Is That Dog Going to Bite?

National Dog Bite Prevention Week happened recently, and it’s a subject worth keeping front and center. Deborah Wood and Jen Keene shared the following award-winning article for Spot readers, covering the subject thoroughly, and showing how we can all help reduce dog bites in our community. —The editor 

At the Bonnie Hays Small Animal Shelter, we have the responsibility of investigating  every dog bite in Washington County — about 350 dog bites a year. All of these bites involve a dog that has broken the skin — from fairly small bites to serious attacks. The overwhelming reaction  from the dog owners is almost complete surprise that their dog bit a human. Consider some facts and tips:

Many dog bites happen because dogs are frightened, stressed or anxious, and find themselves in situations where they don’t feel like they have another option. It is important to remember that any animal with teeth can — and will — bite under some circumstances. It is much better to prevent a bite rather than deal with the aftermath. Contrary to the surprise and disbelief that many people express, most bites did have warning signs and could have been prevented.

Often, people minimize a pet’s past behavior and don’t realize that it can be a predictor of later, more serious problems. For example, a snap or a bite without damage should definitely be a wakeup call to pay attention to what dogs are telling us.

Knowledgeable animal lovers can be a powerful force in preventing bites — which also means preventing dogs from feeling so terrible that they feel they have to bite in the first place. Don’t be afraid to speak up and take action if you see a problem. There are two important things to watch for to prevent dog bites: body language signals and “stacking triggers.”

Body Language

Dogs use body language to communicate — both consciously, like lowering themselves submissively to signal that they are not a threat, and unconsciously, like showing the whites of their eyes because they are recoiling from something scary but are afraid to take their eyes off of it. By learning to recognize a few common signs that a dog may feel the pressure is on, savvy people can stop bites before they happen.

Cowering — Hunched or lowered body posture.

Brows Furrowed — Just like people, dogs wrinkle their brow when concerned.

Panting – Stress panting happens even when a dog is not hot. It is usually fast and accompanied by thin drops of drool.

Yawning — Dogs will yawn when stressed, even when they’re not sleepy.

Licking lips/nose — A dog flicking his tongue to lick his own snout, especially if there no food around, is likely showing stress, not hunger.

Change in movement — Walking in slow motion, pacing, moving away. It may seem obvious, but if a dog is moving away from a person or situation, it may be because it is stressing him out. Pacing and walking very slowly can also be signs that a dog is not 100% okay.

Stacking Triggers

Be aware that multiple triggers — things a dog finds stressful — can “stack” to make a bite much more likely. Here are some common situations in which dogs may be more stressed than normal:

• Crowded public events

• During fireworks or thunderstorms

• When children are present

• Being away from his owner

• When sick or injured

• When someone is near the dog’s bed, food bowl, bone or toy

• People trying to hug or kiss him


Once you know what to look for, take preventive steps and be prepared to take action when needed. If your dog is stressed when strangers are at your house, try putting her in another room before people arrive. Your dog will likely be much more comfortable, and you have removed the risk of a bite. Before petting – or letting your children pet – someone else’s dog, ask permission. Remember, the owner may not actually be a good judge of the dog’s comfort level. Observe the dog’s body language and surroundings and make an educated decision about whether or not the dog actually wants to be petted by a stranger.

These simple steps will help keep people and pets safer in our community. Share it with friends, families and neighbors and help reduce dog bites in our community!

Jen Keene CPDT-KA is the Animal Behavior and Outreach Coordinator for the Bonnie Hays Shelter, and Deborah Wood is the Manager of Animal Services. A version of this article earned a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America for the best article in a canine newsletter.