Reading dogs 12: Will he bite?

Yes, he will bite. All dogs can bite and most dogs will bite if provoked. Biting is a last resort behaviour: it can be prevented.

Dogs always signal that they are distressed or uncomfortable about something. They offer a graduated series of physical cues about their levels of comfort, ranging from “I don’t like that” to “I’m ready to hurt you to defend myself or something I care about.” If another creature doesn’t accept his warnings, the dog may have no choice left but to bite. There’s a lot we can do to avoid reaching this point.

Dogs do not want to fight

Even people who have spent a lot of time around wild and domestic animals are sometimes surprised to realize that most animals are not interested in fighting with anyone. Unlike other animals, human beings who have immediate access to good medical care actively choose to engage in activities that can hurt us. For example, we may consider injuries to be inevitable parts of some sports and games. Handling pain and injury signify strong character.

Healthy animals do their utmost to avoid fighting because even winners can be seriously hurt. Injuries that seem minor or superficial to human beings can be deadly to animals who have no guaranteed access to, or knowledge of, antibiotics and medical care. Dying from infection is slow and painful. No animal risks injury without good reason.

Guarding property and resources

Dogs may show aggression in order to protect possessions and property such as:

  • toys, food and dishes;
  • sleeping places, including their own crates;
  • territory, such as the garden, the inside of the house or a particular room in the house;
  • their owners; and
  • mother dogs will protect their own puppies.

A dog may behave aggressively when

  • protecting toys, food, sleeping places, owners and territory;
  • a human, another dog or another animal tries to take something away;
  • sick, injured, elderly or irritable, especially if being touched is physically painful;
  • frightened or intimidated by being hugged, leaned over or standing too close;
  • someone has hurt the dog by stepping on him, poking him, pulling his tail, ears or fur;
  • playing roughly–wrestling or chasing games–and the dog becomes too excited;
  • the dog hasn’t learned good “bite inhibition” in puppyhood and unintentionally bites hard when given a toy or food; and
  • a mother dog has puppies nearby.

In addition, when someone, especially a child, moves erratically–running, making high-pitched noises, riding a scooter, skateboard, tricycle, bicycle or wheelchair–a dog’s instinctive prey drive can be incited. The dog may pursue and attack. This behaviour is most commonly found among certain breeds, including Huskies, Malamutes, Akitas and some hounds.1)See Husky socialization–dealing with off-leash incidents and prey drive and How to Choose the Right Breed: Work drive vs. biddability.

Herding breeds–including collies, corgis, and German shepherds–and drovers, such as Rottweilers, Bouviers and Australian cattle dogs, may nip at children’s heels or use physical pressure, including body slams, to “herd” children or adults.2)Lucky, US President Ronald Reagan’s Bouvier des Flandres, often attempted to herd the media during White House press conferences. After Lucky tried to herd the President one day and nipped Reagan’s buttock hard enough to draw blood, she was retired to the Reagans’ ranch in California.

Dogs always give warnings

This blog series, Reading dogs, is about the ways that dogs use body language to tell us, other dogs and animals how they feel. When they’re anxious about something, they say so as clearly as they can. A closed mouth is one key signal that a dog’s mood has changed.

In her terrific book, For the Love of a Dog, behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes:

Dogs will close their mouths when they’re on alert, and watching a mouth go from open to closed is a good way to know your dog has begun to concentrate on a change in the environment…A closed jaw by itself can’t tell you whether the dog is alerting to the chirp of a chipmunk or signaling to you that he’s about to bite, but going from open to closed is a key indicator that your dog is no longer in a happy-go-lucky frame of mind.3)McConnell, Patricia B. For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. New York: Ballantine, 2006. Print.

Other signs that a dog is uncomfortable include:

  • getting up and moving away or leaving the room;
  • turning his head away;
  • lifting one front paw;
  • hiding behind a person or thing;
  • suddenly scratching, biting or licking himself;
  • licking his lips and/or nose;
  • yawning when not sleepy;
  • tail tucked between his legs;
  • tail low, only wagging the end, or raised and wagging stiffly;
  • turning ears sideways (for a prick-eared dog);
  • pulling ears back and panting rapidly;
  • opening eyes wide (whale eye);
  • “shake off” when not wet;
  • raised hackles;
  • direct eye contact and hard staring;
  • rigid body posture, may include leaning forward on front legs;
  • closed mouth;
  • growling;
  • snarling;
  • showing teeth, C-shaped mouth/air snapping;
  • mouth closed tight, body stiff and motionless signal that the dog is ready to spring and bite; and
  • lunging or charging forward.

Good dogs growl

In early January, on Brisbane’s Bark Blog, Rachel wrote a terrific post, “Good Dogs Growl,” in which she compared growling to cars’ warning lights that inform drivers that they need to do something about the engine before the car bursts into flames. She correctly points out that teaching a dog not to growl is like unplugging the engine’s warning light: it doesn’t do anything about the point at which bad things happen.

