Dog bites & how to avoid being bitten by a dog!

..... A dog showing its teeth

Dog bites are one of the most feared dog traits and one of the more uncommon events. Understanding why dogs bite and how to avoid bites is important for many people. It is also very useful to know what stages a dog usually goes through leading up to a bite so that you can avoid a dog reaching a point of no return.

It may also be useful in knowing that in the USA,  70 % of all dog bites occur to children under the age of 15. Education on how to avoid dog bites and the following information should be disseminated throughout the family.

Dogs do not bite out of spite or hate, they do so to fulfil more rudimentary needs such as self protection. Ironically while about one third of households in developed countries have dogs as pets, general fear of dogs amongst the adult population runs high,. This is strange in light of the American ‘Center for Disease Control’ fact sheets that state that only 20 % of dog bites happen when the victim does NOT know the dog.

DOG states that can lead to a bite

In simple terms, this happens when a dog is communicating signs of fear, stress, anxiety and over arousal. (ref 1)

You are more likely to be bitten by a dog when you:

  • Reach between fighting dogs to separate them.
  • Reach between highly aroused dogs (fence fighting)
  • Force dogs into submissive positions (often a part of dog training recommendation).
  • Children (or adults) invade sleeping space of a soundly sleeping dog.
  • Children/ Toddlers invade space and poke dogs who cope poorly with these intrusions.
  • Force a growling dog to give up an item in his mouth. This is particularly bad when the dog does not respect the intruder or when previously the dog has not been given an alternative dog toy or treat after the removal.
  • Redirected bite after applying punishment (dog whirling about for nearest target after being shocked)
  • Put a fearful dog into a situation where they feel cornered and trapped.

These may seem like common sense things not to do, but people get lazy around dogs and forget that they are inherently a wild animal that has been a little domesticated. My personal dog is one of the worlds most social dogs. It has not looked like biting another dog or human even when small children are inappropriately put at risk by their parents letting the children hard pat my dog.

However when a dog is cornered and in a fearful situation, biting its way out may often seem like the only way that it can escape. I know the closest that my dog has come to biting someone is when they have snuck up on him and make a loud noise or grab him from behind. In the wild this kind of action would usually be done by a large predator trying to eat the4 dog. It is only reasonable that its automatic defense mechanism is to use its largest defense weapon, its teeth.

How big is the dog bite problem?

The American (300 million people) the CDC provides these statistics.

  • 4.5 million American are bitten by dogs each year
  • 20% of dog bites require medical attention
  • In 2006, 31,000 people had reconstructive surgery as a result of dog bites.

Who is most at risk?

People with dogs in their homes or people who handle dogs. This might seem like a common sense risk factor, but as one in three households have dogs, there the risk would appear to be widespread. “Adults with two or more dogs in the household are five times more likely to be bitten than those living without dogs at home.“ ref 2

The biggest demographic for dog bite rates is children, with a peak bite in the 5 to 9 year old category. The obvious reason for this is that babies and toddlers are often too immobile or weak to cause major fear in dogs, and at this age parents are often very strict on keeping their children and dogs separated.

Around the age of five children are much more mobile and into testing the boundaries of their parents control. At this age they are often fearless without experience to know where dangers come from. They are also unable to read the dog body language or realize that a prolonged growl is often the precursor to something potentially much worse. By the time children reach adolescence they are either dog aware / respect dogs or are dog fearful and keep away from dogs.

Interestingly after children, adult males are the next highest dog bite segment. Whether it be bravado, not respecting a dogs space or inability to interpret signals, adult males have a higher bite incidence than females.

What are the dog signals leading up to bites?

There are many different situations that can lead up to a bite. All the way from fully dominant dogs protecting a space to fear biting from very submissive dogs.

Dominance aggression is when a dog thinks or wants to challenge for being the top dog in a household or dog pack. If a house dog is not given enough exercise, good diet and poor discipline then it will not know its boundaries and may regularly challenge humans for the leader status. Even with all of these health aspects in place, most dogs will cause a major challenge on their master every six months or so.

