Signs a Dog Is Not Enjoying Petting and Is About to Bite
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
- 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?
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli