Dogs use their mouths for more than eating and drinking. Playful mouthing to aggressive behavior communicates through a dog’s bite. Mouthing is normal behavior. However, dogs biting for other reasons can indicate an issue with aggression.

As a person who spends time around dogs, it’s important that you learn the signs of a dog that’s about to bite and what to do if a dog bites you.

The Reasons Vary

Dogs bite for a variety of reasons. The most important thing to remember is to refrain but doing things that are triggering the dog’s aggression. Here are some reasons why dogs bite.

Pain or Illness

When dogs are sick or injured, they don’t understand why they have discomfort. If you try to comfort your dog through a pet and, for example, touch their injury causing them pain, they may think you have caused the pain. So, what do you do? A sick dog should be left alone to rest. Then, get help from your dog’s vet.


When you’re playing, the situation can get rough. When dogs play with other dogs, they use teeth and claws. With humans, however, you must teach them to play gently. When playtime gets out of hand, relax and walk away. Let them calm down before resuming play.


Dogs have an idea of what’s theirs. Their toys, their bed, their bowls of water and food. Therefore, they protect what’s theirs. A good rule of thumb: never go into a yard with a dog you don’t know unless you’ve been properly introduced. Don’t reach into a car or yard to pet a dog. Don’t touch a dog’s bed or food bowls. Unless you’re the dog’s owner, you should be wary.


Loud noises and sudden movements can be scary for dogs. In order to protect themselves, they may bite. If you don’t know a dog, walk around them and move slowly. Ask for permission from the dog’s owner before petting and hold out your hand palm down. Let the dog come to you. If you have a sleeping dog, leave them alone. You may startle them if you try to wake them. If you can’t locate the dog’s owner, leave the dog alone.

What to Look Out For

According to the ASPCA, “In most cases, a playful dog will have a relaxed body and face. His muzzle might look wrinkled, but you won’t see a lot of tension in his facial muscles. Playful mouthing is usually less painful than more serious, aggressive biting. Most of the time, an aggressive dog’s body will look stiff. He may wrinkle his muzzle and pull back his lips to expose his teeth. Serious, aggressive bites are usually quicker and more painful than those delivered during play.”

Dogs who are about to bite may exhibit these signs:

  • Ears laid back
  • Stiff legs
  • Hair on the back standing up
  • Growling or barking with teeth bared

What to Do When a Dog Bites

When a dog bites, the first thing to do is go to a doctor. Wash the wound with warm water and soap to disinfect. If it was a dog you don’t know, write down all the details you can remember: how the dog looks, its size, and where it took place. Then, report to animal control.

If this was your own dog, consider seeing an animal behavior specialist. If you don’t have access to a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, you can find Certified Professional Dog Trainer to help you change your dog’s behavior. It’s important to teach your dog gentleness. In turn, you need to support your dog while they learn this. According to Ilana Reisner, DVM, Ph.D., DACVB:

  1. “If your dog is uncertain in some situations, be his advocate. Keep him on a secure lead and offer him reassurances and food to classically counter-condition his anxiety.
  2. If there is a situation in which your dog has growled or snapped, catalog it and closely manage similar situations the next time around. Watch that body language closely.
  3. Most important, give your dog the gift of distance from those uber-intimate folks, close to you. Better yet, let him chill in a separate space, with a food toy and radio.”

Dog biting is a behavior you can change with the right tools and time.

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