Dog Bite Prevention: 4 unexpected warning signs

Dog bites affect over 4.5 million people each year in the United States. Chances are, if you haven’t been bitten by a dog, you know someone who has. Children are the most common victim of dog bites and 66% of the bites to children ages 1 to 4 are in the head and neck region. That is terrifying to me because I have 2 children of my own, but also because I consider the majority of (if not all) dog bites to be preventable.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) brings awareness to dog bites with National Dog Bite Prevention WeekⓇ and I would like to add to your knowledge by suggesting ways you can help prevent a bite.


Many of us, myself included, can be a bit jaded when it comes to dog bites.  I never want to believe that my dog would harm a human being.  He is calm and extremely loyal, but no matter how sweet and submissive he seems, I have to remember (especially now that I have 2 little humans) that although he is part of my family, he is an animal. And if provoked, he will bite.


Why do dogs bite?

They bite to protect themselves, family members (humans and puppies), their possessions (toys, food, bones).

They bite because they are in pain.

They bite because they are scared.

They bite to defend themselves or their territory.


These situations are fairly easy to understand and acknowledge.  We know not to bother animals while they are eating.  We understand if our dog is injured it is important to proceed with caution as he is in a vulnerable state and will likely be on edge.  But what about a dog who doesn’t seem to have any reason to bite?  There are a few minutes prior to a dog bite where her body language will change and indicate she is uncomfortable. How can you tell a dog is startled, upset, uncomfortable, or feeling threatened BEFORE she bites?


Lifting the lip, growling, ears back, and hackles up. This is a common presentation of an upset or often labeled, ‘aggressive’ dog. But more subtle, and perhaps unexpected, changes in body language are not shown in cartoons or talked about. Here are 4 unexpected signs a dog is uncomfortable or stressed in her situation:


1.  Licking their lips. And I am not talking about the 2 year old Boxer who is shaking her body, jumping around, and can’t keep her tongue in her mouth, nor the dog who just finished a meal and is making sure to consume every crumb stuck to her floppy puppy lips.  A dog that is stoic and begins to lick her lips (she might vocalize and/or cower her head low) is showing signs of anxiety/stress and telling you she is uncomfortable with her situation. My labrador mix starts licking his lips about 45 minutes before a thunderstorm hits. He also exhibits this behavior on a leash when he sees another dog about a block or two away from us. He has never bitten a person or another dog, but he suffers from storm anxiety and is reactive to other dogs.


2.  Hyper-vigilance. “Squirrel?!” I whisper this to my lab and no matter what he is doing, he runs to the closest door with his ears up, eyes wide, ready to fetch and retrieve! If you see a dog with similar body language (eyes wide, ears forward or back) but not a similar situation, be aware.  Is she suddenly more aware than she usually is?  Eyes wide open, ears forward (or back) and alert?  Looking all around in several different directions?  This is a worried dog.  I’ve seen this behavior a lot in dog parks, dogs being walked on a leash, and also in my own dogs when they hear the UPS truck a mile away.  Not every dog that appears hyper-vigilant will bite, but it is a behavior to be aware of - a behavior many people will misinterpret as an animal who wants to play or be loved on.


3.  Suddenly refuses food/treats.  On a walk with your pup and you notice another dog on a leash, maybe his hackles are up or maybe he is cowering?  The owner is desperately trying to get him to eat part of a biscuit to pull his attention away from you and your dog, but he refuses. He is stressed.  Many times a certain behavior can be averted by offering a delicious alternative, but a threshold exists and once the animal reaches it, there is nothing that will distract him.


4.  Yawning.  This is probably one you really didn’t expect. Did you know that yawning can be a sign of a stressed-out pup? Seeing this behavior in a dog who isn’t tired is abnormal. Yawning can indicate the dog is uncomfortable, stressed, and experiencing anxiety.  My lab mix who has anxiety exhibits this behavior quite often. Usually when we are ‘sitting’ and ‘staying’ as another dog passes us on a walk.  For him, it shows he is insecure and anxious.  


Please understand there are exceptions to this list as some dogs will bite without warning. We have to remember although canines have been domesticated for thousands of years, they are still animals. They do not possess the ability to reason and only have a few ways to communicate and let us know they have had enough. It is important to understand this. It is imperative to teach our children about our family pets and how they can safely interact with one another. Let’s work together to prevent the bite!

Leigh Hofmeister, DVM, Blog Signature – Leigh Hofmeister, DVM





Leigh Hofmeister