After a dog bites, horrified owners are often the first to say, “I had no idea he was going to bite”. However, there’s a good chance their dog was displaying signs of distress and the owner just didn’t know what they were seeing.
This is because many of the warning signs that a dog is about to bite can be subtle and even appear friendly.
1. Yawning, licking lips, or avoiding your eye
Yawning, licking lips, or avoiding eye contact is one of the first signs a dog gives that they are uncomfortable. While these behaviors do not necessarily mean a bite will happen, they are indicative that a dog is anxious and unsettled. If the dog is not able to find a way to remove themself from the situation, it could escalate to a biting.
2. Growling, Snapping, or Showing Teeth
A low growl, which may be paired with bared or snapping teeth, is a dog’s most direct way of warning those around them of a potential bite. Dogs show this behavior when they are very unhappy or uncomfortable with something that is happening around them. If you notice a dog is growling, snapping, or showing their teeth, quickly try to identify what is happening around them to make them feel threatened. If it is safe to do so, try and remove the threat so the dog feels more comfortable.
3. Wagging Tail
For owners, this is one of the most confusing signs of an upcoming bite. While a wagging tail is often a sign of happiness, it can also be a good indicator that a dog is feeling on edge. When a dog is happy they wag not only with their tail but their whole body, almost like they’re too excited to stay still. Conversely, when a dog is about to bite their tails are raised high, slowly wagging while their body stays perfectly still. This type of tail wag is only done when a dog is uncomfortable with the situation they are in.
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4. Rigid Body
A rigid body is another telltale sign a bite may be coming. When a dog is happy, every part of their body their body is relax and wiggly. However, if a dog is on edge, every muscle in their body goes stiff. This means that they will be standing square, their ears will be perked and their tail raised, almost as if they are frozen. When a dog displays this body posture, it means that they are very uncomfortable with something that is going on around them.
5. Fur Standing Up
Another telltale sign that a dog is on the verge of biting is raised fur. When a dog feels threatened, the fur on their back or neck may stand up. These raised hackles indicate that a dog is not happy with something that is going on around them.
6. Seeing the Whites of their Eyes
When a dog is content, the whites of their eyes will be completely hidden. When you can see the whites of a dog’s eye, it is a clear warning sign of the potentiality of a bite. When a dog feels threatened, they will not take their eyes off the threat, maintaining intense and direct eye contact. This means that no matter how they move their head, their eyes will stay locked on the target, resulting in the whites of a dog’s eyes showing as they move their head, but not their gaze.
A dog may not be able to verbally tell you that they are uncomfortable in a situation, but actions often speak louder than words. By being aware of the warning signs that dogs are giving, we can reduce the amount of dog bites that occur, saving both human and dog lives.
Note: As always, make sure you check with a professional veterinarian if you notice any big changes in your dog’s behavior and/or habits! Dogs: They’re just like us, but in good ways and bad. Pups, like humans, can develop mental illnesses that can impede their ability to live healthy, happy lives. And just like their owners, there might come a time when your doggie could use some therapy. Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, has provided us with some red flags. If your pup is exhibiting some of these behaviors, it’s time to get a second opinion and visit a veterinary behaviorist.
1. After years of chasing, your dog finally caught his own tail. Most dogs have experienced the disappointment of failing to catch their own tail, but most eventually give it up as a bad job. If your pup has developed a habit of chasing it for hours, it may be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety.
2. He’s sleeping a lot more than usual. Many dogs slow down with age and may start sleeping more as a result. However, if your dog is still young, or has recently starting seeming extremely lethargic, this may be a sign of canine depression (yes, that is a thing!) Oversleeping can also be a symptom of other health problems in your dog, including diabetes and some infectious diseases, so you should definitely get her checked out.
3. And can’t be roused with food. Some dogs just eat less than the recommended amount on your dog food, and that’s just fine—those amounts are only averages. If you notice an extreme drop in your pup’s appetite, this could be a sign of depression or anxiety, too.
4. She’s licked herself raw. If your dog is compulsively licking a spot on her body, and you’ve ruled out physical injury (or the injury in that spot has already healed), you could be looking at a manifestation of your dog’s anxiety. While no one likes the “cone of shame” (I once knew a dog named Winston who would take it off and hide it from his owners behind a boulder in his yard) your dog could really harm her skin by excessive licking.
