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Dogs talk to us constantly, but unfortunately, most humans don’t understand what they’re saying. Their messages go unheard, all to often with grim results.

Many people who have been the victim of or witness to a dog bite claim that the dog bit without warning. The fact of the matter is, that is never the case. Dogs always give us warnings. The problem is that most of us don’t understand the signals that could prevent a very bad incident.

Any dog can bite in the right situation, so it is important to not only understand what situations will make a dog more likely to bite, but also what cues to watch out for.

Dogs are more likely to bite if they’re:

  • Resident dogs or chained/tethered outside: dogs that do not live indoors with a family are called “resident dogs.” These dogs do not get the benefit of a loving bond with a human, which increases their llikelihood of biting.
  • Unaltered dogs: dogs that have not been spayed/neutered.
  • Mother dogs protecting their young: mother dogs can become very protective of their puppies and may try to guard them, even from their beloved owners.
  • Dogs who are running in a pack
  • Sick or injured
  • Backed into a corner

So how can you tell if a bite is coming? There are a variety of cues a dog may give you as their stress or aggression level escalates. Usually, dogs will start to show you they are uncomfortable by giving you one or more of these cues depending on whether they are feeling anxious, fearful or aggressive:

  • Averted gaze: they won’t look you in the eye
  • Rigid body posture
  • Hair on their back or “hackles” standing up
  • Growling or snapping
  • Lip Licking
  • Panting
  • Cowering
  • Whale eye: this involves the dog looking at you through the side of the eye, allowing you to see a great deal of the whites of their eyes
  • Stiff or stiffly wagging tail: it’s a common misconception that only a happy dog will wag their tail. Dogs wag their tails for a variety of reasons. A happy tail will be loosely wagging or even wiggly. A stressed or angry tail will be stiff and rigidly moving.

Typically, the last signal a dog will give before it bites is what we call “whale eye”. Whale eye involves the dog looking at you through the side of the eye, allowing you to see a great deal of the whites of their eyes. If you see this look you need to back off immediately.

If a dog is giving you signs that it is uncomfortable, it is important that you back off and give that dog space to calm down or acclimate. Remember, when in doubt, back up. It’s better to be safe than sorry. 

Use the chart below to learn to recognize some of these key stress signals!