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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

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!

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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