Which dog is most likely to bite you?
Compare the following pictures; which dog would you think most likely to end up biting a person?
I'll explain what I see in the body language of these dogs.
In picture A we have a dog who is barking. She may be announcing someone arriving, a change in the environment, or wanting attention. Her ears are to the side listening, and her lips are covering her top teeth, rather than bearing the top teeth, i.e. she is not trying to intimidate by snarling. Her hackles don't appear to be up. In other words, she is barking...showing no offer of biting. In fact, she doesn't look all that upset, just announcing something she finds noteworthy.
Picture B is a dog whose not happy. Unlike dog A, whose ears are to the side listening, dog B's ears are tense, held stiff and slightly down. His entire posture is stiff, his lips look prepared to pull up. This is a dog that is on edge and if approached too close might well snap quickly or even bite.
Picture C is a dog curling in on itself in a self protective stance. Because this dog is small many people might find it tempting to lean over and pat or stroke the dog to reassure it. That would be an excellent way to get bitten. This dog is clearly telling anyone who can read his body posture that he wishes to be left alone. This is the dog that to me is most likely to result in a bite, because not only is he mentally in a fearful place but physically he isn't as intimidating as dog B. On average, people would find dog B's size and posture together cautionary and would be more likely to approach dog B with a little more caution than dog C. Either dog could bite but C is most likely to be put in a situation that will produce a bite.
In this group of pictures it is the barking dog that is least likely to bite and least likely to be put into a position that will lead to a bite - because barking dogs can be off putting, they often will not have people just walk up and stick a hand out to pet them.
So what situations place a dog in a context most likely to produce a bite? We are not talking about dogs that are trained guard dogs now, we're talking about the dog that you might encounter in public or at someone's home.
By the way, do not assume that because an owner allows their dog to be off leash in public, that the dog will not bite if approached. Unfortunately, some owners are not responsible and others are just not clued in enough to their own dogs thresholds to realize that the dog is a potential biter. As some of us know, almost any dog can eventually be put in a situation that could lead to a bite -- context matters a lot in the dog world.
Most obvious potential biters: Dogs in pain.
The kindest natured, usually none biting dog when in pain and touched in an area that is painful has the potential to snap in response. This is instinctual reaction -- dogs are born with the instinct to protect themselves and if something is hurting they may well bite at it to defend themselves. It is precisely because this is an instinctual reaction to pain that dogs who would normally not bite have the potential to be put in a situation where they will bite.
Most likely to bite without warning: Fearful dogs.
A dog can be afraid for many reasons, including feeling trapped, cornered, chased or threatened. Probably one of the best ways to get bitten is to confront a fearful dog by rapidly approaching it or better yet, corner it. If you would like to guarantee that you get bitten, corner a fearful dog and then try and grab it. The likelihood of a bite is so high that dog catchers have taken to using long poles with loops on the end to grab stray dogs; they don't want to be bitten.
Learning to read the body language of dogs and knowing when a dog - including a barking dog - is barking or behaving from fear will go a long way towards protecting you from being bitten. The best way to approach a fearful dog -- ignore it. Let the dog approach you if and when it is ready. And when it first approaches you, continue ignoring it. In fact, training yourself not to immediately respond to dogs is one of the best ways to avoid getting bitten. But that is an entire blog topic in and of itself.
Most likely to bite if agitated: Chained or contained dogs.
In some ways this ovelaps with fear biting. But for some dogs it is also frustration or self protection rather than fearful biting. A trapped dog is being placed in a context where it feels an increased need to protect itself and it's territory. The dog that is unable to escape attention due to a leash, chain, or cage approached by a person (or other animal) that basically "chases down" the animal and insists on direct interaction is basically being asked by the person, "Please, bite me!"
Again, allow dogs to approach you and ignore them until they are ready to do so.
If you are looking for a dog to adopt and see a potential adoptee who is kenneled, you are not necessarily going to see the dog's ordinary behavior until the dog is out of the cage and preferably in a closed private room where it can roam and interact with the people on the dog's own terms. Dogs that are kenneled often act more aggressive than ordinary because they are trapped in a small territory and must protect that territory and themselves - they have no avenue of escape and this can lead to reacting to people in an aggressive manner. Occasionally, a kenneled dog will actually appear more submissive then it normally is; caging can have many different impacts on a dog's behavior.
As with barking, biting does not happen for "no reason." It often happens for reasons that people are oblivious to. For example, I was walking my Shar Pei Ning through a busy street on our way to the park one evening. A number of people had just gotten off at the local train stop and I moved Ning off the sidewalk so she would not be in anyone's way. I then decided to just back her up and have her sit and wait until the departing passengers had passed us. Without warning a man stepped off the sidewalk and in the same move stuck his hand out and straight into Ning's face. Due to the number of years I'd worked with dogs I was actually instinctively able to jerk Ning back out of bite range as she snapped at the man's hand; I physically responded to a situation that experience had taught was guaranteed to produce a bite.
The man laughed. "It's okay," he assured me, "I've been bitten by all the big dogs, Rottweilers, Shepherds, Dobermans..."
I backed away saying, "We have to go now" and Ning and I retreated from the guy who was so oblivious to dog behavior -- and apparently pain -- that he seemed to think getting bitten by a range of dogs was some kind of merit badge accomplishment. Ning was a well trained and well behaved dog who never offered to bite anyone - this was a context that we encountered only that one time in our lives and I honestly wouldn't have thought that someone like this man was out there in the world. I'm actually still a little surprised that my instincts were that fast and I was able to prevent a bite in a situation that still strikes me as unbelievable.
This taught me something very important though - eventually, any dog can be put in a context where there is the potential for a bite.
As responsible owners the best we can do is work with our dogs so that we are knowledgeable about what their typical responses are; remain honest with ourselves about our dogs' potentials; practice reading our dog's body language and responding to it so that we eventually reach the point where we are responding to what they are telling us without needing to think it out. This last stage may be the hardest but it is also where we can find a lot of support. There are multiple books, web pages, and even DVD and TV shows that talk about dog behavior and body language. There are dog behaviorists and trainers. If you want to learn how to read dogs then there are many support sources that you can reference.
And as always, responses, observations, and questions are welcome here.