Why do Dogs Bite?
Updated: Sep 16
In any situation, it is helpful to understand why a dog may bite you and the signs that tell you that you are about to get bit. Dogs are like people in that some are more social and friendly than others. No matter the size of the dog or the breed, many factors come into play when it comes to their social and comfort level in new experiences and with new people.
Why do dogs bite?
Dogs typically bite out of fear, when they are possessive, or when they feel they are being threatened.
Fear: According to AVMA, dogs that are submissive or have not been desensitized properly often bite out of fear. Signs of a fearful dog are crouching, backing away, growling, avoiding eye contact, and tail and ears are down. Fearful dogs can sometimes go on their back with their legs close to their body before they bite you. This is non-aggressive behavior and can be trained out of. Training may involve slowly introducing them to new situations, people, sounds, or even body manipulation (petting their backside, picking them up quickly, lightly pulling their ears). It really depends on what they are not comfortable with!
Possessive: Dogs can be possessive of numerous individuals or objects, such as toys, beds, people, or food. According to AKC, possession often stems from a dog not being socialized, being abandoned by their owner, living through a hoarding situation, or living in an overcrowded shelter for an extended amount of time. In these situations, a dog has to compete for their resources, which pressures them to relent to possessive behaviors for their own survival. Dogs that are possessive of humans may feel that their human is being threatened by another person or dog. This possession may be triggered if someone or a dog is play-fighting with their owner. For some dogs, they may even be possessive of their toys or bed because they like it and do not want it to be taken away. In these situations, they need to be taught manners through consistent training. Signs of a possessive dog are guarding their object, growling, excessive barking, and baring their teeth.
Aggressive: Unfortunately some dogs relent to aggressive behaviors because they were not trained at all when they were young, they were abused, or they were left in extreme situations that warranted aggressive behavior to protect themselves. This is not the dog’s fault, but due to irresponsible dog ownership.
Signs of an aggressive dog are staring you down, excessive barking, raised hair on their back, stiff body language, learning forwards, perked wagging tail, and baring teeth. Aggressive dogs require dominance, desensitization, and behavior training, which requires consistent training done by an experienced dog trainer. Do not attempt to approach an aggressive dog!
What does slowly desensitizing your dog look like? (Possessive and Fearful Dogs)
The goal is to slowly expose them to the trigger, which may be to new people, sounds of traffic, or to other dogs. Slowly expose your dog by meeting people or other dogs in neutral settings, such as a low populated park or outdoor restaurant. Remain in their line of sight the whole time and keep close to establish yourself as their source of comfort and to get them in the habit of looking to you for guidance.
If your dog is scared of other dogs, sit next to them and pet them while the new dog walks around them for a bit. As your dog gets visibly less frightened, allow the new dog to slowly come closer to sniff and greet your dog. This may be possible on their first meeting or it may not, it really depends on your dog’s ability to calm themselves enough to meet the new dog.
If your dog is scared of people, walk them around an outdoor shopping space or a spacious outdoor café spot to get used to sounds and smells. Wait for your dog to get comfortable enough to go up to people and deter other people from approaching your dog without your dog’s consent. As they get more comfortable, have a friend walk your dog while you walk with them!
If your dog exhibits possessive behavior, this can be trained by repeatedly taking their stuff away and giving it back. This establishes that you have the control over their resources, while also communicating that they need to look to you when they want something.
The key is to keep your dog in neutral situations and be patient throughout the process. Remain calm and slowly work on exposing them to the new situations, sounds, people, and dogs. Bring treats to encourage them!
How can you prevent yourself from getting bitten?
According to Spruce Pets, body language is a major factor in preventing dog bites. Below is a comprehensive list of ways you can avoid getting bit.
Without making eye contact or smiling, slowly approach the dog. These will prevent the dog from feeling challenged, and will make you seem more approachable.
Turn your palm face up and calmly put it towards them enough to be able to smell you.
If they prick their ears, lower their head, relax their tail, and walk near you, they are allowing you to approach them. If they exhibit any fearful, possessive, or aggressive behaviors, remove your hand and wait for them to come to you on their terms.
If they let you approach, pet their back and head. Avoid the ears, tails, belly, and feet. These are areas that some dogs find uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations.
Most importantly, STAY CALM! A dog will reflect your emotions. If you are scared and fearful of them, they will be scared and fearful of you. If you are too dominant and challenging, they will rival you. Staying calm and talking with a low voice will make you more approachable and keep the dog comfortable.
Every dog is capable of biting no matter their size, breed, or age.
Dogs are living beings, so certain new circumstances can be frightening and can cause them to react in a manner that is not appropriate, like biting. It is up to the dog’s owner to train their dog, establish themselves as the dog’s source of comfort, and provide them with a well-fitted harness and identification tags in the event that they get from their owner’s grip. It is especially important to remain calm and keep control over your dog to prevent overreactions and respect their boundaries. The best thing you can do is educate yourself on their triggers and recognize what they need from you, whether that be more guidance in new situations or desensitization training.
Every dog no matter their age, size, breed, or temperament needs training! No one will ever find a dog that is perfect or trained, just like no one will find a perfect person. It is all up to the owner to train their dog and set boundaries for what is acceptable behavior.
I want to encourage you and everyone to not be afraid to get on Google and do your research. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your local rescue or dog trainer to ask for advice, because I know that training can be hard and time-consuming. The ultimate goal is to be able to take on the great outdoors with confidence and trust between you and your dog, it just requires some training and patience!
Contributor: Carly R.