Why Do ‘Friendly’ Dogs Bite?

Small dog aggression

It’s happened to many of us dog lovers. You’re hangin’ with your canine bud, or you’re playing with a dog you’ve played with hundreds of times before, and suddenly, seemingly without warning, the dog bites you.

It’s even happened live on TV in 2012 when KUSA news anchor Kyle Dyer went to kiss a dog named Max and got bit.  A later article in Huffington Post quoted the news anchor as saying, “we think we know what dogs are saying, but we don’t really know.”

While not all dog bites occur in this exact scenario, it’s a common one. Biting is a so-called friendly dog’s last resort. Dogs bite, according to the AVMA, as a reaction to something that startles, stresses or threatens them.

In the case of the news anchor, the dog, Max, had been rescued by a firefighter the day before after falling into the frigid Smith Reservoir in Lakewood, Colo. The news anchor was interviewing the firefighter and the dog’s owner with his dog present. She was rubbing the dog under his neck with her hands close to his mouth. The dog seems to like it, but if you look closer, you can see the signs that the dog wants her to back off.

Related: What To Do If You See A Lost Dog

There were clear signs of stress: the licking of the lips, the head turning away, the lip curled, the tension around the dog’s eyes — and the fact that the dog was already stressed. The day before, the dog almost drowned after chasing a coyote onto the ice and falling through into the icy water. Max was in the water around 20 minutes before he was rescued. A news crew turned up at the dog’s home later on that day. And the next day, Max was taken into an unfamiliar news studio with lots of strangers. He was there for close to an hour before the interview. The news anchor essentially “gets in the dog’s face” while his owner has a tight grip on his collar. She is staring directly into his eyes. Max can’t get away, he can’t get the strange woman to back off, and when she puts her face even closer, he does the only thing he can: he reacts.

That’s how a normally unaggressive dog ends up biting someone. In Max’s case, he was lucky. He was taken into quarantine at the Denver Animal Shelter, but eventually, it was decided not to euthanize the dog. He had never bit anyone before. And, obviously, there were extenuating circumstances.

But many dogs who bite someone for the first time are not so lucky.

Why Do “Good” Dogs Bite?

Any dog can bite. Even the smallest, furriest ball of cuddly love can bite in certain circumstances.

Not only that, but a bite from a Chihuahua can do some serious damage. In fact, an acquaintance was bit by a very small dog — a dog he knew well, a dog who loved him — and the dog tore a tendon in his hand that required surgery and physical rehab for months.

A dog who has never been aggressive can bite as a reaction to fear. A dog may bite if she feels she has to defend herself — or her puppies. A dog may bite is she’s startled, or if she feels threatened. A dog may even bite over food or a favorite toy (which is often termed “resource guarding”).

The vast majority of bites happen because the dog was provoked, whether intentionally or not. For example, when children are not taught how to be gentle with a dog, and what not to do, a dog may bite. If a dog is constantly hugged tight around his neck, which most dogs don’t like, or even slapped, their tail pulled, their ears pulled or picked up in a way that hurts them, the dog may bite. A dog bites if nothing else he tried has worked.

Dogs bite to get physical distance from a threat. It can be when someone suddenly leans down — to pick something up or even to plant a kiss on the dog’s head. Maybe it’s someone they’re not comfortable around, or they know the person but the movement startled the dog. They bite as a reaction because they want the person to back off.

Dogs may get uncomfortable when a stranger reaches toward them, usually to pet them. Dogs often feel threatened or startled when a person reaches their hand over the dog’s head to pat them on the head (imagine if a stranger suddenly came up to you on the street and shot out their hand toward your head). If the dog can’t get away from the threat, they may bite to protect themselves.

Related: A Dog Bite Could Cost Upwards Of $56,000. Here Is How To Prevent Them From Occurring.

A dog may bite if the owner decides to show the dog who’s the boss by trying to put the dog in an “alpha roll.” Attempting to dominate your dog by aggressively staring directly into their eyes or physically manhandling it is a form of attack — by the human. A dog will bite when he reaches the point where everything he’s tried to reduce physical confrontation fails, and he can no longer cope.

A dog may even bite if you haven’t read the signs that they don’t really like being hugged around the neck or kissed. Dogs can feel trapped in a hug, and the act of putting your face in their face to kiss them can be interpreted as aggressive. Dog’s don’t normally express affection with a kiss or a hug.

Of course, not all dogs will bite in these situations. But it’s important to understand that when “good” dogs bite, it’s because of something we most likely did. Because we failed to understand their body language.

How to Tell if Your Dog Is Going to Bite

The best way to avoid your dog or a friend’s dog biting you is to learn what that particular dog likes and doesn’t like. To observe his behavior and discover what frightens him. To learn to understand the dog’s body language.

Here are the signs that a dog might bite.

The first signs:

  • Yawning when he’s not tired
  • Licking his lips
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Turning his body away
  • Whale eyes (eyes averted with a lot of white showing)
  • Possibly cowering with tail tucked

Possibly the last signs:

  • Lips pulled back
  • Snapping his teeth
  • Baring his teeth
  • Low growl
  • Tail raised and slowly wagging while the rest of the body is still
  • Body rigid, muscles stiff
  • Hackles raised (fur on their back and shoulders)

If you see these signs, stop what you’re doing and back off.

Related: How To Make Your Dog Feel Comfortable In A New Home

By Jillian Blume

Jillian Blume is a New York City–based writer whose feature articles have appeared in magazines, newspapers, and websites including the New York Observer, Marie Claire, Self, City Realty, the ASPCA,, Best Friends Animal Society, The Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, The Pet Gazette, and many others.

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