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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.

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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

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!

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

Let me know in the comments!

Related articles:

My dog is aggressive at the vet

Muzzle training for dogs


Saturday 19th of August 2023

Want your opinion. My dog was dozing on sofa & I bent over him to give him a kiss, he bit my double chin (leaving a bruise) I shouted "Clyde no" & he seemed to let go & then seconds later wanted to lick me! Now I realise that having something looming over you when you've been dosing probably scares the hell out of him, hence his reaction & I think he was sorry that's why he came over to lick me but am I correct or is it just wishful thinking? He's never done it since (I don't loom over him either or surprise him if I can help it) so no more incidents. He is an anxious dog too. Thanks x

Cindy Waller

Sunday 24th of October 2021

My foster dog, now mine, came with fear anxiety. Ive had to learn a lot about it. She was truly cautious around them. Shes made great progress in these 4 years. (Why I kept her). Slow to warm up to people but it works. Conversely, she LOVES other dogs and is submissive if they dont want to play. Thankfully. My only problem is the vet. We muzzle her as she whips her head around when they try to touch her. During pandemic when I wasn't allowed in, they took her in, muzzled by me. No problems. I went in with her yesterday and again, needed to muzzle. You could see her fear rise as more techs entered small room. We were able to draw blood and vaccinate so Im content. The vet offered to give medication prior to visit to help her. Im not opposed but if only muzzling is working, is that ok? Im feeling maybe shes worse with me there, also. Any opinions? Thanks!

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 25th of October 2021

My dog is not as fearful as yours at the vet but I muzzle him and give Trazodone before vet visits. He will nip at the vet and techs when he gets nervous and he has so much anxiety and energy that the medication helps calm him slightly. A long, long walk beforehand also helps slightly.

So, the medication thing is up to you. If you think she's fine with the muzzle, then that's enough. If you think the medication would help, you could try it next time.


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?


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.


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.