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Why Do Dogs Bite When You Pet Them? (Signs a Dog Is Going to Bite)

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

Learn why dogs bite, how to approach them, and the subtle signs that tell you a dog is ready to bite.

Learn why dogs bite, how to approach them, and the subtle signs that tell you a dog is ready to bite.

How Can You Tell If a Dog Is Going 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 or with little warning. How can this be possible?

The truth is, there are subtle signs that a dog wants to bite, and it takes a somewhat trained eye to recognize them. A person may pet a dog while ignoring 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 to tell them the dog has had enough affection and they should not push it. They failed to see some important warning clues!

Don't Dogs Always Growl Before They Bite?

People often 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.

In this article, we'll explore:

  1. When you shouldn't pet a dog
  2. Why dogs aren't always eager to be pet
  3. How to avoid a bite
  4. How you can properly and safely approach a dog
  5. Signs that a dog is ready to bite
You certainly should not pet this dog!

You certainly should not pet this dog!

When Not to Pet a Dog

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

  • The owner is not around
  • The dog is a stray or unknown to you (or fairly new to you such as a rescue)
  • 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 like toys, bones, a dead animal, a food wrapper, or trash
  • The dog is sleeping or resting
  • The dog has puppies
  • It belongs to a breed that is aloof by nature (although no generalizations can be made)
  • The dog is manifesting obvious cues of withdrawing from your touch, such as moving away, shrinking, or hiding between its owner's legs
  • The dog is manifesting obvious cues of asking you to go away, like lunging, barking, or snarling
  • The dog is manifesting subtle cues of asking you to stop petting (we will examine these later)

Do Dogs Always Enjoy Petting?

It is a major misconception that dogs are eager to be pet and look forward to it all the time. The truth is, that may be the last thing on their mind.

Consider Their Surroundings

When I see a dog in a pet store and people are eager to touch him (because they assume 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 it's not worth the risk!

This applies even in dogs' relationships with their owners: Dogs aren't eager to be pet by their owners 24/7, 365 days a year. They have their moments when they are more open to attention and moments when they're more closed.

When your dog has been left alone at home all day and you've just come back home, he may be very open to being pet. When you sit down on the porch and your dog leans next to you, he may appreciate some soothing strokes. But when you're at the dog park and he's looking at birds, squirrels, and other dogs, petting may be the last thing on his mind.

Consider If They're Eating

There are countless owners who truly believe their dogs want to be petted even 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?

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

Consider The Breed

Some dogs breeds may be more standoffish than others. It's not like these dogs hate being pet, it's just that they may be more on the reserved side and appreciate attention by people they know well and have established a history of trust.

Rottweilers, Great Pyrenees, the Akita, the Chow chow, in general are serious dog breeds who can be dignified and not much crazy about being pet, especially from people who they don't know well.

Consider Their Mood

Dogs must also be in an appreciative and calm state of mind when they are pet so that they can enjoy it to the fullest. If your dog is in a flight-or-fight response with his adrenaline pumping, being touched during this time may lead to a bite.

This may apply to newly rescued dogs who need to settle in their new homes As excited and happy as you may feel to welcome this new dog, consider that certain enthusiastic displays of affection might be too intense for the dog until he gains more trust.

While you may think your touch is therapeutic, your dog may therefore not be in the right state of mind for such contact. Therefore, he may bite because he is too alert or defensive—or simply because he is bothered by your touch.

Whether or not this was intentional is not important; what counts is to learn that a dog is just that, and as such, he does not always enjoy touch and can be helped to cope with its emotions in better ways.

Picking up, hugging, and patting a dog may not be perceived by it as a particularly pleasurable or welcome activity. Further, not all dogs enjoy being petted, especially when the petting is delivered by insensitive and clumsy hands. Although a dog may passively accept unsolicited affection, it may gradually become emotionally distressed and resentful of such contact.

— Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Etiology and Assessment of Behavior P

If a dog appears to be overwhelmed or in fight-or-flight mode, he might not enjoy any petting.

If a dog appears to be overwhelmed or in fight-or-flight mode, he might not enjoy any petting.

How to Avoid Being Bitten

As you've learned, 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 is not always intentional, though. At times, people simply do not realize that a dog is sending "leave me alone" and "that's enough, please" signals. This article is intended to be an eye opener that provides information about these signs for educational purposes.

Check With the Owner (But Remain Cautious)

Once you have learned to screen the few dogs you should pet and which you should not, you should only be left with a handful of dogs: those that the owners have given you permission to pet. This permission alone is not enough to ensure a pleasant experience for both of you, though. There are, indeed, dogs who may be eager to be pet one moment and then may drastically change.

In this case, the owner may be aware of the problem, and if he is, he should not allow any interactions. However, 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

Step 1: Ask the Owner

First, ask the owner if you can pet the dog. Keep in mind that not all owners are honest about their dog being friendly.

Step 2: Approach Correctly

Take care to approach the dog correctly. They do not like fast, direct, or 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. In her article on preventing bites, Dr. Sophia Yin suggests a sideways approach, using your peripheral vision.

Step 3: Watch for a Reaction

Remember to watch carefully for 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. Here's a tip: Don't focus on the tail; look at the whole picture!

Step 4: Pet (But Avoid the Head)

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.

Step 5: Keep It Short

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 (like the kind you might give a long-lost friend)! When you meet a stranger, a brief handshake is all it takes. How would you feel if a stranger started hugging you and never let go of you? It's very likely you'd feel 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 that some social butterflies will nudge at you to ask for more when you stop petting, it is also true that many dogs prefer a few pats and then wish to go on with their lives.

Try petting a friendly dog under his chin.

Try petting a friendly dog under his chin.

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've 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 (the whites of the eyes are exposed)
  • Aggressive pucker (air makes the lips look puffy)
  • Piloerection (raised hackles)
  • And of course: growling, snarling (not to be confused with a 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 of relief.

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

Other Important Tips

  • 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 like humans, 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.
  • Men are at times guilty of overdoing it and petting 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, but 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, take the better-safe-than-sorry route and admire a dog from a distance. As the song goes, "You can look, but you better not touch."

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

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

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli

Comments

Devika Primic on February 20, 2020:

it is important to follow these points and to know when it is appropriate to pet a dog. I often connect to dogs freely and that helps me feel less fear when i need to pet them.I feel secure to pet a dog that I have grown used to and when the dog knows my sense.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 20, 2015:

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!

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on June 20, 2015:

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 ++

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on October 16, 2014:

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 on September 25, 2014:

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

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 09, 2014:

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!

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on March 09, 2014:

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! ;)

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 20, 2013:

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.

dogfond on April 24, 2013:

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.

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on March 15, 2013:

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

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 15, 2013:

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.

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on March 14, 2013:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 14, 2013:

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

Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on February 13, 2013:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 06, 2013:

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

Agnes on February 06, 2013:

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

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 11, 2012:

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

Kas from Bartlett, Tennessee on December 11, 2012:

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

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 12, 2012:

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 from Texas on October 12, 2012:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 23, 2012:

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

Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on July 23, 2012:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 22, 2012:

Wetnose lol!

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

Pamela-anne from Miller Lake on July 22, 2012:

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 from Alabama on July 22, 2012:

alexadry,

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

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 22, 2012:

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 from Alabama on July 22, 2012:

Alexadry,

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 22, 2012:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 22, 2012:

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

Shasta Matova from USA on July 22, 2012:

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 from Alabama on July 22, 2012:

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 from Louisville, Ky on July 22, 2012:

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!