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.

How to prevent a stressed dog from biting

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
Photo credit: Photography by Tierney

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?

29 thoughts on “How to prevent a stressed dog from biting”

  1. Lindsay,
    Gosh, I have to tell you how happy it makes me when I see a new blog post from you.

    I am one of those people who is generally “scared” of all dogs. My mom taught me to never pet a strange dog and never put your face in front of a dog you don’t know. I grew up with a golden retriever and trusted her implicitly, but she was my dog. It would never cross my mind to reach out and pet a dog that is just sitting there quietly, let alone a dog that is under stress.

    Turkish had to leave the farm on Friday to head to the vet for his second round of puppy shots. When we got there we went in and the whole office erupted…he is adorable, I get it. But he was also not interested in the “puppy attention” people were giving him. I am not good at confrontation and felt awkward because the people fawning over him were also the people working there. I said, “please just ignore him, he is a livestock guardian and doesn’t interact with a lot of people.” In my opinion, that should have been enough. They should have listened to me and left him in peace (where he was very politely sitting at my feet, not bothering anyone). But it wasn’t enough. Suddenly they had to prove that they were “dog people” and that this puppy would love a treat out of their hand. But he didn’t. And they put him into stress. I’m still mad about it.

    And so my mom and I came up with idea to put a little vest on him when he leaves the farm that says, “I am a working dog, please ignore me and I will ignore you.” I hope it works.

    Thanks again for a great post. I learn something every time!

    1. Wonderful comment. My dog is a working dog and has a fear of small children.. I think he might bite. People are always thrusting their kids at him. I just hate it.

  2. Completely true. Our dog is highly fearful of strangers, and after an incident where somebody kicked her for barking at them(Confirming her fears) she started biting. The only times when she has actually bitten somebody is because she is too quick for us. She takes off like a shot before we have time to react. It’s weird, because she seems to want to meet them, but once she’s close to them it’s like she freaks out and bites.

    Treats haven’t worked, because she takes the treats until they are gone and then bites. The worst incident was probably when our hands were full as we were leaving our house, so we let her run to our car. Usually she does just fine with this because she wants to stay near her owners. Well, right as we went outside, a family with 5 adults and 4 small children were passing by. She saw them and ran straight for them. By the time I actually saw them, we were too late and she had inevitably bitten a small girl.

    She didn’t break skin, and the family was cool about it, though we apologized profusely, but it still scares us that someday somebody might get bitten and ordered she be put down.

    But yes, sometimes people just don’t understand. Our dog is only 14 lbs. and very cute, so people assume “How much damage could this dog do?” The answer is a lot.

    We were once in a bad situation where the person who kicked her as above mentioned had to be in the same car as her, so we were outside at the hotel he was staying at, trying to get her to calm down around him, when a hotel worker came outside and saw her going “What a cute puppy! Is she good with people?” I quickly answered “No, she bites strangers, stay away please and don’t touch her, she will bite you.” Wherein she responded “Oh, she won’t bite, of course she won’t bite ME. Poor girl.” By this time our girl was going crazy and so I tried as best I could to get her away from the situation. We had her on a flexi-leash, so I shortened it all the way down to her collar and held her by her collar to protect everyone. I asked the woman if she would please go on with her business, because I don’t want my dog biting her, and she gave me a weird look and said “Well of course she’s going to bite if you hold her like THAT.” Lady, I am trying to make sure you don’t die.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh my. Thank you for sharing these examples! I can’t believe that last lady! Unfortunately that is how a lot of people seem to react!

    1. Great idea to use “contagious”, violence Is just that. My little Norfolk Terrier just nipped my partners nose. It’s completely out of character. Wagging his tail she picked him up he looks at the floor sees his dental stick and he struck. No growling no snarll just two mildly aggressive nips. He has broken the skin, not bad but a terrible shock.

      It was a misunderstanding. My partner has known him for 5 years he has only ever licked her nose. But we are moving house and everything’s in constant haggle. Trying to strike deals, scratch together deposits and bale out our house mate. There’s been an argument today. I have bronchitis and haven’t walked him on time because I’m sleeping it off… He is pretty stressed.
      The dog knows somethings up… There was a chew behind my partner… Nippy nippy. He’s in his bed in naughty corner being starved of eye contact. Don’t know what else to do… Apart from give it a week til his next dentistick.

  3. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed at this post. If I had a nickel for every time someone has approached, kept approaching, and acted completely inappropriate around an aggressive dog I was working with I’d have like $4.35.

    The rule I teach my kids is that you don’t touch another dog, ever. Unless dad says it’s okay or there has been some other way to deem the dog to be okay. There is no way to put a stat on it but I’d say that the percentage of dog bites that occur every year towards people that have zero ‘dog sense’ is incredibly high. I don’t fault people for having no dog sense, if that isn’t their area of specialty or interest. I have zero ‘car sense’, zero ‘horse sense’ and plenty of other deficiencies in other ‘senses’. If you have no ‘dog sense’, though, don’t go up to dogs.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh gosh, I know what you mean! Whenever there is a dog bite, it’s the human’s fault. And usually there are two humans involved so I believe both are at fault. I’ve been bitten quite a few times – I always blame myself!

      I also have zero horse sense. Guess who stays away from horses?

