Dog Bite Prevention: Dogs Bite When Humans Greet Inappropriately

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By Dr Sophia Yin, DVM, MS


May 15-21st is National Dog Bite Prevention Week so it’s a perfect week for a reminder. Over 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year and about 800,000 of those bites are severe enough to warrant a trip to the hospital.

Based on my experience as a veterinarian focused on behavior, I feel safe in saying that the majority of people who are bitten think that the bite comes out of the blue or that the dog is just mean or unpredictable. The truth is that the majority of bites are actually due to fear and they occur because humans fail to recognize the signs of fear in dogs. To make matters worse, people often assume that dogs should be friendly with all people all the time and consequently they greet and interact with unfamiliar dogs in a way that is rude or scary.


Humans frequently assume all dogs should be friendly all the time. As a result, humans greet dogs in rude and scary ways. This dog sits happily and unsuspecting, but when he realizes there’s a scary-looking person behind him, he cowers.


Dave Dickinson, interim director of the Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation explains why this type of greeting is a problem. “Oftentimes people get bitten because they see a dog they don’t know. It’s not acting aggressively. It’s just kinda walking around. They go up to it and they think the first thing they should do is put their hand out and let the dog sniff their hand. The dog doesn’t know they'rr reaching out in friendship. They're just coming at them.”

One problem is that we’ve been told many times that you should greet a dog by letting him sniff your hand, but in reality, the best way to greet is to stay outside of the dog’s personal bubble and let the dog approach you at his own rate.

Inappropriate greeters can put the life of fearful dogs at risk

If you’re the owner of a dog who’s already fearful of unfamiliar people, well-meaning strangers can present a huge risk.

“Often there will be people sitting on a bench or sidewalk and they reach out really quickly with an arm to pet [our dog Pixie],” says Jeremy Warren, the owner of a large wire-haired hunting dog mix whom they adopted as an adult. “If she’s startled and scared enough she could react by snarling or lunging at them.”

This was especially a problem when they first adopted Pixie. Says Jeremy, “Pixie was so bad when we first got her. She was just so afraid.”

Fortunately for Pixie, her owners have invested the time into training her to be comfortable with more people but they always have to be on the lookout for trouble. They control their situation by interacting with people who want to reach out or pet Pixie and they do so before the rude greeting can occur. Then they are able to orchestrate a proper greeting instead, where Pixie receives a lot of rewards for calm behavior so she associates the strangers with good things. After the initial greeting, Pixie is friendly with the people and treats no longer need to be used.

Natalie Karst agrees that rude human behavior can be a problem. Her Border collie, Jack, had started becoming anxious and pacing and jumping when people moved too fast but he had never bitten until the day a salesman came to the door.

“I was blocking the doorway and keeping Jack behind me. Jack poked his way around, says Karst. “The salesman thought he was a dog expert and that dogs loved him. So he reached and grabbed Jack by the neck and rubbed his ears and patted him on the head. Then when the guy leaned forward to stand up, that’s when Jack reacted by lunging and bit him on the nose.”

Karst laments, “At that point we now had a dog that had actually bitten someone and we really had to change the way we handled him entirely to avoid having it become an animal control issue.”

With two years of practice on the part of the Karst’s, Jack is much more confident. “At this point we still protect him but we don’t have to worry any more. We now have control of him.” But she stressed that one factor throws a wrinkle into the plan. “I can contain [Jack], says Karst. “It’s the other people I have trouble containing.”

It’s important to recognize the signs of fear and anxiety in dogs

Realistically, these rude human greetings that put fearful dogs at risk would not be an issue if the human could tell that the dogs are fearful.  While many people might recognize the obvious signs of fear such as cowering, with the head low, ears back and tail between the legs, they may miss the signs if the dog is only cowering a little.

Plus there are more subtle signs of fear that are also important to recognize. Dogs who are anxious or afraid, may lick their lips when there is no food nearby, pant when they are not hot or thirsty, their ears may be pinned back or out to the side while their brows are furrowed. 

When scared or anxious, dogs may also move in slow motion the way you might tip toe if you were walking past sleeping lions.  They may also yawn or act sleepy in situations where they shouldn’t be tired. For instance in new environments most dogs will explore or interact with people and the environment. If a dog goes somewhere new such as to a veterinary hospital and acts much more sedate than normal, that calm demeanor is probably an indicator of fear. Dogs can also be hyper-vigilant when scared, meaning they look around in many directions the way you would if you were walking in the dark in a dangerous neighborhood.

When fearful, dogs can also suddenly lose their appetite. But then an instant later when they feel more relaxed they may suddenly be willing to eat treats. Anxious or fearful dogs may also move or look away from the object that scares them even if they do so fleetingly. And they may pace aimlessly instead of walking with direction or lying down calmly.

As you can see, these body language signs of fear in dogs are pretty straightforward. When you see a dog exhibiting these signs as people approach, your job as the owner is to keep the potential greeter a safe distance away and to also train your dog to feel more comfortable. For the human who is approaching, the first rule is to ask the owner first, and then ask the dog. That means, turn slightly sideways so you’re not facing the dog squarely or staring at him. Then let him approach at his own rate. If he shows any combination of signs of fear or anxiety, avoid reaching out to pet him. 

Here's a video that shows how to greet dogs appropriately.

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15 responses to “Dog Bite Prevention: Dogs Bite When Humans Greet Inappropriately

  1. I so appreciate this post, Dr. Yin, and the fact that you offer perspectives of those of us with fearful dogs.

    I’ve worked with and trained my fearful border collie (Lilly) pretty much every day since we adopted her in October 2004. We’ve consulted veterinarians, trainers, and university (vet school) behaviorist to help Lilly learn to better cope in a world she finds pretty darn scary. We’ve made huge strides.

