How to tell if a dog is about to bite

The huge boom in the number of dogs in Britain has brought huge joy to millions — but sadly, things don't always go smoothly. We spoke to Bill Lambert of the Kennel Club to get his advice on how you can tell if a dog is about to bite.

In the 15 months since the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic, pet ownership has boomed. Over three million new households now have pets, and many of those have bought dogs. In fact there has been a huge rise in the total number of dogs in the country — an estimated 12 million today, up from 10 million in early 2020, according to data from pet food manufacturers — an increase, which has seen puppy prices soar (and even the worrying trend of dog kidnapping).

The vast majority of new owners have had a wonderful time with their pets, and the mental health benefits of pet ownership have been recognised and heralded as never before. But sometimes things haven’t gone as smoothly.

Many of the millions of new owners hadn’t had dogs before; the dogs themselves sometimes haven’t been socialised as they’d need to be; and trainers have been booked solid, leaving some inexperienced new owners to fend for themselves. Sadly, this has led to a worrying rise in the number of dog bites: there are as yet no solid statistics, but the anecdotal evidence is worrying: a recent Guardian report found that hospitals, personal injury lawyers, dog walkers and trainers have all seen an increase in biting incidents.

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With all that in mind, a few tips on how to recognise a dog who might be about to bite seems well-timed. We asked Bill Lambert of the Kennel Club for his advice.

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‘A dog might bite if they feel frightened, threatened or provoked,’ says Bill, ‘so understanding how to interact safely with dogs, as well as a basic understanding of canine body language and responsible ownership, can prevent a situation from escalating.

‘Signs that a dog is feeling uncomfortable include growling, a flat or alert ear position, stiff posture or backing away with their tail tucked,’ adds Bill.

Not all the signs are quite so clear-cut, however: more subtle signs that owners might miss are lip or nose licking, yawning or showing the white of the eye — whale eye, as it’s often known.

Both owners and others should keep an eye out for these signs: ‘A high majority of dog bites or attacks are preventable through education of both dogs and humans,’ Bill explains.

‘Firstly, all owners need to make sure that their dog has had appropriate socialisation, which will reduce the number of situations when a dog might feel uncomfortable. Getting your dog used to different environments and social scenarios helps them feel more secure in unknown situations and around strangers.

‘Secondly, all children need to know how to safely interact with dogs, recognising the warning signs and knowing how to behave to prevent situation from escalating into an attack — for example a quick change in their own body language, such as standing still, and avoiding loud screaming.

‘Knowing when not to interact with dogs is also important — such as when a dog is eating, sleeping or playing with a valued resource such as a treat or toy.’

Spotting those signs will help you back away, or give the dog the space and/or reassurance it needs to stop feeling threatened.

Advice to keep children safe is particularly important, and The Kennel Club has created a series of Safe and Sound guides to help children understand how to behave around dogs, and things to do to de-escalate the situation if they feel uncomfortable or scared. You can see the posters at the bottom of this page; the RSPCA also have excellent advice in their dog aggression FAQ (N.B. link points to a PDF file).

Much of the burden of stopping such situations from arising in the first place falls on the owners, however.

‘Of course, it’s important to make sure your dog is exposed to new environments and is well-socialised with people and other dogs,’ says Bill. ‘A well-trained dog is a happy dog.’

Taking your dog to classes is crucial; you can sign up for The Kennel Club Good Citizen Dog Scheme, or find a Kennel Club Accredited Instructor, by visiting The Kennel Club Website.

©Kennel Club