A dog challenging for leader will have its head and tail held high to intimidate another human or dog. It doesn’t want to be ignored or confronted. In a house situation, dogs in this state of mind will allow only some humans into a space, guarding it from what it considers lesser animals in the pack. This space guarding can often be an extension of allowing a dog to have its own way all of the time from going out of a door first, to winning tug of war all of the time, to getting dog food all of the time (uneaten food is not removed from the bowl) or sleeping on an owner’s bed.

Allowing a dog to always walk in front of you on lead is promoting it to pack leader.

Puppies that aren’t trained to give up a toy or are allowed to play mouth or nip are likely to grow up expecting that they are the boss, and will not take discipline well.

Dogs bred for guard duty inherently have space guarding in their genes. Then if they are taught to specifically guard a space, taught to be aggressive to strangers, or not disciplined enough when they are aggressive, this can quickly spiral out of control.

Dominance fights in the wild are mainly used to show who is higher up in the pack and can assume mating rights. Fights are also often caused over food – which dog gets first pick at the best parts of the prey. While these reasons for fights in domestic dogs are somewhat diminished, dogs will still play fight to find where they are in the pack. Dogs will also mount a dog of either sex to show pack dominance. If the dog being mounted doesn’t agree with this domination, that’s where the fight comes into it.

Stalking is something that dogs have inherited from wolves when they approach prey. But when a domestic dog does it to another dog and it crouches and bares its teeth, it is treating the other dog as inferior (as prey). If other body signs are not present, this can just be a half attempt at trying to fool the other dog into submission. But a dog that senses that there may be a female on heat nearby or that the other dog is acting too high in the pack order, may engage in more serious stalking that can lead up to a bite.

SIGNS OF an aroused dog, potentially ready to fight

• Dogs will have erect tails (often not wagging).

• Dog will rise up to their full height

• Dog hair raises into ‘hackles’ (fur on back of neck becomes erect).

• Dog bares their teeth and may even growl.

• Usually in such a tense situation of the dogs consider themselves to be equals they will stand close to each other and motionless and will occasionally look away, feigning that this doesn’t bother them and not trying to aggravate the other dog into an attack.

Preventing dog bites IN THE HOME

Choice of dog is often one of the main prevention methods at home. People often choose dogs on size, aesthetic or misguided work considerations without any understanding of the dog walking and training that they will need to perform. For instance some people like the idea of a big aggressive dog as it will be a great ‘guard dog’. A major problem is that if they don’t know how to train it or take the time to continually correct this type of dog. A guard dog class of dog is very likely to assert itself as the leader of the household very quickly.

If a child does not understand how to approach a dog or is openly fearful of a dog, potential owners should consider that this may not be the best time to bring a dog into a household. Children can be quite sneaky about how they get back at a dog or even try to treat the dog like a toy. If you can’t trust you dog or your child, you should not leave them alone together.

People often get a dog from a dog shelter thinking that they are doing a great humanitarian deed. However without correct understanding of how to discipline a dog, let alone discipline a previously abused dog, they are only likely to make matters worse for themselves and for the dog. Dog shelter dogs have often already gone through a quite harrowing experience with food, physical abuse and hygiene abuse. They can be psychologically damaged beyond the rehabilitation skill of many dog trainers. Extreme care should be undertaken when considering doing these kinds of good deeds.

Once you have adopted a dog, spaying/neutering is preferred for many health reasons. Besides the likelihood of reducing dog cancers, it can also lower aggression levels.

Playing aggressive games with the dog like wrestling and tug of war. regardless of the type of dog, can signal to the dog that you are just one of his rivals in the pack.

Continual socialization of the dog in the household and the dog in off lead dog parks is an important part of the dog’s development. And yes this means daily walks.

Teaching them submissive behaviors such as rolling onto their backs to have their stomach stroked is a good way of reducing dominance. Similarly training a dog that you can remove a dog toy and dog food without it growling.

Dog training classes and dog obedience professional advice as well as long twice daily walks also significantly remove any pent up energy or anxiety dogs can acquire.

DOG BITE Prevention tips

Never approach an unfamiliar dog, in particular if they are restrained behind a fence or in a car. Don't pat a dog without first asking permission and then letting the dog see and sniff you before you touch them.