    I live these issues every day and would love it if more people were more aware of how NOT to approach any dog, but especially a fearful dog.

    I do everything I can to keep Lilly and others safe, including telling people (especially children) we meet in public, “No, I’m sorry. You cannot pet her. She is very fearful.”

    One Mother’s Day, we were walking back to our car after a dog training class, and a toddler chased me and Lilly down the park path. I’m screaming at the family, “Dog not friendly!” As we literally trot away from this child who pursued us for quite a while (maybe 50 yards).

    By the time someone in the family realized the girl was “missing,” Lilly was panting, cowering, scanning the area for an escape route. Her eyes were as wide as plates. On a scale from 1-10, she was at flip-out level 9.

    When one of the family members scooped up the toddler, he did not offer an apology or anything, just laughter. Like, isn’t that cute?

    Lilly and I had to walk past the family again to get over a bridge / creek to our car, and Lilly belly crawled the entire way because she was so afraid, and the family LAUGHED at us as we went by.

    They had no idea and no appreciation for what I prevented. My quick actions and vigilance saved them a trip to the ER and goodness knows what outcome for my dog.

    I was livid, shaking, and on the verge of tears when I got back to my car. Thankfully, a woman in the parking lot sat with me until I calmed down enough to drive home.

    Even writing about it now, after all these years, brings me to tears.

    1. I’m so sorry that this happened to you. It must have been a terrible experience. You were nervous for the child and for your dog’s Especially being aware that we live in a sue happy society where people don’t own up to the fact that the problem was their fault too. You had to protect your fur baby from being incorrectly labeled as a dangerous dog. You also didn’t step down to the level of the inconsiderate family. Good job!

  2. Dr. Yin,

    Excellent article, poster and TV piece. May I use the poster as a handout with my behavior/training clients?

  3. Yes, Don:

    Please do use the poster. You can make as many of them as you want to hand to as many people as you want. or you can send them here to download.

    Next week I’ll have another poster too shower correct and incorrect greetings!

    Feel free to send them to watch the dog bite prevention PSA (30 sec) We wi.ll have a longer, color version of that down the road too but that is kid friendly (e.g. rated G instead of PG-13).

  4. Thank you so much for doing this. I only wish every single person could be taught this information. So many people expect dogs to completely understand them without any training, but don’t even bother trying to understand their dogs. A few very simple changes can make all the difference. Too many dogs are killed out of ignorance. Again, thank you so much. I’ll definitely be back to get the greetings poster!

  5. Excelent video and poster. I´ve already showed it to my friends at the agility club.
    We are working with several fearful dogs and this will help the owners to understan better how they have to behave with them.

    Thank you very much, as always you´ve been a great help.


  6. This is a very entertaining take on how dogs react to human rudeness. It’s a serious issue though not to irritate dogs in purpose. Some people take is a joke but annoying a dog will always be as unfair as when you do it humans.

  7. Great post. As a first time dog owner, I had to learn everything the hard way – by trial and error. The first time my dog bit me when I was trying to put eyedrops into his eyes to deal with his allergies. Startled that he actually bit me, I ripped my hand from his clenched teeth, tearing a gaping hole in one of my fingers.

    What I couldn’t understand was how the vet was able to do it without incident. I now understand that it was a matter of projecting the right energy, being confident, calm and in control. I’ve learned that it’s important to be in the moment and not be distracted by unrelated, stressful thoughts.

    Now that I have 8 years of experience, I’m very careful when allowing others to walk up to and pet my dog, especially children. An experienced dog owner will have my dog wagging his tail at first sniff. However, you can easily tell when they’re not experienced or projecting the wrong kind of energy and I’m quick to step in as a buffer. I just wish I knew all this earlier on.

    I have plenty of interesting doggy stories to share on my blog at

  8. OK this has inspired me to get to the bottom of the problem I/we have with our 18 month old Malamute, Oakley. As a youngster he had a an upset stomach problem which required several trips to the vet, ever since then whenever the vet goes to perform a health check all hell breaks loose and a major Cujo moment breaks out. This behaviour hasn’t been repeated anywhere else except the vets clinic, I can perform these checks, the girls at the day care can perform them and when he went into the animal restraint class (I’m training to be a vet tech) he was as good as gold.
    All we get from the vet is “he’s a dominant dog and we need to become the Alpha’s”, but that never sat quite right with us so we got advice from a behaviourist who agreed he wasn’t dominant but fearful, he then went on to tell we should alays enter the house and eat before the dogs etc etc which we did for a while but saw no improvement.
    Would it possibly be a good idea to take Oakley to the vet with a bag of treats and let them have 15 mins of just interacting (no health check, just play and treats), and then slowly bring about introducing the health check into the equation?
    Any help you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

  9. yes. that’s what you’d do. I your vet has the low stress handling , retraint and Behaviour modification of dogs and cats they can help you with the process so they make sure they just keep your dog in a happy state.


  10. Dr. Yin, I love the way you find way to help people understand what dogs are feeling. I own a retail store in Canada, and would love to post your cartoons above on the wall. Do you sell them in large format poster form? EVERY dog business should post these and help educate people. I also feel that kids love to learn this type of thing and it would be great to help them.

  11. Ok, please don’t post my previous comment. LOL. I just saw your poster link at the top. DUH! Thanks again for the great information!

  12. Man, I got this crazy dog bite. It hurt so bad and that dog was dumb. I feel what your saying, and I like your advice. Keep it coming!

  13. Dude, I have had so many dog bites, it’s not even funny. Call those people and get the money you deserve, seriously!

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