One of the first questions to ask yourself when your dog bites someone is “Who?” While it is never acceptable for a dog to bite anyone, answering this question can help you understand why. Many dogs don’t bite out of aggression –– they bite because it’s their natural instinct and haven’t been properly trained to know when it’s not appropriate. Herding dogs want to keep animals (or people) together. Guard dogs are protective of their family (sometimes too protective).  Puppies that were allowed to nibble on people’s fingers grow into adults that try to nibble people’s fingers (and sometimes bite). 

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, any dog can bite: big dogs, small dogs; males, females; young or old. Children are the most frequent victims of bites and are more likely to be seriously injured. What’s even more sobering: Biting incidents involving young children typically occur during everyday activities with familiar animals.

Most dog bites are preventable, so knowing what sets off your beloved companion is critical to preventing episodes that could result in medical attention for humans and, at its most extreme, tragedy for your canine friend.

Dogs typically bite in reaction to stimuli. The AVMA breaks this down into six subcategories:

  1. If the dog finds itself in a stressful situation, it may bite to defend itself or its territory.
  2. Dogs can bite because they are scared or have been startled.
  3. They can bite because they feel threatened.
  4. They can bite to protect something valuable to them, like their puppies, their food, or a toy.
  5. Dogs might bite because they aren't feeling well. They could be sick or sore due to injury or illness and might want to be left alone.
  6. Dogs also might nip and bite during play.

The veterinary group emphasizes that no breed is more liable to bite than another. What makes the difference is the situation and a pet’s history. One in five humans needs medical attention when bitten by a dog. So if your dog exhibits inappropriately aggressive behavior, ask yourself the following:

Was my dog properly socialized with people and other animals as a puppy? 

This will help your canine friend adapt to different situations as it gets older. Many dog owners achieve this by taking their pets to obedience school where they teach puppies the difference between a good interaction and a bad one.

Was I with my dog when it interacted with unfamiliar people? 

You –– the primary source of your dog’s sense of security –– are always the best judge of its behavior and mood shifts. Any interaction can quickly change to aggression, so you must keep a close eye on your dog when it’s around other people.

Did I force my dog to interact with people when it seemed reluctant, uninterested, or afraid? 

Dogs don’t talk, but they do have body language that can clue you in on what they’re feeling.

Did I remove my dog from a situation where it seemed to be anxious or agitated, or behaving inappropriately? 

By doing this, you’re actually training your dog by interrupting the bad behaviors and helping change the situation before bad behaviors become habits.

Have I provided my dog with a secure resting space and supervision? 

Dividing your zones can be particularly helpful if you have young children. This will keep your pet safely in one part of the house and your children safely in another when you aren’t around.

Have I been wrestling with my dog or playing tug of war?  

Rambunctious play can over-excite your pet, which may lead it to nip or bite.

You can never make your pet completely immune from the impulse to bite. However, asking yourself fundamental questions about your behavior as a dog owner can lower the odds in everyone’s favor.