As a dog parent who has gotten bitten by a dog quite a few times (nothing serious, thankfully), I have learned to be alert for signs that a dog is about to bite. Whether it’s my own dogs or one that I’m just meeting for the first time, I am constantly wary about approaching one if they are showing one or more of these signs.
And yes, even your own usually well-behaved dog can bite you if they are rubbed the wrong way. Unnecessary dog aggressiveness is also a problem behavior that can cause biting, and if that happens you should address the aggressive behavior apart from just avoiding getting bitten.
Apart from the obvious painful consequences of getting bitten by a dog, there are also other effects of your dog biting you or anyone else. Primarily, it’s more dangerous for whoever got bitten than it is for the dog. If a dog is domesticated and is up to date on their shots, the one who is in most risk of becoming infected by rabies is the person who got bitten.
A dog’s anti-rabies vaccines are given to dogs to protect them from the effects of rabies, but that doesn’t protect whoever they may bite. So if a dog has rabies but has vaccines, that’s just safe for the dog and not for whoever it bit. That means you (or whoever got bit) need to get your own anti-rabies shots which are frankly both physically and financially painful. If it was your dog who bit someone, it’s common courtesy for you to pay for that person’s shots.
While rabies is not as huge a problem as it was before and not that many dogs are rabid anymore, rabies vaccinations for the bite victim may still be necessary depending on the type of exposure. This depends on how severe the bite is and where it is located on the victim’s body. The closer the bitten area is to the head, the higher risk it is.
The reason for that is that rabies is a virus that targets the nervous system. So bites closer to the head can travel faster to the person’s brain and nervous system. Even if the chances are low due to the dog not being infected by rabies, preventative treatment still depends on the type of exposure.
In my personal experience, the initial shot is given directly on the area where you were bitten. And that’s no fun if you were bitten on the lip. It’s like a double whammy what with the bite and shots so soon after exposure.
Typically, the dog who bit someone will be under observation for 10 days after the bite happened and if they don’t show any signs of becoming rabid by then, the rest of the shots for the person can also be discontinued. So if you get bitten or your dog ends up biting someone else, it’s going to be a costly, not to mention emotionally taxing, event.
The 10-day observation time is also worrying for all parties involved, as if the dog exhibits symptoms of becoming rabid, it will have to be put down and treatments will continue for the bite victim. The good news is that these cases are extremely rare, but wouldn’t you rather avoid going through the unnecessary stress?
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So apart from having your dogs up to date on their anti-rabies vaccinations, knowing the signs that a dog is about to bite is also handy. That way, you can avoid getting bitten or inform someone when they are at risk of getting bitten by a dog, yours or not.
While you can keep your dog from biting, it’s better to be safe than sorry when watching out for any signs that a dog may bite.
Some dog bite victims, especially those who were bitten by what seemed to be well-mannered dogs, sometimes claim that they didn’t see the bite coming and that’s why they still got bitten. But that’s not really possible. Perhaps the dog was just showing less aggressive signs that they were about to bite, but the signs are always there.
So we should all be alert and watch out for any of these signs:
Pinned back ears are usually one of the most obvious signs that a dog is about to bite. You should keep your distance even more if your dog’s entire body is rigid, with ears and/ or tail standing up or pinned back.
When I approach my dogs and see that they start to stiffen up, I back off. I have learned (the hard way) that this change in a dog’s usually relaxed demeanor is a dead giveaway that the dog is on edge.
If a dog near you suddenly becomes tense, start backing off. That’s usually one of the signs that an inevitable lunge is coming your way. You’re lucky if it’s just a warning bark to scare you off, but it’s usually a bite that comes after the rigid posture.
We may think that only cats raise their fur when they’re on edge, but dogs do it too. Admittedly, it’s less obvious and may be a reason why some people don’t see bites coming.
A dog’s raised fur is usually located on the back of their neck, a ridge on their back, or near their tails. This is commonly known as raised hackles, and is usually done by dogs when they’re feeling threatened. A threatened dog may resort to aggressive biting to make themselves feel safe.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that a dog is about to bite, it’s when they’re showing you their teeth. This actually comes in different forms, the most common of which comes with growling and snapping.
I have observed this behavior one too many times with one of my dogs who likes to hoard items she picks up from around the house. If we chase after her to retrieve the item, she will growl and snap her teeth at whoever tries to get too close. More often than not, these growls are accompanied by warning nips. Luckily, she’s never bitten anyone seriously before, but that doesn’t mean she’s not at risk of doing so in the future.
A dog baring their teeth may also come in a less obvious manner, like by constant yawning and licking their lips even when no food is involved. Again, these are usually signs that the dog is uncomfortable and/or anxious. Bites could be prevented by making your dog feel secure again either by removing the threat or your dog from the situation. If it’s not your dog you’re dealing with, the best course of action is to back off and give them their space.
Okay, I know that these are opposites and you’re probably wondering which is it really, but notice that these are extremes. A dog who doesn’t feel threatened will give you a normal amount of eye contact. One that’s on edge will either stare at you really hard or refuse to look at you at all.
Dog trainers use the term “whale eye” to refer to the instances when a dog locks you in an intense gaze. This is when the dog retains their gaze on you even when they’re moving their head around, and when they do this, the whites of their eyes can be seen.
A dog uncomfortable with your presence look at you intensely because they are trying to gauge how much of a threat you are. Conversely, they could avoid establishing eye contact because they don’t want a confrontation. Your best bet is to give them their space, as biting is usually done out of fear and anxiety.
I know that tail wagging usually indicates happiness, but a different kind of tail wagging is a telling sign of biting. Happy tail wagging is usually characterized by entire body wiggling, especially if the dog can’t contain their excitement and joy.
Threatening tail wagging, on the other hand, is characterized by a slowly wagging upright tail while their body remains still. This is another way that dogs indicate being uncomfortable in a situation, and threatening them further can cause them to bite.
Lastly, a cowering dog may look afraid and harmless, but this is the exact state of being on edge that can drive them to bite if further threatened. If a dog’s tail is tucked beneath their hind legs and is just cowering in general, don’t pursue them actively to show that you are harmless. Let them take their time and approach you on their own terms, as this will make them feel safer and more comfortable about establishing contact with you.
Remember, a fearful or anxious dog is one that may not necessarily bite, but one that is very likely to.
As you may notice, most of these signs that a dog is about to bite are observable when a dog is on edge. Oftentimes, this is due to feeling threatened or uncomfortable. Body language is one of the ways that dogs convey their emotions to humans as they can’t converse with us verbally. With that in mind, we must learn to recognize their language.
This is an important part of being a dog parent as it helps you be more attuned to your dog’s emotions. It also gives you the chance to help them deal better in these situations. Plus, if you’re informed about these signs that a dog is about to bite, you can ensure your safety and others’ too.