Signs a Dog is not Enjoying Petting and is About to Bite
You certainly should not pet this dog!
What Causes a Dog to Want to Bite?
What causes a dog to bite and what are signs a dog is about 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 a dog is about to bite and it takes a somewhat trained eye to recognize these signs. A person may pet a dog and ignore these signs and then wonder why the dog decided to bite. 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 to not push it. They failed to see some important warning signs!
Often people believe that the only threatening signs a dog is about to bite entails growling, lunging, and of course, biting. There is really much more into that! Also, not all dogs will growl or bark before biting! There are many cases of dogs biting without emitting a sound. Paying attention to the dog's body language and avoiding petting a dog in certain circumstances are two strategies that will significantly help reduce the incidences for a dog 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
- The dog is behind a fence, inside a car or in an area perceived as its territory
- The dog 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
- The dog 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 life of the dog. Indeed, countless dogs are put down due to bites that could have been prevented.
A great read for reading dog body language
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, many times dogs care less about being pet and that may be the last thing on their mind. When I see a dog in a pet store and people are eager to pet him (because all dogs in pet stores must be friendly!), I can often clearly see that the dog cares less. With so many other stimuli around such as other dogs, shopping carts and the smell of food, these dogs may prefer to be left alone either due to stress or because there 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. Dogs have their moments when they are more open to attention and more closed. When your dog is left all day alone at home and you come back home, he may be very open to be pet. When you sit down on the porch and your dog is leaning next to you, he may appreciate some soothing strokes. When your dog is 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 should be eager to be pet even when they are eating! How would you feel to go to the restaurant for a juicy steak and being repeatedly pet on the face while you are eating! Read the best way to make your dog food aggressive and you will be surprised!
Often, dog owners resort to petting their dog on the head to reward their dogs for a job well-done. However, often dog owners do not realize that in some cases, the dog perceives the pat on the head as something aversive, versus something rewarding. To learn more about the dynamics about this, read: Rewards and Punishment from a Dog's Perspective
A vast array of dogs were selectively bred for working purposes. Rottweilers were pulling carts to meat markets, 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 dogs seem to appreciate attention from their owners and some also appreciate 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 pet 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 bite was intentional or not, is not important, what counts is to learn that a dog is a dog and as such, does not always enjoy touch and that the dog can be helped cope with its emotions in better ways.
Warning Signs of an Impending Bite
As seen, dogs are not always that eager to be pet. 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 dogs you should not, you should only be left with a handful of dogs 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 dog 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 dog 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 dog bite?
How to Approach a Dog
The following are some steps on how to approach a dog.
1) Ask for the dog owner if you can pet the dog (keep in mind though that not all dog owners are honest about their dog being friendly).
2) Approach the dog correctly. Dogs do not like fast, direct, frontal encounters. Indeed, in the dog world, dogs 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 dog 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 petting. If he cowers, backs away or 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 the dog and avoid petting over the 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 last 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 letting go of you? Very likely, extremely uncomfortable! Many dog bites could have been avoided if the petting would have stopped BEFORE the dog starting giving signs of getting tired. While it is true there are some social butterflies that 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 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 from the dog such as scrolling the fur or appearing more relaxed, almost as if the dog takes a sigh or relief.
*Note: some coward dogs may bite right when you are turning away to leave. Watch your back!
While it is true that some dogs are good in 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 a dog 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 for 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 a dog (once the owner gives the green light,) and signs of an impending bite. This guide should help protect yourself from future bites, yet, keep in mind that dogs are animals and as such, they rely on instinct; even the friendliest dog 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".
Alexadry© Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA All rights reserved-do not copy.
Viewer Discretion: Watch the signs of an impending bite in this Dogo Argentino
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?See results without voting
For further reading
- Why Dogs Do Not Like to be Hugged
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- Dog Behavior: Do Dogs Smile?
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- Dog Behavior: Understanding Dog Calming Signals
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- Dog Behavior: Why is my Dog Eager to be Pet one Minu...
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- Why Growling Should Never be Suppressed in Dogs
Learn why you should avoid punishing or correcting your dog for growling.
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