Part 1: What You Can Do to Avoid Getting Bitten By a Dog –10 Common Mistakes People Make Greeting Dogs

From the mailbag: Andrew writes: “In just the last couple of months I’ve had two scary run-ins with dogs and wish I knew what the reason was. The first incident happened when I was visiting a client for the first time and the dog came out and bit me hard on the leg. This was chalked up to the family’s new baby as it must have been protecting the family. But then today – visiting another new client and an extremely tame Labrador retriever with no aggressive history came after me and snarled like a big pit bull. All I had done was properly held out the back of my hand as one is taught when you’re a kid. I didn’t know little black labs had it in them! Anyway – how to prevent this. And from what I’ve read I’m somehow scaring them? I’m the least scary guy anywhere. Any suggestions would save me a lot of stress later!”

Dear Andrew, you wouldn’t believe all the reasons that a dog might bite that have nothing to do with whether you’re a good guy or not. Try not to take it personally.

Below, I’ll outline some of the particulars, but the bottom line (if you want to stop reading here) is don’t ever approach any dog with whom you’re not familiar. Even if the owner tells you it’s okay. That means don’t try to reach out to pet it, don’t look it directly in the eyes, don’t crowd it’s space, don’t talk to it, and most importantly, don’t believe what the owner says about it. Also, if you’re meeting a client who has a dog, ask the client to have the dog on a leash when you first meet. I know this sounds crazy, but you also need to remind them to make sure they hold onto the other end of the leash.

Like humans, dogs have two primary reflexes: fight and flight. When a dog is not able to take flight to protect itself (run away), or to defend or protect its territory, possessions, or people, then it’s left with the option of biting out of fear or the need for self-protection.

I’ve written a post on Why Dogs Bite, here. In it, you’ll find an explanation of the different types of dog aggression — dominance aggression, defensive or fear aggression, protective/territorial aggression, predatory aggression, pain-elicited aggression, punishment-elicited aggression, and redirected aggression – that can trigger even friendly dogs to bite.

Today, I’ll address some of the specifics of what might cause a dog to bite a “friendly” person. (In my next post, I’ll talk about the proper way to greet a dog that you don’t know.)

First, I can’t stress this enough: Everybody needs to understand that ALL dogs are capable of biting – even the so-called friendly breeds, like Labs. And that, statistically, most dog bites happen on owners’ property. So the first step is to never assume that any dog is safe to approach. Even if the owner is standing next to the dog and tells you his or her dog is friendly.

Dogs are most likely to bite when threatened, angry, hurt, or afraid. And there are three areas of triggers that might cause dogs to respond aggressively to someone on their home turf: Environmental, personal, and coincidental.

Let’s take environment first.

Are you carrying or wearing unusual (to the dog) objects?

Dogs are often suspicious of new things (this was a survival trait for their ancestors). Add to that the reality that most dogs live fairly sheltered lives and don’t get out much to new environments and you have a set-up for a dog reacting. For instance, many dogs have not been well-socialized and have limited experience with somebody carrying umbrellas, or tools, or wearing flappy overcoats, or sunglasses, or moving large objects, etc. Such new objects could easily scare or startle a dog.

Are there unusual (to the dog), sudden or loud noises, or activities happening concurrently while you’re meeting the dog? (This will also come under coincidental.)

Many dogs have also not been acclimated or desensitized to anything noisy or distracting. For instance, if a dog hasn’t been trained how to greet people who come to the house, the doorbell ringing can be the equivalent of an alarm going off. If there are already other workmen at the house, the dog may already be in a heightened state that makes it more easily set off. Add to that the possibility of road work going on, or the garbage truck driving by, or the neighbor walking past with a dog this dog doesn’t like, or the mailman two steps behind you… and you’ve got a dog on red alert looking for an outlet to redirect its aggression onto the closest unfamiliar object — you.

Are you carrying, wearing, or working with something scented?

Sometimes dogs have reactions to people who carry a lot of scent on them. Think of the following professions and all the associated smells: hairdressers (dyes, hair sprays), medical personnel (drugs, disinfectants), carpenters (glues, lubricants), landscapers (fertilizers, weed killers), cleaning people (solvents) and so on. Add to that the smells of all the other people these people interact with daily, compound that with the smells of their own animals, and that can add up to a person who smells like many people, dogs, chemicals, etc. All of which can present a pretty overwhelming picture for a dog who doesn’t know you. I’ve even known some dogs who’ve had reactions to perfumes and colognes, and to people of a different race or ethnicity because the food they cooked left a strong residual odor.

Now, for personal.

