Warning Signs a Dog Might Bite
Understanding Aggressive Dog Behavior
An estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the U.S. each year. Of these, nearly 800,000 dog bites require medical care, according to the American Humane Association.
Dogs become aggressive for many reasons, including fear, dominance, territoriality, learned behavior, pain, genetics and hunger. Fortunately, dogs are also social creatures and very good communicators. Biting is a behavior of last resort for most dogs. They usually go out of their way to communicate their intentions and feelings long before they attempt to bite.
How Dogs Communicate
Of course, dogs don’t speak English so those wishing to avoid being bitten need to learn some rudimentary canine language. Dogs primarily communicate through body language. For example: a dog makes direct eye contact. Her ears are standing up (if possible), chest out and stance rigid. The tail may be stiffly wagging or simply held high and away from her body. The dog may or may not be making any sounds. Vocalization is typically a low growl, but loud assertive barking can also accompany this posture.
This dog is telling you to not challenge her. Doing so could escalate the behavior and result in her biting you. Avoid eye contact, but keep the dog in sight. Slowly back away. Don’t run. Don’t scream at or challenge her. Sometimes, a dog will follow you as you retreat. Remain calm and keep backing away. In most cases, the dog will lose interest and let you go.
Common Misconceptions About Wagging Tails
“The dog’s tail was wagging so I thought she was friendly” is a common, yet erroneous thought. While tail-wagging can be a sign of friendliness, the type of tail-wagging is the key.
Dogs communicate a great deal by the way they hold their tails. Friendly nonthreatening tail-wagging is usually indicated by a tail that is floppy. This is also accompanied by other friendly body postures, such as relaxed ears (not held up rigidly or pulled back), open or slightly squinted eyes (not directly staring at you) and a more relaxed body (less stiff).
Friendly vocalizations include a high-pitched puppy bark. Some dogs just bark out of excitement. Play bowing is also a sign of a friendly dog. Many people mistake a dog who is running around, swishing his tail and play bowing while barking excessively as being aggressive.
Signs of Aggression in Dogs
Misreading or not understanding when a dog is communicating fear can also lead to aggressive incidents. Say you’re walking down the street and you see a dog leashed next to a fence. As a dog lover, you’re concerned about her welfare so you approach.
The dog has her tail tucked under her body. Her eyes are squinted and she avoids looking at you directly. Her body is held low to the ground. As you get closer, she tries to escape, but can’t because she is leashed. Instead, she starts to bark and growl at you.
Your response is to speak in a calm tone and make direct eye contact in an attempt to get her attention to let her know everything is OK. You reach out to her in what you mean as a peaceful, friendly gesture and she bites you. Why? Because you didn’t heed the warnings she was giving and she had no way to escape.
If you need help working with an aggressive dog, click here to find a certified dog trainer in your area.
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