Never turn your back to a dog and run away as this will invoke their chase and catch instinct.

Do not disturb a sleeping dog or one that is eating or chewing on a toy.

Prevention tips for children (ref 2)

  • Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
  • Do not run from a dog or scream.
  • Remain motionless (e.g., "be still like a tree") when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
  • If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still (e.g., "be still like a log").
  • Do not play with a dog unless supervised by an adult.
  • Immediately report stray dogs or dogs displaying unusual behavior to an adult.
  • Avoid direct eye contact with a dog.
  • Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.
  • Do not pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.
  • If bitten, immediately report the bite to an adult.

How to tell when a dog is ready to attack

Most of the previous rules are obvious. A dog is a wild animal at heart and is driven by natural instinct that provides for its survival. Even when it is playing games, it is only doing so to learn of the weaknesses of its opponent should a fight become necessary.

If a dog is yawning licking its nose or wagging its tail it can indicate that it is nervous and does not want you to push it to do anything it does not want.

A dog that is friendly may run straight up to you, but if its tail is erect and its lips are pulled back to expose its teeth, it is likely that it is coming to you for a challenge or to ward you off its area. A more friendly approach by unknown dogs is usually to run in a big arc up to you or another dog and come up next to you or a dog for a sniff. The dog may not look directly at you or may play bow to show that it wants to initiate friendly playing.

If a dog’s ears are down or pulled back, with a lowered tail they are scared, even if they are approaching you. Do not approach such a dog as they may interpret an approach as a threat.

A guard dog may approach you with erect body, direct eye contact and wagging tail. The wagging just shows that they are confident and engaged, not that they are friendly.

The next stage before an attack is usually growling. A long low growl means that they have spotted something they don’t like. An escalation of this is loud barking. This shows a degree of fear on their behalf, but is also warding you off from approaching and taking their space.

The time that you should be most concerned is if a dog has gone through these stages then stops making noises but continues to approach. This usually happens just before they attack a human or another dog. So to recap, if a dog is growling or barking as it approaches or stands in front of you, this paradoxically is much better than when they go silent.

The human hand gesture

If a dog has been treated well as a puppy and socialized, it will probably allow you to pat its head. Of course you would only do this with a dog you trust. However you should also be aware for many dogs being touched on the head is the ultimate intrusion. If you touch their head, where all their active senses are situated, this can often be seen as an aggressive sign of domination. For many dogs a pat on the head is neither soothing or welcome. They would much prefer to sniff the back of your hand that you slowly lower for them to sample. A friendly dog will often enjoy slow strokes behind the ears in a massage way, rather than patting motions.

You should also be aware that if a dog is going to bite you, it is often going to choose your hand as the preferred grab point, or if you are running away it will usually try for your leg.


As a dog walker I get to see many dogs each day. These dogs are all domestic dogs in theory owned by responsible owners.  Fortunately very rarely have I been put in a situation where I have felt personally threatened by any of these dogs. Though I have become aware of several breeds, particularly guard dogs and fighting dog breeds, that have a predisposition towards dominance and fighting.

Following the above rules about not invading space and not moving fast towards these dogs, always keeping front  onto them (but not staring them down), generally has resolved any potential conflicts.

The reality is that even for pound dogs, the vast majority of dogs that you will encounter in off lead areas will be well fed and not abused. They may not be disciplined as well as is desirable, however the most that they may try and do is play dominate you, either through mounting your leg or pushing against your body.

You have the option of what you do from here. You could do what another local dog walker does and either hit the dog with your hand or knee them in the chest (negative reinforcement that should be outlawed) or you can be calm and assertive and deflect the dog and ask the owner to recall their dog.

Dogs react to fear in either other dogs or humans. If a dog sees a human is very scared and is throwing their arms around and screaming, this is only likely to heighten their excitement and interest in the person.  People have much more control in becoming a dog bite statistic than they realize. Use this knowledge to your personal advantage and stay safe.


Article by Bruce Dwyer. If you wish to use any of this information please refer to the article as a reference and provide a link to

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