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How to prevent a stressed dog from biting

My former foster dog Cosmo was a dog who would bite in certain scenarios.

It was my job as Cosmo’s foster owner to watch his stress levels and either remove him from certain situations or physically block people from touching him.

People simply don’t know any better. They see a cute dog with a “sad” story, and they want to pet him.

If someone is dumb enough to put her face right up to a strange dog’s face, she is asking for trouble. It is her own fault if the dog bites. However, it is also the dog owner’s responsibility to prevent these situations in the first place.

*Scroll down to the end of the post to see my list of signs a dog is potentially stressed.*

If a dog bite occurs, the dog’s owner is usually somewhat at fault.

Every time Cosmo snapped at someone, it was because I failed to intervene.

I prevented Cosmo from biting several people. However, I didn’t prevent every single incident. Usually it was because I trusted complete strangers to read Cosmo’s body language.

Big mistake.

You should never assume someone can read a dog’s body language, even if you know the person.

I learned very quickly to place my body between Cosmo and others. I don’t know how many people I saved from getting bitten.

You know the scenario:

“Oh what a beautful dog!”

“Please don’t pet him. He’s scared.”

Person reaches for the dog’s face anyway. 

I got very good at physically blocking people from Cosmo.

If someone tried to pet him, I would put my hand out to block her hand. If someone reached for him while walking by, I would physically step between Cosmo and the person.

Most of all, I learned people do not listen even if you say “This dog bites!”

It almost becomes an open invitation to win the dog over or to see if I’m right. It’s like the person is thinking “Oh, but I’m a dog person. He won’t bite me.” I lost count how many grown adults tried to reach for Cosmo’s face even after I said something like “Don’t pet this dog.”

Physically blocking people with my own body became automatic, and it’s something more dog owners need to think about.

Any dog – not just crabby, old-man dogs – will potentially growl, snap or bite while under stress.

When I’m dealing with a dog like Cosmo, I have to be on my toes all the time.

But even with a dog like Ace, who would “never” hurt a fly, it’s easy to forget he’s still a dog. Any dog has the potential to bite, especially if he’s scared, stressed, cornered or in pain.

Luckily for us, most dogs won’t bite even if they are highly stressed and we keep bothering them.

American Eskimo spitz dog named Cosmo playing in the dirt
Cosmo

But any dog could bite.

The people who regularly read this blog have a solid understanding of canine stress signals, but people in general seem to lack the ability to read a dog’s basic body language.

The majority of people who read this post will find it by googling phrases like “how to tell if a dog is stressed” or “why did my dog bite me?” So let’s help them out.

I’ve listed some of the most common canine stress signals below. Please let me know if I’m missing some.

How to tell if a dog is stressed and could potentially bite:

  • The dog is panting heavily even when it’s not hot
  • He constantly licks or smacks his lips
  • He holds one paw up to his body
  • Excessive yawning
  • The dog scratches himself around the collar
  • The dog’s ears are back
  • The dog avoids eye contact
  • He physically turns his body away from people
  • The dog leans on his owner
  • Excessive shedding
  • Shaking
  • Growling
  • Drooling
  • Pacing
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Submissive urination
  • Barking
  • Cowering
  • Tense posture

When a dog is showing any of the above signals, it’s up to the owner or handler of the dog to keep everyone safe. Sometimes that means removing the dog from the situation completely, taking a quick break, distracting the dog or asking people not to touch the dog. And yes, it often means physically blocking someone from reaching for the dog.

And let’s face it, sometimes we all get caught up in the moment and stupidly reach for a cute, little dog without asking the owner if it’s OK. Remember to always ask first!

*If you would like to receive our FREE down-to-earth, weekly dog training tips, Click Here

What advice do you have for preventing a stressed dog from biting?

Let me know in the comments!

Lindsay Stordahl is the founder of That Mutt. She writes about dog training and behavior, healthy raw food for pets and running with dogs.

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Mary

Monday 22nd of February 2021

Hi, My dog only bites strangers who are men and small children, and only when they come in the house. She is fine with my family and some random people, but whenever she is afraid it's usually men. I'm afraid I am never going to have a boyfriend lol. Do you have any ideas to help her get used to strangers, or is this impossible?

Climbergirl94

Sunday 21st of February 2021

I find it easier to put my dogs behind me and say no to petting them. Even my most solid girl who is good with strangers. The other two have huge personal bubbles. I haven’t had any incidents but my husband has, because he doesn’t say no. He’s slowly learning. They are incredibly cute adorable dogs which makes it hard.

Jen

Sunday 21st of February 2021

My dog’s tail curls up and gets stiff and her hackles go up when she is stressed or nervous. I have to physically block her with my body and frequently will tell her, “I got this!” In a firm tone so she knows the leader is in charge and she doesn’t have to protect me. It also helps me to say it, because it reminds me to calm down so she doesn’t pick up on the fact that I’m nervous about her biting.

Lynn

Sunday 4th of February 2018

My girl is a runner and has not bitten, but she will yank me down if I'm not aware. She's a beautiful cream golden and only 47 pounds, a rescue very badly damaged. My gripe is at the vets office when we come in we get greeted with high squeaky voices! She's already stressed, have they never seen a stressed dog before?! Jeez. Now I go in first and ask that they remain calm when I bring her in. What is up with people?

Colby

Tuesday 15th of August 2017

Lucky for me my 3 dogs are very people friendly, but Linus can be dog aggressive especially around food. One of my friends was visiting with her 3 year old daughter. I was feeding Linus and the little girl ran over to his bowl of food and stuck her head in it while Linus was eating. I wasn't able to stop her before she got to Linus and I didn't want to yell because I knew Linus would respond to my reaction. Luckily Linus didn't do anything and I told the little girl and mom that it was a good idea not to bother dogs while they are eating. That situation freaked me out because the little girl and mom were both oblivious to what could have happened.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 15th of August 2017

Oh that could've been bad. Both my dogs could responded aggressively to that situation too. Hopefully not but I wouldn't trust them.