What you don’t know could put you or your dog in danger. Any dog – it could be your very own dog, your family’s dog, your friend’s dog, a neighborhood dog or a dog you’re volunteering with at a local shelter – can bite.
As humans, we assume that dogs greet and communicate the same way that we do – in a very frontal manner. Think about it: When greeting someone, proper human behavior is a handshake, hug, eye contact and a smile. All of these behaviors, while perfectly acceptable in our minds, are often perceived as menacing and threatening to dogs. This is because frontal approaches are actually very rude and intrusive in the canine world.
Seeing human “greeting” behaviors from a dog’s perspective, it’s not hard to understand why a canine might feel the need to defend herself.
Yet, when a dog bites in self-defense, people often claim that the bite “came out of nowhere.” In reality, dogs typically give many warning signs that they are uncomfortable and willing to defend themselves, if need be. You just have to know what to look for!
You can prevent a dog bite from happening. The best way to prevent a dog bite is through education, self-awareness and interacting with dogs in a manner that is non-threatening to them. Know the signs. Familiarize yourself with the warning signals dogs typically offer when they’re uncomfortable and prepared to defend themselves.
Dogs communicate with body language. This means that at any given moment, they are using their ears, eyes, tail, body posture and mouths to communicate how they’re feeling. To gauge their mood, you need to look at all these body parts simultaneously as a “package.”
Always be self-aware. Remember that a dog’s body language is a constant conversation and it can change in an instant. Dogs can easily become uncomfortable by something you do or something that happens in the surrounding environment. For example, perhaps a loud car goes by outside and scares the dog as you’re petting them. Or perhaps you unknowingly begin petting a dog in a spot that’s sore. If a dog’s body language tells you they’ve become uncomfortable, stop what you’re doing immediately and give them space.
How to properly greet and interact with a dog:
- When first meeting, kneel down parallel to the dog. Don’t “square off” with a dog by facing her directly with your full body. Avoid direct eye contact and offer soft and slow blinks – this is something dogs perceive as submissive and works as a calming signal.
- If the dog allows you to approach, gently pet her underneath her chin, on her chest or her back (don’t reach over her head). These are the spots where dogs are most comfortable being touched.
- Do not go in for a hug or a kiss. Do not grab at or touch the dog’s face. Although these are gestures of endearment for humans, dogs don’t know that and perceive these behaviors as threatening.
- Never approach a dog who is sleeping, eating, chewing on a toy or bone or caring for puppies.
- Always ask the pet parent first before petting the dog.
Children are especially vulnerable around dogs. Teach your child how to interact with dogs and about B.A.R.K. – Be Aware, Respectful and Kind.
If you're bringing your dog in social situations, consider how to keep your dog safe too.
Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team
For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing email@example.com or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society Adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!
Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.
Questions About Public Classes
San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.
Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.
Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961.
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