Do you take medication, smoke, or use drugs or alcohol?

Someone who smokes cigarettes or pot, or is even taking drugs may also cause unpredictable reactions in some dogs. I’ve also seen dogs respond oddly to people who were ill, or on medications. I knew a dog who was fine with absolutely everyone until the owner was put on some meds. She was okay with him, but intensely suspicious and aggressive toward anyone coming even vaguely near him. When he was taken off the meds, her behavior reverted.

Are you exerting too much pressure on the dog by approaching or leaning into (or over) the dog too quickly?

Walking straight up to a dog, or leaning over a dog to pet it, or even sticking the “back of the hand” out toward a strange dog misfires far more often than people think. Some people have been taught to think that because it’s the back of the hand that the dog will see it as a friendly gesture. What many dogs see is an arm sticking out directly toward them, and it appears more angular, stiff, and directed– sending quite a different message than the person intends. With a dog already on alert, that gesture can seem downright challenging or aggressive. It’s not always acceptable to hold out your hand to a dog, any more than you can run up and kiss the Queen, or hug a stranger.

Is the dog in pain?

This one can be tricky, because perhaps the owner doesn’t even know that the dog has a health problem. Perhaps the dog has an exaggerated reaction because of its back end being out of whack, or a sore spot, or a bad tooth, or a thyroid imbalance, or some other health problem.

Is the owner telling you the truth?

Sometimes a dog has bitten before but the owner is embarrassed or afraid to admit it. In this litigious society, few people would openly admit their dog bites. Not only for the legal ramifications, but because such an admission could spell death for the dog.

Does the dog just not like you?

This is seldom the case. I’ve seen dogs that had a particular “distrust” for specific people, because of a known prior reason. Other times it’s unclear exactly what makes the person a trigger. But I don’t find dogs to be arbitrary in their protective and self-protective behaviors (or their misunderstood goofball stuff). If the response is of a protective/aggressive nature, the dog has been triggered by something not to do with liking or not liking, but rather to do with mistrust, fear, pain, or protection. Unless a dog has a major, organic brain disorder that totally takes over, the dog doesn’t “just” develop an apparent personal vendetta. Sometimes it’s really hard to know what may be involved, whether it’s territory or a new baby or a person’s gait, or the simultaneous sound of a dog barking nearby, or, or, or…

Lastly, for the coincidental.

Do you remind the dog of someone who’s been rough with it or harmed it?

Most owners don’t know how their puppies were raised by the breeder (or previous person, if it’s a shelter or rescue dog). So they may not be aware of how their dogs may react to certain types of people or circumstances. Sometimes dogs don’t like a particular person (male or female) because that person reminds them of someone else who has hurt them. For instance, a dog may not like men with mustaches because a mustachioed male once beat the dog as a puppy. Or a dog may not like any people in uniforms, because it relates that to its dislike of the postal worker who “invades” its property every day.

And, once again, Are there unusual (to the dog), sudden or loud noises, or activities happening concurrently while you’re meeting the dog? See above.

Too often, our best guesses are poor guesses unless we ask the dogs themselves. Tomorrow’s post will tackle exactly that: How to read a dog’s body language so we can hear what it’s saying loud and clear.

21 thoughts on “Part 1: What You Can Do to Avoid Getting Bitten By a Dog –10 Common Mistakes People Make Greeting Dogs”

  1. Karen thank you for all this information on dogs. I myself love dogs and feel that it is always necessary to keep a distance from them whenever you come near one that does not know you well or behaving suspicious of you. My one question is while walking down the street at a distance from a owner walking their dog should you consider stopping especially if you have an armful of bags in your hands?

    1. Linda, great question.

      When approaching a dog (or dog approaching us), depending on the dog’s body language, I would at the very least try not to make and hold direct eye contact. If the dog seemed at all agitated, I might slow down and turn somewhat sideways away from the dog, so I’m not coming at it straight on.

      I also wouldn’t think twice about calling ahead to the owner to ask if there might be any issues in safely passing. If the owner seemed clueless and/or the dog seemed agitated (straining on leash, hackles up, etc) I would just duck into an available doorway and wait for dog and owner to pass.

  2. Thank goodness, I finally found great information about this one dog’s barking.

    I was hoping someone could give me answers on this, on which why this certain dig started hating me.

    I’ve recently moved in with a family that have two dogs. One outside, one inside. I’ve managed to get friendly with the dog that stays inside within three days (she follows me everywhere and curls beneath my feet when I’m sitting on a chair) so I figured she knew me well by then.

    Last Friday, this particular incident occurred. The mother of this family I live with came home late at night, and didn’t have a key to the front gate. She asked me to open the gate since I had the key with me.

