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Dog Bites: the Subtle Warning Signs

Reports of dog bites are a common occurrence online and in the news, and whenever a new one appears a wave of hysteria spreads, much to the concern of most responsible canine professionals. The news reports these incidents as being the nature of a certain breed, or that the dog attacked "out of the blue", when in reality we know that this just isn't the case.

So why do dogs just snap and change from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde? The answer is simple; they don't. Dogs are fantastic communicators, and use their body language to let us humans know their stress levels and how they are feeling. The problem is that we, as owners and handlers, are more often than not unaware of these signals.

So what causes a dog to bite?

A dog bite can occur for many reasons, including:

Resource Guarding - Photo Credit: Keith Cannataro 

✔️ By being provoked or frightened, perhaps from being hugged, stepped on or patted roughly. 

✔️ The dog is elderly and has minimal patience. 

✔️ Injured or sick. 

✔️ The dog is from a herding line and will nip while trying to "herd". 

    This list is just an example, and there are more situations where stress levels or excitement may lead to biting. The point is that dogs just do not bite for no reason and there are always warnings signs before a bite occurs. These signs can be very subtle and difficult to spot for an untrained eye. Sometimes these warning signs may have been reoccurring for months or even years before the dog finally loses their tolerance and acts out.

    The majority of dog owners / handlers notice some of the more obvious stress signals such as a tail tucked between the legs, cowering or whining, but may not be aware of the more subtle indicators that suggest a dog may be stressed or anxious.

    What are Displacement Behaviour Signs?

    Displacement behaviours are normal dog behaviours that are being displayed out of the dog's normal context. For example, a normal behaviour in context would be a dog yawning after having just awoken from a nap. In contrast a dog that is yawning while being hugged could be considered a behaviour not in context and therefore a displacement behaviour.

    These behaviours indicate a conflict and anxiety in the dog.

    The dog wants to do one thing (act out) but suppresses the urge and displaces it with an alternative behaviour (yawn). The behaviours are a sign of this conflict and a warning sign to all owners/handlers.

    Other examples of displacement behaviours can include:

    ✔️ Yawning when not tired 

    ✔️ Licking chops without the presence of food 

    ✔️ Scratching when not itchy 

    ✔️ Biting of paws and other limbs with no reason 

    ✔️ Sudden sniffing of the surrounding area or object 

    ✔️ A wet dog shake without being wet or dirty

    What are Avoidance Behaviour Signs?

    Dogs are not silly beings, if they are in a situation that is stressful or makes them feel anxious they will want to remove themselves from it. Forcing a dog to stay in a situation in which they feel anxious is a recipe for disaster, especially if you are not a professional. 

    There are some cases where forcing a dog to remain in a position they feel uncomfortable in is necessary, but should only ever be under the instruction and supervision of a canine professional. Avoidance behaviours are much easier to spot, but they still may go unnoticed as an early warning sign.

    Some examples of avoidance behaviours can include:

    ✔️ A dog stands and leaves the immediate environment

    ✔️ Dog turns head away 

    ✔️ Hiding behind a person or object

    ✔️ Barking then retreating 

    ✔️ Dog rolls over into a submissive state

    Some more of the more commonly known warning signs are: 

    ✔️ Ears sideways for erect eared dogs 

    ✔️ Ears back and very rapid panting 

    ✔️ Half moon eyes (Whites showing) 

    ✔️ The look of pleading 

    ✔️ Leaning away 

    ✔️ Tail tucked between legs 

    ✔️ Tail low and only end wagging 

    ✔️ Tail down or straight for a curly tailed dog 

    Be aware that signs shown by tails could be a whole other article in itself and the signs shown by them will differ greatly between breeds. Do not rely only on the visual cues of the tail.

    Dogs in general do not like being hugged around the neck or being climbed over by children and these warning signs are a dog's silent cry for help before acting out. 

    Be vigilant and observant of your dog's behaviour and not only could you save somebody receiving a bite, you may save the dog from the needless act of being destroyed.

    Here is an amazingly well produced short video created by "The Family Dog" that expresses the cries for help shown by our dogs put under unnecessary stress by young children.

    If you are noticing some of these behaviours, this is a situation where you need to call a professional dog trainer immediately: do not wait for the unspeakable to happen!

    About our writer

    Scott McGuiness is the current Director of Canine Connect an Adelaide-based canine training and behaviour modification company. Scott began his career in 'Dog Daycare' and is now one of the leading dog trainers in South Australia. 

    With qualifications with the National Dog Trainers Federation, Scott most enjoys bringing hope to those struggling with their canine companions. He's also the General Manager of Hedgegrove Boarding Kennels and Cattery.

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