Why do 4.7 million Americans suffer from dog bites each year? A dog bite rarely happens without warning, so chances are these warnings are being misunderstood or ignored. The best way to avoid a dog bite is to learn a dog’s language and respect his boundaries.
As a survival instinct, a dog does not want to exert extra energy. A dog would rather retreat than fight. Children are often guilty of chasing a retreating dog and this can be dangerous. If a dog moves away, respect this and let him have his space.
It is a subtle cue, but a head turn is a signal that a dog is uncomfortable and does not want an altercation. You may see a dog turn his head if you stand directly over him, try to pet the top of his head, or give him a hug. Not every head turn will result in a bite of course, but it is part of dog language, and should be considered along with his overall body language.
A yawning dog is not necessarily a tired or bored dog. Sometimes, he is communicating to another dog or human that he is nervous. Dogs will yawn to calm and relax themselves. Other dogs, with proper social skills, will correctly interpret this as a request to back off and give space. A yawn with a head turn is a definite sign of being uneasy.
Licking is often misinterpreted as a sign of affection, but it can be a sign of stress. A dog that is licking his lips, nose, or paws may be communicating that he is uneasy with a situation. Incessant licking of a person, especially on the hands and arms during stress can be a sign to back off and give space.
Whites of the Eyes
It is easy to recognize a happy dog. His eyes are soft and his gaze is not fixed. An uneasy dog might divert eye contact at first but will fixate before he bites. The pupils will enlarge and you might see the white portion around it. Seeing the whites of a dog’s eyes, also known as “whale eyes”, is a serious warning sign, especially when accompanied with a head turn.
Typically, a calm dog has a relaxed stance. He may be sitting or lying down. His ears and eyes are soft, his mouth may be open, and his head is level. An aggressive or threatened dog will have a hard stare, ears will be back, and his head might be lowered. His fur will be rigid and standing on end, especially along the back of his neck and at the base of his tail. He will be standing and might be putting most of his body weight on his front legs.
The tail position can give you a lot of information about a dog’s emotions. A tucked tail indicates fear. A wagging tail indicates adrenaline and excitement, which is not always a sign of a friendly dog. A defensive or aggressive dog will need to make his body appear as big as possible, and the tail can help him do that with large, upright, and fast wags. His tail might also be upright and rigid, like the rest of his body.
Growling & Snapping
Growling and snapping are serious signs that the situation has reached a critical point. The dog is still hoping that the threat will retreat but he is getting prepared to defend himself. He will put on his most serious and threatening face yet. You might hear heavy breathing and see a wrinkled nose and forehead. His mouth will be closed, but his lips will be pulled up and back, exposing his teeth. At this point, growling and snapping have replaced barking.
Not all warning signs mean that a bite is imminent. If the threat is low but continuous, he may give multiple warning signals. If the perceived threat is severe and swift, the dog may feel the need to react quickly. By following the above guidelines, hopefully you will recognize the early warning signs and reduce your chances of a dog bite.
DID YOU KNOW?
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “each year, 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites; half of these are children. Of those injured, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency department and about 16 die. The rate of dog bite-related injuries is highest for children ages 5 to 9 years, and the rate decreases as children age. Almost two thirds of injuries among children ages four years and younger are to the head or neck region. Injury rates in children are significantly higher for boys than for girls.”