    I went outside, only to see the pet dog they had staying outside run towards me as it barked.

    I have a strong fear of aggressive dogs because of childhood experiences, so I immediately ran inside the house and shut the door. This seemed to have startled “Imang”, (the dog who was already friendly with me) and she started growling and barking loudly at me. I was so scared, I froze in place by the door.

    The mom got to come in (I don’t know how,) and she managed to pull away Imang before the dog could attack me. Imang was furious, even trying to get loose from the mom’s grip trying to run after me. The mother admitted that she might have hurt the dog in the process of holding Imang back.

    After I closed the door to my room, the dog kept barking by my door and growling. I couldn’t go out of the room without the parents around.

    I left for the week-end, hoping that the dog will be better by the time I get back, but when I got back yesterday, it still continued to bark angrily at me, even following me to my room just to bark at me. I couldn’t go around the house without it aggressively barking at me.

    I read your article, and I think the dog associated me with the bad things that happened that night (the door slamming loudly, being restrained by her owner, the door being shut loudly while her owner was outside.) This is probably the case, right?

    Any tips to fix this problem? I don’t want to stay in my room the whole time I’m here, and I want to help around the house like I used to. Now the owners have to excuse me from the things I do around the house because of the angry dog.

    Please help? Thank you!

    1. Abi,

      It’s a combination of things. Dogs can sense fear. And for a predator animal (including dogs) this can often signal an impulse to attack. Certainly, as much as running seems like the prudent thing to do when being charged by a dog, it’s one of the worst things you could do. This is a complex subject on which many books have been written. What I recommend is that you enlist the help of a local trainer experienced in dog aggression to come and help you work with the dogs.

      Not knowing Imang or being there to observe to know the full picture, I can’t give you advice. What has worked for a friend in a similar situation was to get the dog to associate good things with them. I’d start by having the dog closed in another room and that person goes and sits at the kitchen table. Then someone else goes and lets the dog out. When the dog comes running, have a handful of dog treats that you know the dog likes and throw them on the floor away from you. When the dog eats those and comes to you, throw another handful not so far away. Then throw near you feet. Then sit quietly, and have someone call the dog back to the other room (not drag to the other room by leash) and close her back in. Repeat the process a few times each day until the dog makes friends with you again. It often doesn’t take long.

      Again, by enlisting the help of a knowledgeable trainer, not only can you get help with Imang, but also with the dog outside. Letting the situation go is only going to keep reinforcing Imang’s behavior you don’t want. This is something that can be pretty quickly turned around with good guidance.

  3. Hey Karen,

    Great post (as always). A few things I’d like to throw into the mix:

    1. Thinking about aggression: No matter the brand of aggression (fear/food/protection/etc.) I think it’s helpful to think of it in these simple terms: what causes a dog to be aggressive is more stimulation than the dog, in that particular situation, can handle. Generally it’s because the dog physically tenses in that situation, reducing the flexibility of its response. So dog owners can look for signs of this tension in their dogs and focus on relaxing their dogs in the moment to help diffuse a potentially “aggressive” situation. And when someone like Andrew encounters a new dog, he can look for signs of tension in the dog as a way to know if he’s pushing the dog out of its comfort zone.

    2. Holding out one’s hand (and approaching a dog in general): Even if a dog owner says “Sure, pet me dog, he’s only bitten a couple other people” you don’t ever want to APPROACH a new dog. What you do want to do is to encourage that dog to approach YOU. I suggest holding out a hand PALM-UP, with fingers slightly curled (i.e. the whole hand is relaxed), looking away from the dog, turning your body so that you’re not facing the dog directly, and slowly backing away from the dog. Basically the whole idea is to be as non-threatening (in Natural Dog Training terms “prey-like”) as possible to entice the dog. Also, by being prey-like you’re actually helping engage a dog’s natural social instincts. And by backing away you help get the dog moving, which reduces their physical tension. You were absolutely right in saying that the hand thrust out (as Andrew described it) could be seen as a threatening gesture…I liken it to the “talons of the hawk” descending upon the poor doggie’s head. By making yourself prey-like you’re not saying “c’mere and eat me!” – you’re saying “see, I’m safe. I’m no threat to you”

    3. Eye contact (you mentioned this casually at the beginning, but I just want to emphasize): You DON’T want to make eye contact with a strange dog. Eye contact is a “predator-like” behavior – i.e. a dog, especially a strange dog, can find it to be quite threatening. Now I wouldn’t avert your gaze so completely that you become vulnerable – you still want to keep an eye on what’s going on. Just don’t look directly into the eyes of the doggie, even if they’re particularly soulful. And like Mrs. G alludes to in her comment, kissing (with or without steak in your mouth) is also generally a bad idea, as the face-to-face contact is also threatening to most dogs (save the rock solid ones).

