Dog bite prevention, and understanding canine body language

by | Dog Care |

While some pets enjoy meeting new people and animals, others prefer their own space, and only the company of those they are most familiar with.  For this reason, it is important to understand a dog’s emotions, how they are expressed, and what to do when you see them. In this post you will find resources for socialization, dog bite prevention, and canine body language.

Recognizing the signs of fear, anxiety, stress, and frustration, as soon as they begin, can help both dog parents and non-dog parents alike diffuse difficult situations or conflicts more swiftly, before it escalates into something more serious.

There are times when even the most socialized dogs find themselves in situations that they may find stressful, scary, or even threatening. All dogs have the potential to bite.

General tips

Practice the following tips to help keep your family safe during interactions with dogs:

  • Never approach a dog you don’t know, or one that is not with its family.
  • Always ask for permission to meet a dog; “May I please pet your dog?”
  • Allow the dog to sniff you first; dogs learn about things by smelling them.
  • Don’t lean over the dog (they may see this as threatening).
  • If a strange dog approaches you, don’t run, they may chase you! Instead, stand still like a tree, or lie on the ground face down, staying very still like a log. Don’t yell or scream as this may further excite the dog. Stay put until the dog leaves or help arrives.
  • Always supervise interactions with children and dogs. The Ontario SPCA’s AnimalSmart™ Program says dogs and cats are the most common family and neighbourhood pets. It is important that children know and understand how to interact with pets in order to protect their safety.

Also see Dr. Sophia Yin’s “How to Greet a Dog” for the proper approach of unknown dogs.

So what are our dogs telling us?

Dogs can’t communicate in the same ways we do, so they show us through their body language how they are feeling.  Being able to observe and understand a dog’s body language enables you to more accurately understand their emotions and motivations for their actions.

The Ontario SPCA and Humane Society’s resource website, Shelter Health Pro, says it is important to consider the dog’s whole body and the context in which the behaviour is occurring. Recognizing these signs is the first step to prevent bites from happening.

Canine Body Language:

Body language is made up of dogs’ body postures, facial expressions, and the position and carriage of certain body parts, like ears, tail and mouth position and movement.

Threats and aggression can be either offensive (the dog is actively trying to make you go away) or conflict-related (the dog is anxious or fearful and is unsure of the situation).

An offensively aggressive dog tries to make himself look bigger and more intimidating. By contrast, a dog experiencing conflict, adopts a self-protective posture by making himself look smaller and tucking his tail tucked between his legs.

Body postures related to  fear, anxiety, stress or frustration can include:
  • Crouching low to the ground, leaning back.
  • Head tucked in.
  • Tail curved down and tucked between legs, covering the genitals.
  • Dilated pupils, eyes fully open, hard eye/whale eye (whites of eye showing).
  • Ears flattened sideways or backward on the head.
  • Turning sideways to the opponent, not straight on.
  • Open-mouthed, all teeth exposed.
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking.
  • Stress yawning.
  • Also see Body Language of Fear in Dogs Poster.
Offensive postures can include:
  • A stiff, straight-legged upright stance. 
  • Stiffened rear legs, leaning forward with neck extended.
  • Tail is stiff and above spine level, just the tip may be moving.
  • Direct stare.
  • Upright ears, facing forward.
  • Piloerection (hackles up) along the top of the back.
  • Dilated pupils, eyes fully open, hard eye/whale eye (whites of eye showing).
  • Directly facing opponent (standing square), possibly moving toward him.
  • Offensive mouth pucker (only front teeth including canines are exposed).
  • Might be growling.
Signs of conflict during dog to dog interactions:
  • One dog chasing the other with no reversed roles (they should take turns).
  • Bared teeth, ears forward, offensive puckering.
  • Head or tail remain high and stiff.
  • Body is stiff or hackles are raised.
  • Repeated mounting attempts.
  • Hard eyes, snarl and growl.
  • Escape, avoidance or hiding behaviours.
  • An anxious or fearful dog may also make themselves look smaller. This may include shrinking to the ground, lowering their head or putting their tail between their legs. The dog may also look away to avoid eye contact and may slowly move away from the approaching threat.
  • Many dogs can show a mixture of these body postures. It is also important to remember that a dog who is wagging their tail or crouching their body does not always mean friendliness; be aware of the context of the situation.
To prevent aggression in dogs, pet parents can:
  • Spay or neuter your dog, as soon as they are the appropriate age to do so, to reduce tendencies towards aggressive behaviours.
  • Help build a positive relationship with children and dogs. Visit Fear Free Happy Homes for resources to help with this.
  • Socialize your dog with other dogs and people, as well as introduce them to a variety of environments. An under-socialized puppy may feel uncomfortable with new things, such as animals or people, which could result in biting to make scary things go away. Socializing helps puppies feel more comfortable and friendly in a variety of situations. For more tips on puppy socialization visit our Shelter Health Pro website.
  • When trying new things, or meeting new people, remember to take your time, go at your dog’s pace, and reward brave steps with a treat!
  • Enrol your dog in a reward-based training class. This early training can open a window of communication between you and your dog, and provide socialization opportunities with other dogs. This will also help build the human-canine bond as you learn together.
  • Include your dog in the everyday activities of your household, spending time with the whole family.
  • Keep in mind, some dogs may be experiencing pain, injury, or illness, that may cause them to react out of character.
  • Remember some dogs are very fearful of strangers, both people and dogs, crowds or loud noises, costumes, or people in uniforms to name a few. It is important to recognize what makes your dog uncomfortable and avoid exposure to these things when possible.
  • Don’t wait! The first time your dog shows aggressive behaviour towards anyone, seek professional help. Consult your veterinarian, a certified trainer, or behaviourist for recommendations.

For more information on Canine Education, Training and Behaviour Modification, visit our Shelter Health Pro website, Environmental Needs and Behavioural Health.

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