How to Make Your Dog Not Bite: Study Unveils What Triggers Man’s Best Friend

Obviously you shouldn’t steal Fido’s steak or sit on him, but with the help of YouTube, the University of Liverpool noticed some lesser-known provocations that even dog owners don't know

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Picture shows man's hands on left and snarling chihuahua on right. His ears are flattened
Chihuahua evincing classical signs that he's not a happy camper, and you're not going to be too. Watch and learn.Credit: Piter1977 / Getty Images IL
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Scientists couldn’t study why dog bites man by locking human and hound in a room together, provoking the dog, and watching through a window (because that wouldn’t be ethical). Luckily, YouTube came to the rescue.

Given the dog was apparently domesticated over 10,000 years ago, maybe right here in Israel, it would be useful to predict what could turn Fido into fiend. Healthcare authorities and employers would also like us to know.

You're asking for it.Credit: Silvia Izquierdo / אי־פי

We knew dogs bite. There are screamingly obvious reasons, such as sticking your fingers in its mouth, taking its steak, pretending it’s a pony, etc. But sometimes even dog owners are baffled by a canine’s violent reaction, explain Sara Owczarczak-Garstecka and colleagues of the University of Liverpool in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

So the Liverpudlian scientists set out to uncover bite triggers that are not screamingly obvious by watching 143 videos on YouTube, showing 362 bites. They found videos using search terms such as “dog bite” and “dog attack” and excluded clips where dogs were being trained to attack.

Wonderfully, they defined “bite” as “a dog holding a person’s body part in their mouth and applying pressure, which could be reflected by a bite mark and/or the victim’s vocalizations (e.g., screaming) or facial expressions indicative of pain (e.g., grimacing).”

This one is not showing signs of danger.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Caveats: the sample isn’t large, though the researchers increased its size by translating the search terms into Polish and French courtesy of the lead author, Owczarczak-Garstecka. Also, YouTubers aren’t necessarily representative of society at large. Furthermore, the milling masses seem likelier to post clips of cutesy doggos doing terrible things (which people think is funny) than great hulking mutts having a wee nip (which is never funny), which creates statistical biases.

But one works with what one can, and this is no shaggy dog story: their paper on statistical associations between biting and behaviors of canine and casualty was helpful chiefly because, who knew, dogs don’t like being petted.

Good dog

First of all, the researchers say their findings on breeds likeliest to attack, and the victims’ sex and age, were consistent with previous studies.

It bears saying that breed-bite correlation is controversial: some studies found associations, for instance noting irascibility in the Dachshund, English Springer Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Poodle, Rottweiler, Shetland Sheepdog and Siberian Husky. Others heatedly dispute any association between breed and biting. If you have a good dog, it’s a good dog and if you don’t, read on.

You'd bite too.Credit: \ SUSANA VERA/ REUTERS

Only victim age was truly predictive of bite severity. Though children were bitten more often, adults were bitten more severely than infants and infants more severely than children, says the paper. Also, adults tend to get bitten on legs or arms, while kids get bitten more on the face and neck.

Maybe it’s because it’s easier to close one’s jaws on somebody’s arm than his face. There’s also an issue of proximity between the dog’s mouth and one’s anatomy – even if a dog wanted to bite your face, he can’t reach it unless you bend down or pick him up. Or, suggest the scientists, maybe adults and children relate to dogs differently. Or all of the above. But what are the triggers?

You're pushing it.Credit: Sasha Prilutsky / DIVISION

You looking at me?

Helpfully, the researchers note a critical 20-second ramp-up before the dog digs in his fangs. In that time, look out for stiffening, growling, nervousness, snapping, and even earlier – 30 seconds pre-bite - possibly flattening ears and hunching down low. If the dog does anything like this, you stand warned and can change what you’re doing to avoid getting bitten.

Obvious triggers include medical attention, which dogs don't like, or simply being dog-stupid: physically abusing or teasing it, taking its food or toy, that sort of thing. File it under: you asked for it.

Or, you can trigger aggression unwittingly. Human behaviors in the key 21 seconds preceding bites include petting: the dog may not be in the mood or perhaps never liked it; restraining it – would you like being leashed? Sounding weird may be an issue too. Laughing and yelling may unsettle them, while normal talk may have a soothing effect.

Learn the signals that your dog is peeved.Credit: tverkhovinets / Getty Images IL

And crucially, don’t loom over the beast. Dogs hate that.

If it’s your own dog, he’s more likely to tolerate you standing over him. Also, there is indication, say the researchers, that if you don’t know the dog, you shouldn’t stare it in the eyes.

Don't be male

Surprisingly, another potential trigger is simply being male. Dogs bite men more. Separate work also found something interesting – that dogs walked by men are four times likelier to attack other dogs than if they’re walked by women. The man-dog interface seems to need work.

Cats. You might want to consider consent with them too.Credit: Vadim Ghirda , AP

Why dogs would bite children more often than adults is speculative. It could be linked to the likelihood of a response: a human cub is less likely to retaliate than a grownup.

Why they would bite children more gently than adults is completely speculative. Maybe the child’s smaller size unleashes protective familial feelings in these pack animals. Maybe the dog is conserving energy: stopping an adult in its tracks is harder than stopping a child, so the adult needs more biting.

Maybe the dog feels the adult is an alpha, so bucking the adult takes true devotion to the cause, while the child is a minor member of the pack, so its disciplining need not be as harsh.

You say that you have to walk the dog with a leash, yank him off the neighbor’s lawn, you like patting him, and you loom over him merely by existing. Well, either pay attention to his discomfort signals or get a cat.


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