    OK, this is running the risk of becoming its own blog post, and I definitely don’t want to hijack the thread. Hope your readers find this to be a helpful addition, and thanks Karen for taking on this topic, as “dog aggression” is in almost all cases completely preventable – especially with information such as what you’ve provided.

  4. Neil, Great addition as always, and always welcomed.
    I’d meant to get the “Part 2” of this post up today, which covers some of these points. Tomorrow — that “Annie” song is getting to be my middle name… :)

  5. Hey Jenn, that was a beautiful compliment. Thank you. Yes, that ‘darn writing.’ It has really cut into my time to read and comment regularly on my favorite blogs. So I especially appreciate that you guys still take the time to come and visit here. It means a lot to this (at the moment feeling very over-worked) writer.

    Miss — finally! :) Hope Michelle has a great success.

  6. Melissas Brazill

    Hi Karen,

    Loved reading your blog. My first time to the site but I’ll be back.
    Just thought you’d like to know that my niece started a dog walking business after she read your first book. She said it changed her life. “magine that”.

  7. Hi Karen- I just want you to know that I’m doing a compliment instead of comment day today. I love to read your blog, whether it’s personal matters, dog training or sharing your amazing bond with your daughter. Your support for me always seems to come at just the right time and I thank you for it. I really miss you when you are gone (darn writing!), and you are one of the first I read when you update. Thank you so very much!

  8. Hay, it sounds like you have a dog who needs some help with getting desensitized. (In English, he needs to learn how to feel comfortable around new people coming.) If you don’t know how to do this, a dog trainer can show you how. In other words, no, not only will this not go away on its own, it will get worse if it isn’t addressed sooner rather than later.

    Lynn, I don’t want to make people afraid of dogs. Let me put it all into context. There are approx. 4.5 million dog bites a year. There are approx. 73 million dogs in the US. That means that 94% of dogs don’t bit.

    I just hope to help people realize that reaching out to pet a dog you don’t know can have consequences. It’s a simple matter of needing to learn how to read dogs better and remembering to ask owners first.

  9. I confess that I usually pat dogs when they’re with their owners–I’m a sucker for a wagging tail. Though I’ve never been bitten, your post has been a great wake-up call. All dogs have the potential to bite or attack. I’ll keep my hands in my pockets.

  10. Great post! We have a new Jack Russell/Foxy puppy, he’s been with us for around three months. He is ultra protective of us and very aggressive towards anyone outside the family. I always put him on a leash when people enter the property. Will it wear off when he gets used to people?

  11. elipsisknits, thanks.

    Jen M., I consider it an honor. Hope your husband finds it helpful.

    Simply Jenn, I used to be one of those clueless people too. Which is why I never try to point any fingers, because I’d be pointing right back at myself. There is so much to know about dogs that it boggles my mind that there aren’t more dog bites then there are.

  12. Karen, thank you for writing this post. SO many people have no clue of dog behaviours (and I was definitely one of them until about a year ago). It’s so important for you to get your knowledge out there on these subjects!

  13. I have forwarded your site to my husband. I have never done that with a blog – but he is so obsessed with our dog, with all things dog-training related – that I know he’ll love it.

  14. This is great information! I’ve often made the mistake of being too friendly with strange dogs, though I’ve never had to pay the price. I’m learning.

  15. My daughter was bitten years ago by my mom’s Jack Russell. I only found out later she was trying to “kiss” him while she was chewing a piece of steak. Whoops. Great info.

  16. Fuzzy Logic, that’s very scary. Lucky for the neighbor you were watching out!

    Mrs.G., this is a very common bite scenario: kid with a familiar dog who has always been friendly — until…

    Prof J., I never thought twice about approaching a dog until I wound up with an aggressive dog that I needed to protect from people, for both his and their sake. Knowing better from that experience, I never try to pet a dog without asking the dog first and owner first.

  17. Once again.. an excellent post. We had an incident over the weekend where my neighbors dog got out (she wasn’t home) and this pooch is a fear biter. We called the authorities (no choice really) and I kept pace with her on the other side of the street so we could keep an eye on where she went..

    Another neighbor thought it was a good idea to try and chase her home.. he ended up in a stand off and the dog stalking him and barking.. I really thought she was going to bite him.

    In which case the police would have done more than just corral the dog. Something I didn’t really want to witness.

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