  4. I am so glad to hear that we are not the only ones that have trouble with people not listening when we tell them to please keep their dog and selves away from our dog. She has been bit one too many times and is very unpredictable right now. We are taking her to behavior classes but who knows, maybe she will never have the confidence she once had.

  5. Just when I think it is safe I am so wrong. Tonight my dog bit my roomies wife. She wasn’t in the house 5 mins. She went right for the dang fluffy 14 pound Low Chen. That is German for Little Lion and no poop. The lady goes right for the face. I was sittin there thinking maybe I should get between this lady and her, OH NO NOT ME and straight for my dogs face she went. Before I could get up and 10 steps away, Anabella had done the incready leap and snap. No she did not break skin, Anabella did growl and still the Lady was all OH SHE IS SOOOOOOO Cute. I am thinking mam, she is SOOOOO Cute and she will SOOOOO F*** YOU UP.
    Dang I always feel so bad. I keep her away from Children. All the kids in my neighborhood know not to trust a cute dog. I have given them all the lessons.
    Just cuz she is cute does NOT mean she won’t rip the nose off your face. DO NOT PET the D.O.G. The kids don’t even come near the dog and Anabella does not go near them.
    We have lived in our home a long time so the neighbors know. However every now and and again some DOG loving person comes along and gets bit. I guess I will have to tell everyone, DONT pet this cute lil fluffy dog. She does not bite everyone, it seems she has her greatest issue with woman. I don’t know why. I did get her from the pound, she was turned in for,
    wait for it,
    wait for it,
    awe you ruined it cuz you guessed,
    Loved reading this blog.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      You have your hands full! I do hope you will keep her from biting because I don’t want you to end up with a liability issue. Funny how adults just never seem to learn their lesson, but kids know better.

  6. My advice is…

    My dog is almost always stressed. To calm her down I tire her out. The longer walk the better. For instance, I took her to petco for the first time and she freaked out so much that she would not stop shaking for an hour after the two minute visit.
    I wanted so bad to give up and never take her back but instead my inner dog trainer took over.
    I started by taking her for the longest walk I could stand, which happened to be about three miles. After the walk I took her back and she was FINE. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A kid in the store even petted her dispite my “blocking” technique. I was very nervous but she did not even respond. In previous situations with strangers I have seen aggressive behavior from her.

    Since I saw such a dramatic result from this technique I have been using it in all of her trouble situations and have seen awesome results. I can now visit the pet store without the long walk and not worry about her. (she still does better after I have tired her out tho)

  7. Hi Lindsey. My wonderful dog Charlotte is very calm, but sometimes in the car she does sit with one paw into her body, and when i ‘m petting or we’re playing, she will yawn and lick. should i back off at that point. I feel i’ve learned a lot about dog speak after my Cosette,

    It toubles me , that you say a bite is always the humans fault. not true in my case and even if i did trigger, her fear raction was unpredictable

    1. I think you just have to know your dog. Yawning or tongue flicking can simply be from excitement, or a little nervousness, not necessarily anything extreme.

  8. I recently adopted a 1 yr old doxy/beagle who stress bites. She was dumped from home to home to animal control then the dog rescue before I got her. I am starting her with behavior training in a few weeks. I’ve been talking to the dog trainer and I am fully ready for the work ahead of me with her. How can I start working with her?

  9. Thank you for the great information.Both my pitbulls have vests that say im working please do not pet me i will bit you. So far so good. At the Veterinary office we use the back door and we are the last appointment for the day.

  10. I now put a bandana on my Sausage that says ‘Please respect my space’, works with some people but others still just dive in cos she is soooo cute!! I know as soon as her nose twitches she has had enough and quickly move her!!
    My daughter-in-law has been nipped on the nose having picked Juno up despite a warning growl as she had a treat she was enjoying – she still hasn’t learnt despite being told again and again. Juno has never ever nipp d anyone else x

  11. My youngest daughter has a Chihuahua/Toy Fox terrier mix who is stranger shy. He mostly just barks, but we try to keep people away from him. Problem is, he’s cute! I was babysitting him one time when they were on vacation and took him to Petsmart with me. Had him in the carriage with his leash looped over the handle and in my hand so he wouldn’t jump out after a toy or treat or whatever. Got what I needed, and was at the register, handing my credit card to the cashier when a lady walks in with a seriously overweight Cocker. She turns and sees me and Nikki and almost screams” “What a cute little dog!” and starts over to us. Now, what will set Nikki off like nothing else is someone looming over him from above. I said to the lady: “Please, let him alone. He’s nervous and we’ve been out for a while. He’s not friendly.” She just smiled and came at him, hands out, from over his head. He backed off, ears back, and snarled at her. Didn’t try to bite, but she gave me a look that said “You shouldn’t bring a dog like that out in public!” and dragged her dog off. I was standing there, calming Nikki, and thinking: “I warned you pretty clearly, lady. Next time, pay attention.” If he had bitten her, of course it would have been my fault for having a dangerous dog out in public.
    Our oldest has a Newfie mix who is dog reactive. She has to get between him and other dogs and people all the time. And gets the shouted from well behind an unleashed dog: “Don’t worry! My dog is friendly!” And she has to call back, while trying to keep Vader from freaking out: “Yeah, but mine ISN’T!”
    People need to listen when they are told not to approach or touch a dog. I’m not doing it to be mean. I’m doing it to protect you and your dog.

  12. 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.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

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

  13. 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?

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