There has been a spate of reports of dogs biting humans lately. And the situation seems to be getting worse. Often, these incidents happen in the home or in everyday situations. Serious dog bites are traumatic for everybody involved, from the human victims to the dogs who have been failed by their owners. But why do dogs bite? Are some dogs just aggressive by nature, and do they ever bite unprovoked?
Stopping a dog from biting before it escalates and becomes a big problem is key to managing your dog’s behaviour. And as with most things when it comes to raising dogs, that takes a multi-faceted approach.
As pet parents, it’s our responsibility to make sure our dogs are well-adjusted and not dangerous or threatening to society. This includes recognising the warning signs of dog aggression before they escalate, and understanding why dogs bite.
This is the first in a series of articles around dogs and dog bites as we aim to understand the reasons why dogs bite, and how to ensure the safety of your dog and everyone around them. Read the second piece, Dogs and Kids: Respecting Each Other’s Boundaries.
Why do dogs bite?
Dogs can bite for a variety of reasons and in a lot of different situations.
For instance, a puppy might nip while he’s learning how to play. A dog faced with an intruder might bite. A dog who’s startled (let’s say you suddenly stirred him awake) could bite out of shock. They can also bite when play gets too rough, or even when they’re being possessive of something like food, toys, or their humans. If a normally-friendly dog is in pain, they too may bite to protect themselves in certain situations.
And of course, dogs who are scared or aggressive will sometimes bite as a defence mechanism.
Do dogs bite for no reason?
It’s important to understand that dog bites are ‘provoked’ in some way. Of course, all dogs are different. Like humans, some snap with very gentle teasing and others (we’d say most!) are good natured and require a lot of provocation to become aggressive.
So, while many dogs display remarkable tolerance and won’t bite even when subjected to a lot of potentially aggravating stimuli, another dog bite snap as a defence mechanism when exposed to relatively low levels. Some, like guard dogs, might have been trained to bite people who enter their territory – and that’s all the provocation they need.
Because not all dog owners can read the warning signs, it’s hard for us to realise that we might be doing something which our dog dislikes or is scared of – and we are then taken aback when the dog bites “for no reason.” Though pet parents might not always understand why a dog bites, there is a cause. It just might not be immediately obvious to us. If only they could talk!
Some dogs are naturally more easygoing than others. This is often in part due to their breed (see our kindest dog breeds article for more) but also due to their experiences and individual circumstances. Aggressive dogs may’ve had past bad experiences or abuse, or learned bad habits elsewhere. Or a dog might not be aggressive by nature but is in pain.
Recognising the warning signs that a dog is about to bite
While a bite may seem completely out of the blue to us, it’s important to understand things from the dog’s perspective.
If your dog has given warning signs, he feels as though he’s said “please stop this. I don’t like this. Why do you keep doing that? I MEAN IT, STOP!!” followed by a bite as a final escalation tactic.
These warning signs can come in many forms; some subtle and some not so subtle. Here are several signs that a dog is getting ready to bite. You might be surprised to see some we often misinterpret as relaxed, friendly behaviour.
- Baring the teeth or snapping
- Yawning or licking the lips
- Wagging the tail (read about the different types of tail wagging here)
- Raised hackles
- Stiff or rigid body
- Pinning the ears back
- Tucking the tail between the legs
- Stalking or predatory behaviour
- Showing the whites of the eyes
- Maintaining intense direct eye contact’
Your dog may display some or all of these. Or may even have other warning signs that a bite is incoming. And they might be very subtle. Proper observation and understanding is key to recognising these signs.
This is another instance in which a dog behaviourist can be invaluable. They can help you to figure out what a dog’s triggers are and what causes them anxiety, fear, pain, or frustration. Then they help you to work through it with your dog.
Find out more about interpreting dog sounds and body language in our How To Speak Dog article.
Are all dog bites serious?
Yes, and no. One major thing to consider is that even if you are ok with the occasional nip, you’re putting yourself and your dog at huge risk.
If your dog gets out and bites a child because he knows no better, your dog could be labelled dangerous. Not only are there potentially very grave consequences (even as far as euthanasia), but you could also be liable for damages.
So, it’s crucial that all dog owners take any kind of biting very seriously.
Often when puppies are small, they will bite or nip. This is largely because they don’t yet understand boundaries and need to be taught. At this stage, teaching your puppy that biting isn’t allowed is all that is needed. Learn more about the best games to play with puppies here.
There are also “levels” to a dog’s biting, as most owners will know. In general, dogs have good control over the intensity at which they bite (with young puppies probably being the major exception). The ability to use their mouths very gently is often referred to as bite inhibition.
If your dog has nipped someone and not left marks or drawn blood, you might need to examine why the dog resorted to that. In these cases, it was probably a warning nip; perhaps the person in question was threatening or irritating them. Did you put your dog in a situation where they felt they had no other option but to nip, for instance?
If a dog has bitten very hard and without much bite inhibition, the problem is more serious. This shows more of an intent to harm and a lack of control over the intensity of the bite.
Again, part of your “job” as a dog owner is to avoid putting your dog in situations that could escalate to a stage where they feel threatened enough to bite. Especially if you know that your dog could potentially become aggressive or dangerous.
How do I make sure I don’t end up with a dog who bites?
The key thing to remember is that dog owners have a responsibility to both their dogs and society in general. Working with your dog to ensure they’re well-adjusted and not a danger to other people is a part of dog ownership that cannot be ignored. With some dogs, this requires very little actual training or behaviour modification. With others, it may require a great deal.
This is why only very knowledgeable and experienced dog owners should take on “problem” dogs or work with certain breeds who are naturally more likely to display aggression. If you don’t have the skills to handle a dog’s behavioural problems, it would be irresponsible to welcome them into your home. Not only are you risking the safety of other people, but you are also putting the life and happiness of your dog at risk.
This is why first time pet owners should always make sure they’re picking an animal who is a good fit for their needs and experience.
Read our Dog Bites Dog: Preventing Dog Aggression article if your problem is more around your dog being aggressive towards other dogs, not humans.
Dog insurance for your fur child
If you have concerns around your dog’s behaviour, it’s sensible to get them checked by a vet. Who knows, a wayward tooth or sore foot could be making your dog more aggressive than usual.
Why do dogs bite – over to you
What have we missed? Do you have any experience with dog bites, and why they might have happened? Share your knowledge in the comments