Knowing the warning signs that a dog may bite, and knowing how to avoid getting bitten, can make a huge difference in the outcome of a potentially dangerous encounter with a dog.
Most bites happen around dogs we know, according to a study published in 2018 in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine, which noted that “the most common context of a dog bite is related to interacting or attempting to interact with the dog (e.g., stroking, playing, handling, and restraining); however, in many cases, the dog approached the victim.”
If you don’t understand canine body language and aren’t paying attention to the red flags, a dog can appear to go from friendly to aggressive in an instant.
In this article on the warning signs that a dog may bite, we’ll cover:
- The 12 warning signs that a dog is about to bite
- Different types of aggression you should be aware of
- Plus, we’ll share the ways in which you can avoid being bitten by a dog
Pop Quiz: What Do You Do in These Scenarios?
- Imagine that you are taking a hike through the woods when suddenly a medium-sized, mixed-breed dog appears on the trail ahead of you. You don’t see anyone around whom the dog might be with, and you’re not sure if the dog is lost and can be approached or if the dog could be aggressive. What do you do?
- Now imagine that you’re at a party, and you head upstairs and start opening doors to figure out which one is the restroom. You open one door and discover an adorable 30-pound spaniel and you are tempted to pet her, but you have never met this dog before. Should you close the door again or say hi briefly?
You may think you would know exactly what to do in either of those situations, but without witnessing the dogs’ reactions in real time, you really can’t predict what either dog would do.
So, what’s the safest thing to do?
Answer: Leave both dogs alone.
Either dog could be friendly. The mixed-breed pup on the hiking trail might need your help, or the spaniel in the bedroom may love a scratch. Then again, perhaps the mix is feral, or the spaniel has been locked in the room because she is aggressive toward strangers.
12 Warning Signs That a Dog May Bite
Look for the following warning signs that a dog may bite:
- The dog looks tense and stiff, with ears back, lips tightly together and tail tucked. This dog is afraid and, if pushed, could bite.
- The dog looks puffed up and tense, with ears upright, lips tightly together, tail raised where the tail meets the dog’s back, chest puffed out, hackles raised, and likely staring at you. This dog is trying to dominate or intimidate and is ready to fight.
- The dog is growling, and there are no signs that the dog is playing, such as a play bow. Unless you are told otherwise by someone who knows the dog well, it’s better to assume a growl is aggressive.
- The dog lifts a corner of their lip to show a bit of tooth, or bares all their teeth. Some breeds like Australian Shepherds will grin as a sign of pleasure, but showing teeth is normally a sign of aggression.
- The dog is stalking you, with head low to the ground, an intense stare and a stiff body. Many dogs will do this behavior in play, but if it’s playful, it is usually accompanied by a play bow or relaxed body language. Stalking outside of play is predatory behavior and could mean a bite.
- A dog is staring at you and is tense. Some breeds like Border Collies tend to stare, but many times a direct stare with tense body language is a challenge and a sign of aggression.
- The dog is trying to get away from you. A fearful dog will often try to flee first, but if they cannot flee or their avoidance isn’t respected, they may resort to aggression to get you to back off. It’s always better to encourage a fearful dog to come to you instead of pursuing them if you must interact, unless you are trained in animal behavior.
- A dog is eating, chewing on a bone, or has another prized object and you don’t know for certain that the dog is not a resource guarder.
- A male dog is trying to get to a female in heat, and you are interfering.
- You are entering the home of a dog who does not know you, when their human is not present. If you must do this, the dog’s person should crate or confine them to another room beforehand unless it is well-known that the dog does well with strangers entering their home.
- You are getting between a dog and something they want to attack. Any dog in an aroused state can redirect that aggression onto someone else, so breaking up dog fights or treating aggression should be done very carefully.
- You are using training methods that cause a dog to feel defensive, such as tackling the dog to the ground.
9 Types of Aggression You Should Be Aware Of
Knowing the warning signs that a dog may bite can help you avoid an attack. Understanding aggression and the types of aggression can also help.
As mentioned earlier, statistically you are most at risk of being bitten by your dog or a friend or family member’s dog than a strange dog. Family and friends’ dogs are the ones you’ll find yourself close to all the time, and those are the dogs we are less cautious around.
While you shouldn’t feel afraid around dogs, a bit of knowledge can help you be prudent and give dogs the respect they deserve as animals.
Below are the most 9 common types of aggression in dogs that you may encounter. There can be other types of aggression or multiple types of aggression displayed in one dog, but most aggression falls into at least one of these categories:
1. Arousal Aggression
Arousal aggression is the type of aggression that often happens at the dog park.
Several dogs are playing together, but as the dogs get more and more aroused, play can turn into fighting as the arousal escalates if the dogs don’t know how to disengage.
