Dog bites often come with a warning sign.

Dog bites can be prevented with proper education on how to recognize even the subtlest signs of unease in your dog.

There are millions of dog bites reported each year. Not surprisingly, bite incidents increase in the summer as more stranger-dog interactions take place in parks and on beaches. Having your dog bite someone is a traumatizing experience for everyone, and can have serious repercussions that may lead to legal action and the dog being euthanized. But understanding why dogs bite, and taking the proper precautions, can prevent your dog from becoming another statistic.

While biting is a form of aggression, only a small percentage of dogs that bite are actually aggressive, according to Jonathan Klein, a dog behavior specialist. “Almost all the aggression we see is based on some form of fear; the dog is trying to protect himself or protect resources,” he says. Biting at the veterinary office, for example, is often a reaction to the vet breaching the dog’s personal space before he’s ready.

Do you know the warning signs?

The problem is, many people don’t recognize the warning signs dogs give us when they’re afraid. “Typically, a dog is going to demonstrate at least some signs of being uncomfortable in a particular situation,” says animal behaviorist Dorothy Litwin.

Some subtle signs of discomfort in dogs include:

  • Freezing
  • Ducking away
  • Lowering the tail or tucking it between the legs

More obvious signs that a dog is upset include growling, snarling and baring the teeth. While these signs may not mean the dog is definitely going to bite, they do mean the owner needs to intervene in order to avoid the situation turning sour.

Preventing bites

Often, preventing dog bites means being an advocate for your dogs best interests, and watching and understanding his cues.

dog bite body language
Image by Lili Chin
  • Understand your dog’s body language. “Most people are not well-versed in dog body language,” says Dorothy. Learning to interpret the subtle signs of discomfort listed earlier (freezing, ducking, tail tucking, etc.), will help you interpret what your dog is trying to tell you. “If people become better listeners to what their dogs are trying to tell them, they’ll be able to become more effective at mitigating potential problems,” says Dorothy.
  • Avoid giving in to social pressure. Although it can be difficult to tell people that your dog isn’t friendly, Dorothy says this is the best way to prevent a negative incident from happening. Often, strangers feel they have permission to pet any dog in the street, but being your dog’s advocate means letting people know that touching your dog is not acceptable. If you feel bad saying that your dog isn’t friendly, change your language, and say something like: “She doesn’t like to be touched by new people” or “She’s really shy.”
  • Ensure he’s properly socialized. “The biggest cause of dogs that bite is improper socialization,” says Jonathan. Socialization occurs in the first 12 weeks of a puppy’s life. Exposing puppies to various environments, sounds, people, places and objects helps them as they grow up. Lack of socialization is often why grown dogs are afraid of umbrellas, for example, because they didn’t see umbrellas as a puppy. If you have adopted an older dog that wasn’t socialized, you may have to do some counter-conditioning in order to help change his perception of certain things or people from fearful to positive, or at least to neutral.

When it comes to dog bites, prevention is the best route to take. A dog that bites isn’t necessarily aggressive or “bad”; he may just be fearful, protective and/or poorly socialized. Understanding why dogs bite, learning how to read canine body language, and taking steps to prevent situations that could lead to biting, are proactive and effective ways to avoid this behavior.