If a dog growls, respect the warning and move away. You may not think that there’s anything for the dog to be worried about. You may have an impulse to calm the dog by petting him or trying to jolly him out of his mood, but please don’t. Move away and give everyone time to calm down. Wait for the dog to come to you before you try to re-engage directly.

A dog who has been punished for growling loses the ability to say that he’s going to bite. When he does, the attack can seem spontaneous, for no reason.

Dogs and young children

Several times each week, I receive links to videos like the one below, showing interactions between a toddler or young child and a dog. All of the dog trainers and behaviourists I know cringe when we see these videos. We marvel over the self-control the dogs demonstrate even as they also do their best to tell the adult humans that they don’t like what the little one is doing.

In the video above, someone has encouraged the toddler to sit on the dog, a female boxer. The dog turns her head away when the baby grabs her jowls; she licks her lips repeatedly and yawns dramatically. After one yawn, at 0:10, the dog closes her mouth firmly, pulls her ears back away from the sides of her head and shows significant wrinkling on her forehead and muzzle. She turns her head away again and looks at the floor in the mid-distance. At 0:29, after the baby grabs the dog’s ears and pulls them, the dog turns her head back to look at the baby. Her mouth is firmly closed; her head is tilted back at a hard angle; the dog’s eyes are staring and the whites are showing. I was afraid that the dog would then turn quickly and grab the baby’s face but the dog licks the baby’s face, instead. The person filming the encounter mistakes the licking for affection and praises the dog. She is not actually being affectionate but is attempting to appease the baby to get him to stop handling her. The baby grabs the dog’s jowls again and the dog turns her head away, licking her lips and nose extravagantly.

I would adopt that boxer in a heartbeat! Her patience and forbearance with the toddler are saint-like. She does her best to remain calm throughout the engagement. Even her forearms and paws remain reasonably calm. Nevertheless, if I read a report one day that a family’s boxer has attacked their toddler “out of the blue and for no reason,” which is how those attacks are always described, I would not be surprised that the dog had reached the limit of her patience. Clearly, her owners do not understand the distress she feels over being mauled by the toddler.

If the dog bites

If a dog wants to bite you, he will. A human can never move faster than a dog. If he doesn’t bite, it’s not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t want to, yet. Lunging or snapping at the air is the dog’s statement that he intends to bite you if you don’t go away immediately. At such a time, grab anything available to put between the dog’s mouth and your body, such as a coat or blanket, a backpack or purse, and back away from the dog slowly without staring at him. It is best to turn your head slightly to the side and look down, away from the dog. Turning your back on him at this point may actually motivate him to attack.

Though it’s easier said than done, if the dog bites you, try not to panic. Becoming more agitated will encourage him to become more agitated, too. Remember that the dog really does not want to fight. As much as possible, even though you’ve been bitten, the best thing is to try to de-escalate the encounter and move a significant distance away from the dog.

Dogs often bite hands, arms and legs first. If this happens to you, try not to yank away. The dog will bite down harder which will not only cause the wound to tear, it will also begin a grisly tug-of-war game.

Don’t hit the dog. Hitting will increase the dog’s fear or anger and may incite him to bite harder. He may release his hold and aim for a more vulnerable part of your body such as your face, neck or groin.

Try to get something into the dog’s mouth, such as your jacket, purse or even a stick. Throwing water in the dog’s face may startle him into letting go.

Severity of bites

The Dunbar Bite Scale, written by veterinarian and behaviourist Dr. Ian Dunbar, a leading expert in the study of dog bites, is an objective measure of the severity of dog bites. The scale evaluates a dog’s history of aggression by measuring the amount of injury the dog inflicted.4) According to Dunbar, 95% of dog bites result in minimal harm and come from dogs who are not aggressive.

Of course, the best thing is to avoid being bitten in the first place. Pay attention to dogs’ body language, learn to recognize when a dog feels uncomfortable or anxious, and avoid escalating an encounter.

Additional resources:

If You’re Aggressive, Your Dog Will Be, Too

Nicole Wilde, “Why  Growling is Good”

American Veterinary Medical Association Dog Bites Numbers Infographic

Doggone Safe


Next: Reading dogs 13: Attacked (a case study)

References   [ + ]

1. See Husky socialization–dealing with off-leash incidents and prey drive and How to Choose the Right Breed: Work drive vs. biddability.
2. Lucky, US President Ronald Reagan’s Bouvier des Flandres, often attempted to herd the media during White House press conferences. After Lucky tried to herd the President one day and nipped Reagan’s buttock hard enough to draw blood, she was retired to the Reagans’ ranch in California.
3. McConnell, Patricia B. For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. New York: Ballantine, 2006. Print.