Dog Body Language 101 & Bite Prevention

Dog training and behavior professionals have concluded that the major cause of dog bites results from people failing to understand or recognize when a dog is fearful, anxious, or uncomfortable. Such a lack of understanding, especially when paired with not being aware of how to properly greet a dog, can easily lead to a bite.

Many of us typically know the obvious signs of dogs who have reached their threshold and are about to bite (snarling, showing teeth, raised hackles, growling, etc.), but what about the signs that come before that?

Below is a list of some of the important dog body language signals to be aware of in order to know if a dog is feeling stressed or fearful, which could lead to a bite.

  • Tail is tucked in between her legs

  • Ears are pulled all the way back and stay close to her head

  • Dog is moving away or hiding behind something or someone

  • Dog turns head away from the person to “get away” from petting/contact

  • Similar to when Grandma used to pinch your cheeks!

  • Cowering

  • Ears are usually pulled back, body stance is low, head is lowered, and their eyebrows are usually furrowed

  • Excessive panting

  • This could be normal panting if they are outside in the sun or overheated, but in any other situation this usually indicates stress

  • Whale eye

  • When a dog is relaxed you usually will not see much, if any, of the whites of her eyes. When a dog is under stress, you will see what people call “whale eye,” which means the whites of her eyes are showing

  • Moving in slow motion

  • Hyper vigilant

  • When a dog is looking in many directions and is very sporadic in her motions

  • Pacing

  • Yawning

  • Unless it’s bedtime or they just woke up, this indicates they are under some stress

  • Licking of the lips (also known as the “tongue flick”)

  • Tail is very stiff and straight up

  • Tail is lowered and wagging fast

  • A wagging tail does not always mean a happy dog

  • Averting gaze

If a dog is averting her gaze away from a person or squinting their eyes they are trying to avoid eye contact and in essence, trying to avoid the situation. As humans, we unfortunately greet dogs the way we would like to be greeted by a familiar person we love, as opposed to how dogs would prefer to be greeted by a complete stranger. Think about it: would you want to have a complete stranger come up, hug and kiss you, and start unloading a bunch of conversation excitedly in a language you don’t know in the middle of a store or on the street? How uncomfortable that would be! Yet, we expect dogs to tolerate this many times a day without question. Dogs tolerate a lot (and thank goodness for that) but some dogs are less tolerant than others, while others simply get overwhelmed by undesired human interaction at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

How to Greet a Dog Properly

  • Stand a safe distance away. Let the dog have some room before approaching

  • Ask the pet parent or person responsible for the dog if it is okay to approach and greet

  • Always keep in mind the above tips on dog body language. Many pet parents will promise their dog is friendly but the dog may very well be stressed

  • Approach calmly and slowly at a relaxed walk

  • Avoid staring too much into the dog’s eyes

  • In the dog world, this is a rude gesture

  • Approach, get down on the dog’s level, and present her with your side

  • Let the dog approach you first

  • This is a vital step! Let the dog come and sniff you out at her own pace

  • Try not to stick your hand out for the dog to smell. This is a common practice that, unfortunately, is not the best option. A hand out or above the head can seem intimidating or scary for a dog

  • If the dog doesn’t approach or look like she wants to interact then it’s okay! We don’t always want to greet every single person we see, right?

  • If the dog looks relaxed, comes up to you, and appears she wants to engage, then let the petting begin!

  • Pet gently

  • Dogs typically don’t like to be patted on the head, so try lightly rubbing their chest or under their chin

  • Also, contrary to popular belief, dogs typically do not like to be hugged. This is yet another thing they tolerate but usually show signs of stress that go unnoticed

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