Part 2: What You Can Do to Avoid Getting Bitten By a Dog — Learn How to Read a Dog’s Body Language

Continuing with Andrew’s question for The Mail Bag: In my last post, I talked about some of the different factors that could trigger a dog to bite when on its own property. It boiled down to roughly three categories: a dog protecting its turf (including people, objects, and food); a dog undersocialized and/or uncertain or afraid of novelty (whether processed through smell, sight, or hearing); a dog in pain.

More than 4.5 million people get bitten every year, in part, because they don’t know how to read a dog’s body language. That’s a scary statistic. But let me put this into some context. There are approximately 73 million dogs in the US. That means that roughly 94% of dogs don’t bite. (There are many, many more bites that don’t get reported, so I’m going to say that number is more realistically 80%. But those are still great odds.)

The point here is not to make people afraid of dogs, but to help people understand that they need to be more cautious, observant, and respectful around dogs. While the vast majority of dogs are safe to approach, if people learned more about how to read a dog’s body language, those bite statistics would be significantly lowered. That’s because dogs give plenty of warnings before they’re pushed to bite.

Before we get into how dogs interpret posture and movement, I need to say that no signaling or communication system in social animals —including dogs — is simple. The main reason for this is because the context is often determined as much from where and how the communication is taking place, as it is from the communication itself. So congruency or incongruency of body signals is important and telling. Congruent signals indicate that the dog is certain in its course of action. Incongruent signals (a dog that’s growling and wagging its tail) indicates ambivalence and less certainty in the course of action.

As you can see, there’s a lot to this, But let’s see if I can get you started by breaking it down into a quick overview. Okay, on to how to read a dog’s body language for cues.

The Cliff Notes Version:

In general, dogs interpret straight lines and sharp angles, and direct approaches as aggressive. They consider direct eye contact a challenge. In contrast, anything soft, curvy, relaxed, indirect, or slow without being still, is seen as non-threatening.

Some Particulars:

Behaviors Humans Do That Dogs Interpret as Aggressive

  • Approach a dog in a straight line rather than an arc.
  • Approach a dog quickly.
  • Stand in front of a dog and look directly (stare) at it.
  • Reach out quickly and lean over or squat to pet, face-to-face.
  • Suddenly reach out a hand (front or back), straight-armed, to be sniffed.
  • Stand and lean into or over a dog.

How You Should Approach a Dog You Don’t Know

I wouldn’t, but if you feel compelled to, this is what you need to do:

  • First, observe without staring.
  • After you’ve assessed (see below) that the dog is relaxed, approach in a slight curved line.
  • Approach at a casual pace, don’t stare the dog in the eye, and stand slightly sideways.
  • Stop several feet away from the dog, and let it come up to you if it wants.
  • The first encounter shouldn’t be about an attempt to pet, but rather to let the dog get comfortable with you.

Dog Body Language – Okay For You to Approach

When you see a dog offering several of these signals, it’s telling you it feels comfortable.

  • Lips, ears, facial muscles, eyes are relaxed.
  • Soft, relaxed stance.
  • Tail relaxed and wagging easily.
  • Play bowing.
  • Respiration normal.
  • (When a dog is really happy to see you, often the whole body wags in soft curves.)

Dog Body Language – Potentially Dangerous For You to Approach

These signals are a dog’s way of communicating that it’s feeling overly confident, nervous, or protective. If you insist on ignoring this communication, do so at your own risk.

  • Slowed breathing, slowed, stiff movements, compression of the lips.
  • Ears fully erect or pinned back against head.
  • Growling, snarling, barking.
  • Lips drawn back.
  • Intense stare (direct or sideways) with constriction or dilation of pupils
  • Straining against a leash.
  • Food, bone, or toy between its legs.
  • Angular, stiff legs and body, leaning back or forward on toes.
  • Tail straight out or up, with hackles up.
  • Tail out or up, wagging in tight circles.

