Recognising Signs of Stress & When Your Dog Might Bite

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recognising stress

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Sophie Baldwin

A happy dog and one that gets the right amount of exercise is far less likely to feel anxious and stressed. The vast majority of dogs also love to be around humans, unless of course they have been mistreated.

Dogs do however need support from their owners, and it is important for us to acknowledge that they don’t come with an inbuilt rule book of how to behave acceptably in a human world. As owners we need to understand the tools that dogs need to be able to relax in the human environment because if they aren’t relaxed they can’t learn the correct responses that will be socially acceptable to humans. Failings in us to provide the adequate support leads to an emotionally aroused dog that will be experiencing anxiety, fear and frustration.

Canine aggression towards people is often due to an emotional conflict. In order to avoid this, dogs need consistency and predictability in their interactions with humans they come into contact with. Dogs have coping strategies to help them deal with the challenges of living in a fast paced 21st century human world. If the dog is unable to cope in a situation there will be a stress response which is a physiological response (not an emotion). Stress brings out the necessary reaction that will enable the dog to cope. It is part of a survival mechanism and stress happens in dogs as much as it does with humans.

Dogs will learn from bad experiences and will take on strategies to help them avoid similar experiences in the future. For example, ”it hurts when I get picked up by children.” This dog may run away to a ‘safe’ place if it sees a child approach it or growl knowing this causes the child to go away.

If a behaviour can prevent a negative experience from happening the behaviour will increase in frequency and the dog becomes confident in certain responses it shows.
E.g., “When I growl my owners leave my food bowl alone, when I snap the child goes away, when I bite people don’t try to move me off the sofa, etc.”

Dogs need choices regarding their behavioural responses to stressors. We need to be able to recognise when a dog is becoming stressed so that we can provide strategies for them to cope i.e. provide safe places, provide mental stimulation, encourage natural behaviours, allow them access to resources to support them so they are able to relax. E.g., Anxious dogs will pace until a safe place is found. Dens/dog beds are safe so dogs need these areas where they can retreat. A sense of safety is important as a dog needs to know it can escape harm and be able to withdraw from situations. If stress cannot be reduced and coping strategies can’t be offered then there is a welfare issue.

There are situations that might make a dog nervous if they feel they see someone or something as threatening and result in the dog biting. Dogs tend to give warning signs in the vast majority of cases rather than just biting out of the blue. There are five main reasons why your dog might bite a human. They are due to pain, protection, excitement and surprise. Let’s look at these in turn.


Dogs can’t tell you where they are hurting so you have to touch them to find out. This of course brings a risk of snapping as a natural reaction to having someone touch an area that is painful. Just like ourselves if we feel unwell we can be less tolerant and rather short-tempered.


Dogs are a territorial species and can be possessive over things (food/toys), people or property that they perceive as theirs and view it as their job to protect. An example of this would be the dog seeing family members as part of their pack. If a dog has not been properly trained to leave things and not to guard food and toys they may snap if you get too close or attempt to take something away from them. Like most protective new mothers, a bitch will also do what is necessary to look after her young pups.


Even the most good natured dog may bite in play, grabbing clothing, nipping at legs without realising they are doing anything wrong. When playing with your dog don’t let them spill over into over excitement where they forget their manners. It’s time to stop the game and calm the dog down when they start grabbing you with their teeth.


Nobody likes getting a shock and your dog is no different. We have all yelled or lashed out if someone creeps up on us. If someone appears without warning or wakes a dog from its sleep they may well get startled and snap. ‘ Let sleeping dogs lie.’


When a dog feels threatened, frightened or intimidated it may lash out defensively to protect itself from what they see as a perceived attack. Dogs that have been mistreated by people or are shy and nervous may show this in a form of defensive aggression. This type of behaviour usually comes with an array of warning signs such as growling, snarling, raised hackles and showing their teeth as a way of communication. If these signs are continually ignored by someone the dog will have no choice but to jump ‘the ladder of aggression’ from growling straight to a bite which it sees as a last resort. If you go to pet a dog and their body ‘freezes’ they are not happy about being touched – so it’s time to back away and give them space! Cowering and tail-tucking shows the dog is fearful. Back off and let them approach you when they are ready and have had the time to gauge the situation, so they feel they don’t have to defend themselves. You may also see what is called a ‘whale eye’ in a fearful dog, so they show the whites (scelera) of their eyes. This dog may be feeling very anxious, and they need space to be able to relax.

General body language signs to look out for in a stressed dog are:

  • yawning
  • lip and nose licking
  • turning head to avoid eye contact
  • ears back
  • still and rigid body posture
  • growling
  • baring teeth
  • hackles up
  • mouthing- trying to move the person
  • snapping at air


The canine ladder of aggression- designed by Dr. Kendal Shepherd BvSc. MRCVS












  Aggression is due to an individual dog’s learned strategies rather than an instinct to dominate. There is no evidence that dogs constantly try to dominate humans This is a myth and leads to a breakdown in communication. Inconsistency, confrontation and punishment all increase the probability of an aggressive response from a dog. Aggression and disobedience are associated with inconsistency and an anticipation of physical harm or punishment from humans. If we wish to prevent dog bites to humans we need to stop opportunities for dogs to learn that humans are a threat to them.

”Just because an animal is ‘misbehaving’ does not mean the behaviour is motivated by a desire to have a high rank. In general, animals perform behaviours because the behaviour has been rewarded.” Sophie Yin, DVM 2009.

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