2. Defensive Aggression
I will often wrestle with my retriever. She has been taught a stop command and a play command to let her know when roughhousing is all right and when it’s not.
Because of her genetics, and the work I did with her as a puppy to teach her to accept handling and pressure, she enjoys our games and will give into the pressure and allow it.
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When my sister’s German Shepherd was a puppy, if she tried to apply physical pressure, he would respond by getting frustrated and would fight the pressure, even though she had practiced socialization and handling with him as much as I did with my retriever.
The response to push back against any form of pressure is called a defense drive.
During Protection and Schutzhund training, when an attacker comes at a dog, the dog’s response is supposed to be to push back by lunging toward the person and grabbing and holding them with a controlled bite. In that same situation, many dogs with a lower defense drive would run away, cower, or dart in and out.
3. Fear Aggression
Fear aggression often happens when a dog is genetically predisposed to fearfulness, has experienced trauma such as abuse or a dog fight, was not sufficiently socialized while young, or is handled in a way that promotes fearfulness.
Many times, fear aggressive dogs are already shy by nature, and something else contributes to their fearfulness, such as a lack of socialization.
Fear aggressive dogs will often act aggressively to try to push the thing they are fearful of away. If they lunge at or nip and then people back up, they learn that aggression is an effective way to keep others away in the future.
Don’t assume that just because a dog is afraid, they won’t bite. A fearful dog is much more likely to bite than a relaxed dog.
4. Territorial Aggression
Territorial aggression is a genetic trait. Almost all dogs naturally want to protect their home and space, but some breeds and personalities are more territorial than others.
A dog without clear leadership or proper socialization is even more likely to act territorial because almost everything seems like a threat to them.
5. Possessive Aggression
With possessive aggression, also called resource guarding, a dog is acting aggressively to keep others away from something they view as their own.
- Food is a common thing that many dogs guard, but they may guard toys, bowls, furniture, other dogs and even people.
- Anything the dog views as their own can potentially be guarded.
6. Protective Aggression
Protective aggression and possessive aggression are often confused and have a lot of similarities when the dog is guarding a person.
- With protective aggression, the dog views something as a threat to their person, so they protect that person by acting aggressively toward the threat.
- With possessive aggression, the dog thinks they own the person, so they keep others away from the person.
Most protective dogs are genetically predisposed to being protective, or have been trained to be protective, and they have the social skills to understand an actual threat properly.
Many dogs who are thought of as being protective are actually being possessive or fearful around people. A fearful or possessive dog should never be trained as a protection dog. Protectiveness is also related to a dog’s defense drive.
7. Predatory Aggression
Predatory aggression is usually associated with dogs chasing small animals or other pets like cats. Predatory aggression is the type of aggression that helps feral dogs hunt to survive.
- Small dogs can be viewed as prey by some larger domestic dogs, but this is uncommon.
- Young children can be viewed as prey by some dogs, but this is extremely rare for healthy domestic dogs.
8. Redirection Aggression
Redirection is when a dog bites you because you interfere with their attempts to act aggressively toward another person or animal.
- If you try to break up a dog fight and grab your dog while they are in the middle of an attack, you are likely to be bitten because the dog will redirect their aggression toward you.
- A dog who is redirecting may also bite a person or a dog simply because they were nearby while that dog was in an aggressive state.
Redirection is one reason you need to be very careful and experienced to work with aggressive dogs. There is always the chance that a dog with a history of aggression could bite whoever is closest to them while in an aggressive, aroused state.
9. Social Aggression
Social aggression is a type of aggression in dogs that’s related to social order and interaction.
Dominance and submission are part of this type of aggression. This type of aggression can surface when someone challenges what a dog finds preferable or acceptable.
- Social aggression can be related to hierarchy. Dogs may get into fights with one another over competing for status.
- Many dogs who have issues in this area are also insecure and not balanced enough to handle social pressure.
Dominance does not always equal aggression: Many truly dominant dogs are good at avoiding fights because they have balanced temperaments, healthy social skills, and proper respect and trust for people.
When my Border Collie, Mack, was 1 year old, he would often approach other dogs rudely. I would have to intervene and tell him to leave the area. One day he approached a large, calm, female German Shepherd very rudely. When he walked up to her, wanting to mount her, the German Shepherd calmly placed her head across his shoulders and held it there for a few seconds.
I watched as my hot-shot young dog went from looking proud and puffed up to extremely submissive and small almost instantly.
After a few seconds, she removed her head and calmly walked away — no noise, no bites, no damage done.
Mack stopped approaching other dogs rudely from that point on. I also noticed that every other dog respected the German Shepherd’s space as well. She was a truly dominant, balanced and socially intelligent dog.
How to Avoid Being Bitten by a Dog
To avoid being bitten by a dog, you need to know what aggression looks like in a dog.