Dog Body Language – Not Okay For You to Approach

These are all signs of stress or appeasing signals that dogs offer when they’re nervous, afraid, or wish to appear non-threatening. It’s kinder to the dog not to try to approach, but rather let the dog get comfortable with you, and decide for itself that it wants to come and investigate you.

  • Shrinking back or backing up.
  • Licking lips, blinking eyes, yawning or stretching tongue forward
  • Tail curled under or between legs.
  • Shaking, whining, rapid panting.
  • Distracts itself by sniffing, scratching at self, looking away.

Good Articles with Great Photos and Diagrams

Reading Dog Body Language

Talking Dog: Body Language

Suzanne Clothier’s Free Articles

Some Dog Bite Statistics

According to the American Medical Association, dog bites are the second leading cause of childhood injury, surpassing playground accidents.

Dog bites to males are approximately 2Xs greater than to females.

Licensed dogs with an identifiable owner are implicated in the vast majority of dog bites (compared with strays).

Dogs not known to the victim account for approximately 10 – 20% of all reported dog bites. That means that 80 – 90% of dog bites happen to someone who knows the dog.

Dogs between 1 and 5 years old are involved in more dog bite incidences than dogs older than 6 years. Male dogs are more frequently involved than female dogs.

The list of breeds most involved in both bite injuries and fatalities changes from year to year and from one area of the country to another, depending on the popularity of the breed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document that a chained dog is 2.8Xs more likely to bite than an unchained dog.

Intact dogs are 3Xs more likely to bite than spayed or neutered dogs.

My goal is to help keep you and the dogs you meet safer. Hopefully, this post will start you down the road to being more observant of a dog’s body language, which will help you make better choices when meeting new dogs.

12 thoughts on “Part 2: What You Can Do to Avoid Getting Bitten By a Dog — Learn How to Read a Dog’s Body Language”

  1. I go around to schools to help educate kids on this. This is really important information to get out there. Thanks for doing your part.

    Reply
  2. You wrote: “In general, dogs interpret straight lines and angles, and direct approaches as aggressive. They consider direct eye contact a challenge. In contrast, anything soft, curvy, relaxed, indirect, or slow without being still, is seen as non-threatening.”

    If you want a picture to show dog-dog interactions showing straight and hard vs. curving and soft, see this post I wrote about a picture of my dog interacting with a friend’s dog: Bit easier to show this stuff dog-to-dog than dog-to-human.

    Mrs. G. told me to read you.

    Reply
  3. This is a fantastic article and, considering the fact that most reported dog bites are done to children, should be read by every parent.

    My general rule is to let the dog come to me. If a dog wants to smell, play, or be petted they usually ask for it (even by pulling on their leash). I know that I personally have problems with people that charge into my personal space without reading my body language first.

    Reply
  4. I go around to schools to help educate kids on this. This is really important information to get out there. Thanks for doing your part.

    Reply
  5. Thanks Linda and Tom.

    Justine, I completely understand. I have the same problem with people wanting to pet Kiera because they think she’s so striking. (And I have to say, that in person, she really is. Her pictures don’t do her justice.)
    I’ve had to get pretty forceful with people. If I even think someone is heading toward her with the intentions of petting, I very loudly say “Do NOT pet this dog.”

    That usually gets their eyes off Kiera and on me. Then I can explain that she’s not friendly with strangers.

    Reply
  6. Wonderful information. I only wish that you’d stressed a little more to ask the owner first before reaching to pet a dog.

    My dog has some vision problems and so is not good with strangers. She finds it scary to be approached. I protect her as best I can. But you wouldn’t believe how many people either don’t ask and stick a hand in her face or ask and don’t wait for an answer, and stick their hand in her face.

    People, PLEASE ASK before petting, and if the owner says no, please respect that. I don’t mean to sound harsh. It’s as much for your own good as it is for my dog.

    Reply
  7. Wow! That’s the clearest summary I’ve seen on the subject. Both posts add up to a pretty comprehensive overview. Should help a few people avoid bites. :)

    Reply

Leave a Comment