5. He’s lost his doggie best friend. Losing a pet is a difficult time for any family, but your other dogs will experience grief too, especially if the two were very close. If your dog seems to eat less, sleep more, or exhibit strange behaviors, it could be time for some therapy to help him get through losing his buddy.
6. Or his human one. Just as dogs become attached to their furry friends, they also become attached to the humans in their lives. If your dog seems to be grieving for losing a member of the family, see a behaviorist but also offer him support like you would any other family member—spend some one-on-one time with your pup, and make sure you keep a regular walking and feeding schedule to minimize his anxiety.
7. She’s more anxious in traffic than you are. Even as humans living in cities, we can experience fear and sensory overload on the street. Imagine how terrifying it must be to be a dog in Manhattan! But if your dog seems overly anxious and uncomfortable when he should be used to his surroundings, it’s time to make sure his nervousness isn’t a manifestation of a deeper anxiety.
8. His Thundercap has stopped working. A Thundercap (and Thundershirt) is meant to damp down a dog’s visual stimuli in stressful situations, so that he can remain calm in loud or trafficky places. If your dog is using a Thundercap or Thundershirt and has suddenly reverted back to behaviors like loud barking or aggression in stressful situations, it’s time to get him checked out.
9. Her tail is limp. And it’s not because it’s sprained. There is no better way to judge a dog’s mood than to read its body language. We all know that a wagging tail is a good sign, but what if your pup, who usually has a tail like a wind turbine, won’t wag? Many dog breeds experience sprained tail syndrome, which usually means that a tail has been overexerted and goes limp; this will usually heal itself in a few days. If he can wag but won’t, it may be a sign of canine depression.
10. He has seasonal affective disorder. Yes, your pup can suffer from SAD, too! Most humans know the experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or the “Winter Blues”, a depression and lethargy that comes on when the days get colder and darker. If you fear that your dog is experiencing SAD, you can try to change your walk schedule and your pup’s sleeping spot to maximize whatever light there is in February.
11. She chases shadows. Sometimes, her own. Not unlike habitual tail-chasing, this is an example of obsessive behavior. Usually, your dog either needs more mental stimulation (especially in very intelligent breeds) or is insecure about something. Either way, you should see a behaviorist if your dog chases shadows for hours or forgoes more enjoyable opportunities—like a ball, or food, or a walk—for his obsession.
12. He scares people, including you. This really should be a no-brainer. Dogs that exhibit aggression are not “bad” dogs, but you need to make sure that your dog is not a danger to other dogs, other humans, or you. Aggression, like obsessive behaviors, is usually a manifestation of insecurity, and a doggie therapist can help you find the cause so that your dog and you can cohabitate happily and safely.
13. She eats towels or t-shirts. Your dog is not a goat! Though puppies may chew things in your home because they don’t know they shouldn’t, if an adult dog suddenly begins eating through your sock drawer, it’s probably a symptom of a compulsive disorder. Your dog likes, and should want, good food, and if he’s eating other things in your house instead, it’s a problem for both of you.
14. Maybe you need some training. As recent studies have shown, though different dog breeds have different temperaments and tendencies, individual incidences of aggression are likely to depend little on the breed and a lot more on its owner and its environment. Take a training class, if you haven’t already, to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently worsening any aggressive behaviors with your body language or tone.
15. Or you’re feeling too sad yourself.Other studies have shown that dogs respond uniquely to human sadness, and may actually respond to and empathize with your pain. No, our dogs are not mind readers, but any dog owner knows that their pup always takes cues from your mood and tone. For example, if your dog is nipping at your shoelace and you laugh-scold “No!”, he make take your cue from the laugh and not the “No”. Similarly, if your dog seems sad, he may be responding to you if you’re feeling down in the dumps. See if you can’t cheer each other up, and if that doesn’t work, see if some professional help won’t do the trick.
16. You know your dog best. Trust your gut. If you see something that’s erratic or out of character, especially if it could endanger you or others, go ask a veterinary behaviorist for help! Just like when humans have emotional or psychological issues, a dog’s behavioral problems will often worsen when ignored. He’s still the pup you love, but he needs some extra care–and if all else fails, the doggie psychiatrist will always have treats! For more info, be sure to check out the brand new Animal Madness book!