It’s also important to have at least a basic understanding of the types of aggression so you can be aware of a potentially dangerous situation. When you are aware of the types of aggression, you are less likely to do things like walk up to a dog who’s eating, get between 2 dogs fighting, corner a fearful dog or walk into an unknown dog’s yard.
When it’s too late, and you’re already in a bad situation with an aggressive dog, there are some things you can do to try to avoid a bite:
- If a dog is threatening you, avoid direct eye contact and try to stay relaxed and calm. This makes you less of a threat and can sometimes help you avoid getting bitten.
- If you are walking your dog and you are approached by another dog and a meeting is inevitable, make your dog’s leash completely slack and stay calm and relaxed. Let the dogs sniff for no longer than 3 seconds, then tell your dog to keep walking in the most pleasant and calm tone of voice you can manage. A quick greeting can satisfy a dog’s curiosity but end the interaction before trouble begins.
- If you must walk past an unknown dog, avoid direct eye contact and then make an arch around them instead of walking directly toward them. Keep your pace even and calm.
- Don’t approach a fearful dog. If you need to meet the dog, wait for the fearful dog to choose to come up to you to say hi or receive food while you are avoiding eye contact and are still. If you are trying to train the dog to associate people with good things, instead of reaching toward them with a treat, toss the treat at their paws or let them approach you if it’s safe. Don’t feed a dog who is acting aggressively toward you while they are behaving aggressively — you want to encourage calmness with your treats.
- Don’t roughhouse or apply too much pressure to a dog who is not your own, is defensive or hasn’t been taught to enjoy handling. If the dog is a recent rescue, don’t make assumptions about what the dog can handle before you truly know the dog. Not all dogs can play rough, and you need to know a dog very well to know whether they enjoy and can handle certain types of touch or not.
- If your dog is displaying aggression, pay attention — especially if kids are around. Many people will avoid a dog who growls at them while they have a toy and thus avoid a bite, but a visiting child may not know to avoid the dog and can easily get bitten for simply approaching a dog at the wrong time. Hire professional help to address signs of aggression early. The earlier aggression is addressed, the easier it typically is to deal with.
- There are rare times when a dog may rush you and measures to de-escalate the situation fail. If that happens and you are about to be attacked, put something between yourself and the dog if possible: a purse, stick, chair or article of clothing. Focus on guarding your neck and vital organs. It is better to be bitten on the arm or leg than neck or face in most cases. If you are bitten, try not to pull away while the dog’s teeth are on you, or you could risk tearing. Instead, place something such as a stick in the back corner of the dog’s mouth as a lever to get the dog to let go.
- If you carry pepper spray and are about to be attacked, use it before the dog reaches you, then get away from the spray in the air as quickly as you can.
- Some dogs will flee if you act extremely loud and bold — especially dogs bent on attacking someone with you, such as your dog or child, and not you. Whether or not a dog will flee depends on the dog and why they are attacking, though. Acting aggressively toward a dog is risky because the dog’s adrenaline could also increase and further fuel their attack.
This video from the American Veterinary Medical Association gives some sensible advice on preventing dog bites:
Final Thoughts on the Warning Signs That a Dog May Bite
As easy as it is to forget — between cute looks, their loyalty and puppy snuggles on the couch — any dog can bite under certain circumstances.
Some dogs are far more likely to act aggressively than others and their bites are more dangerous, but it’s important to know the warning signs that a dog may bite so that you can keep yourself, your loved ones and even that dog safe.
If a dog ever bites you, be sure to clean the wound well and see your doctor.
This goes for bite wounds on your own dog, too. Even if the bite is not severe enough to require stitches and the dog is up to date on vaccines, dog bites can easily become infected.
- Oxley, James Andrew, et al. “Contexts and Consequences of Dog Bite Incidents.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior 23 (January–February 2018): 33–39. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787817301168.
- Moore, Arden. “Why Does My Dog… Bow?” Vetstreet. Jan. 7, 2013. http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/why-does-my-dog-bow.
- “Defensive Aggression.” The Marin Humane Society. July 2016. https://www.marinhumane.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Defensive-Aggression.pdf.
- “Food Guarding.” American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/common-dog-behavior-issues/food-guarding.
- Waelchli, Jessica L., DVM, and Donald D. Draper, DVM, PhD. “Canine Dominance Aggression.” Iowa State University Veterinarian 59, no. 2 (1997). https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e457/97a4c8f8a107dea27d75ced8cd703ae60c53.pdf.
- Fonseca, Gabriel M., DDS, PhD, et al. “Forensic Studies of Dog Attacks on Humans: A Focus on Bite Mark Analysis.” Research and Reports in Forensic Medical Science 5 (Oct. 12, 2015): 39–51. https://doi.org/10.2147/RRFMS.S92068.