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.