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Safety tips when approaching a dog

Dogs have their own set of behaviors, instincts, and rules that are completely separate from our own. Despite this, we live in close contact with them, sometimes putting ourselves in situations we don’t realize can be dangerous.

Even dogs that seem friendly or have no history of aggressive behavior are capable of biting under certain circumstances. That’s why it’s so important to learn as much as we can about the right way to interact with dogs.

Below are some safety tips that will help you understand when a dog might bite and how to avoid ending up in those situations in the first place.

Note: These tips are primarily intended for adults. Please see our Tips to Teach Kids page if you’d like more information on what to teach children about dogs.

General Dog Bite Safety Tips

One of the first steps in preventing dog bites is recognizing situations that can make a dog more likely to bite.

  • Respect a dog’s space. Don’t casually place your hands on a dog’s fence or other property. Dogs are territorial by nature and may feel threatened if they don’t know you.
  • Protective moms: Don’t interfere with a mother dog taking care of her puppies. She will be very protective of them.
  • Dogs that are off leash: If a dog approaches you when it’s off leash, don’t run away and yell or make loud noises. Stand still, with your arms held close to you, and avoid eye contact with the dog.
  • Be careful around sick and old dogs. They may be more irritable than a younger one. Approach these dogs with extra caution. It’s just as important to understand the signals dogs use to show us that they’re not happy. They use their bodies to communicate, and we have an entire page dedicated to dog body language. In the meantime, here are just a few clues that indicate a dog is agitated and could bite:
  • His tail is held stiff and high and is moving back and forth quickly
  • He is looking at you from the corner of his eye, with a lot of the white exposed
  • His nose is pulled back and wrinkled
  • His lips are pulled back to reveal his teeth
  • The hair along his neck and spine is raised His body is tense.
  • He is growling or snarling 

Edgar Snyder Alleghany PA

Dog Body Language Gives Important Hints

We have to teach dogs to understand our language, and to help prevent dog bites, we should do our best to understand theirs. Dogs use body language – from facial expressions to posture – to communicate how they’re feeling.

Dog Bite Safety Tips

The dog bite signs below aren’t intended to be a definitive guide and are only an educational tool to give you some information on dog bite safety. Just because something is or is not mentioned here is not a guarantee that a dog will or won’t bite. The descriptions below are generalizations, and keep in mind that each dog and situation is unique.

The Eyes and Gaze

  • Eyes are normal shaped: Dog is probably happy and relaxed
  • Eyes are larger than normal: Dog may feel threatened, stressed, or aggressive
  • Eyes are smaller than normal: Dog may feel frightened, stressed, or may be in pain
  • Dog meets your gaze with relaxed facial expression: Most likely friendly
  • Dog stares at you with tense facial expression: May be a threat. It’s best to look away slowly.
  • Dog looks at you out of the corners of his eyes, exposing a lot of the whites of his eyes: May be leading up to an aggressive outburst

The Mouth

  • Mouth is closed or slightly opened: Dog is likely relaxed and happy
  • Lips pulled back with teeth exposed: Dog is probably telling you not to come any closer. However, if the dog has a submissive posture (lowered head, yelping, and whining), this may be a submissive “grin.”
  • Lips pulled back and up with mouth open and all teeth exposed: Dog is likely ready to bite

The Ears

  • Ears held naturally: Dog is relaxed and happy
  • Ears held high and head issigns pointed towards an area of interest: Dog is alert
  • Ears pulled slightly back: Dog is probably friendly
  • Ears flattened completely back or stuck out to the sides: Dog is likely frightened or submissive
  • Ears pulled up high and forward: Dog may be aggressive

Tail

  • Tail held in a natural position and wagging gently from side to side: Dog is happy
  • Tail moving strongly from side to side or in a circular pattern: Dog is very happy
  • Tail lowered or tucked between rear legs: Dog is probably nervous or submissive
  • Tail held higher than normal (likely stiff, without movement): Dog is probably aroused
  • Tail held stiff and high and rapidly moving back and forth: Dog is probably standing his ground. It may look like he’s happy, but the rest of his body will indicate that he’s not relaxed.

Posture

Dogs generally do one of three things with their body: Stay the same size, try to look smaller, or try to look larger.

  • A happy dog will look normal with their weight distributed evenly.
  • A scared dog will hunch as though trying to look small. He may lower to the ground or pull back from what is frightening him.
  • A submissive dog will also try to look small. His head might be high, however, if he’s greeting another animal or a person.
  • A dominant dog will make himself look large. He will stand erect with his muscles tensed. His weight may be distributed over his front legs.
  • An aggressive dog will try to look as large as possible, and his posture will be accompanied by other angry signals.

Fur

  • Dogs sometimes shed more than normal when they are scared or stressed.
  • They will also raise their “hackles” – the fur along their spine – when they are afraid, angry, insecure, nervous, or very excited.

Injured by a Dog Bite and Have Questions?

Even the most knowledgeable and cautious people can be the victim of a dog bite. If you’ve been injured, we can help answer any legal questions you have about your situation. There are time limits to file a claim, so if you are even considering taking further steps, it’s best to act quickly. Our legal consultations are free – just call 412-776-0475 or fill out the form at the top right of this page.

Source: “Canine Body Language.” ASPCA. April 18, 2014.