enjoyed the whole hub as an owner of 2 dogs and have learnt to recognize these signs. Thanks for putting this hub up as many people need this education.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Wetnose lol!

        Pamela-anne , thank you, I really hope awareness would help; that would really be great~!

      • Pamela-anne profile image

        Pamela-anne 5 years ago from Miller Lake

        There is lots of great tips and advice within your hub that if people use could stop many from getting dog bites in the future. Thanks for sharing take care.

      • wetnosedogs profile image

        wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama


        Thanks for the tip and my dogs will love you for that teasing smell of the hot dog!

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        When I have clients with dogs on dog weight loss programs, I tell them to use their dog's normal kibble portion for training purposes. At least the dog gets to work for the food which is a win-win situation for all. Nicole Wilde recommends for owners concerned about giving treats to dogs, to keep the dog's kibble portion in a bag mixed with some hot dogs and then to remove the hot dogs the day after. The kibble will have absorbed some of the hot dog aroma and flavor without the extra calories! While I do use treats for my dogs especially when we are getting ready to compete in some canine sport, people are often surprised how lean they are, but they do not know I use for the most part their kibble! Just a tip! best wishes!

      • wetnosedogs profile image

        wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama


        I may just have to stop the habit. Oh, I know they would love those treats, but Jenny really needs to lose the weight. My dogs seems to accept my stupid human habits. But I understand where you are coming from. If I can't stop the habit, I'll add a treat. People are curious about other dogs.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Wetnose, you can either make it a habit of stopping giving head pats, but since so many people pat dogs on the head, you can counter-condition your dogs to accept them and even look forward to them by associating your head pats with high value treats. Like give a fast head pat a second before feeding your dogs their meals or give a fast head pat and from the hand patting let a treat drop from your hand. Of course, don't do this if your dogs may bite! We used to hold socialization classes in a pet store I used to work at and worked on getting dogs better used to head pats because you never know, one day a person may stop and just pat your dog on the head.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for the vote up, fresh2defo5! Happy you found it educational!

      • Millionaire Tips profile image

        Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

        I was bitten by a dog when I was young, and it was completely my fault - he was sleeping! Zeus doesn't like to be pet on the head, and he doesn't like to be petted by strangers - all the kids at the park want to pet him, but he generally runs away from them, so now I just tell them no.

      • wetnosedogs profile image

        wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama

        Fascinating videos. It was easy to see the german shepherd was not comfortable with the reporter.

        I know my dogs don't like to be petted on the head. Even when I give them a quick pet, I can see they don't like it. Habit for me. I should quit that.

        I will have to remember this cause I always want to pet a dog that is being walked. Guess so far I've been lucky.

      • fresh2def05 profile image

        fresh2def05 5 years ago from Louisville, Ky

        This hub was great. Learned a lot of new information about the signals dogs give off. I have been bitin a couple times and didn't see it comin. Thx again. voted up!


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