Why Do Dogs Bite When You Pet Them? (Signs a Dog Is Going 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:
- When you shouldn't pet a dog
- Why dogs aren't always eager to be pet
- How to avoid a bite
- How you can properly and safely approach a dog
- Signs that a dog is ready to bite
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
- 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)
Consider the Dog's Safety, Too
As a general rule, avoid petting any dog you don't know and is alone. You never know! It is in your best interest, and the dog's, not to pet in such cases. First, you may get bit, and second, 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 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 Their Breed
A vast array of dogs were selectively bred for working purposes: Rottweilers pulled carts to meat markets, the Great Pyrenees guarded flocks of sheep, and Springer Spaniels flushed 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 class. However, many do seem to appreciate attention from their owners to some extent, and some also enjoy it from strangers.
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. While you may think your touch is therapeutic, your dog may 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.
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.
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
- 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
If a dog bites the person who 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.
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli