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How to avoid being nipped or bitten
By Carina Norris

Unfortunately, humans are very thin-skinned animals, and even a relatively gentle snap (to a dog) can injure a person, and particularly a child. Sadly, because of accidents like this, many dogs have had to be put to sleep.

But if you understand how dogs think, and make sure that the people who come into contact with your dog understand dogs too, you are less likely to encounter problems. Remember that dogs are not furry human beings. We don't speak the same language, which can lead to misunderstandings. Dogs often appear unpredictable, but there is often a reason for their behaviour. Also, just like people, dogs have their own personalities, so you shouldn't make generalisations about how a dog will react - even dogs which you think you know well are capable of acting unpredictably.

Dogs often try to tell us when they want to be left alone, but we can be slow to get the message. If a dog seems to be indicating that it's had enough, perhaps by trying to hide, don't force the issue.

People can also confuse dogs. A dog may not understand why we are doing something, and a confused dog may feel insecure, and snap.

Know your dog

If your dog's behaviour changes suddenly, take him to the vet for a check up. Dogs who are ill or in pain may be more likely to snap.

Medical problems

  • If your dog has an injury, such as a thorn in his paw, he might snap if your touch the sore place. If he growls when you touch a place, take your pet to the vet for treatment or advice.
  • Be extra understanding towards a dog who is ill - he may feel confused and disorientated.
  • Arthritis can make elderly dogs stiff and grouchy, so ask your vet for suggestions to reduce your pet's discomfort, and make extra allowances for your dog.


Stress can make dogs irritable:

  • Try not to disrupt your dog's routine, by trying to give him his meals and walks at the same time each day.
  • Be consistent with rules.
  • Any kind of 'life change', such as moving house, or holidays, can be stressful for dogs. Dogs sense stressful events in their owners' lives, such as starting a new job, a wedding or relationship problems.
  • If your dog is uncharacteristically aggressive and your vet has given him a clean bill of health, ask to be referred to a pet behaviour counsellor.

The dog owner's responsibilities

  • Never leave dogs unsupervised with children or strangers.
  • Treat your dog with care and respect, and encourage others to do the same.
  • If you have a puppy, gently accustom your puppy to strange people, both men and women, adults and children from an early age. Many veterinary practices organise 'Puppy Playgroups', where pups can play together, and socialise with other puppies and owners.
  • Remember who's boss! You should be in control of your dog at all times when you are in a public place.
  • Train for safety. Make sure your pet obeys commands such as "Down", "Drop it", and of course, "No!" (or your equivalents).
  • Your dog can be intimidated by groups of people, especially strangers, but also people he knows. Be wary of crowds of people who could frighten or torment him (such as at school entrances).
  • Make allowances for your dog if he is feeling under the weather, as he may feel grouchy and/or vulnerable. Tell people that your dog is feeling off colour and needs kid-glove treatment.
  • Remember that warm weather may make your dog irritable.
  • Warn others not to make sudden movements or noises which could frighten your dog. Let sleeping dogs lie! A dog who is suddenly wakened may be grouchy or startled.
  • Never disturb a dog while he is eating.
  • If you have nieces, nephews or other small children who come into contact with your dog, make sure they know how to behave around dogs.
  • Don't let children walk a dog (even the family's dog) alone. Even a little dog like a Yorkshire Terrier could create problems if it decided to cause trouble with a big dog in the park, particularly if the other dog's owner wasn't in control of their own pet.
  • Teach a new puppy that nipping is not allowed. All pups 'mouth' things when they are little, but this can lead onto painful nips when the puppy's teeth come through, and a potentially dangerous bite when the dog is fully grown.
  • Try to avoid games which encourage aggression and competition, such as tug-of-war.
  • Do not allow or encourage your dog to chase people or animals, even in fun.
  • If your dog becomes over-exuberant, calm down. If you raise your voice and become agitated, even to reprimand him, he may become even more excited.
  • Know your pet's quirks, and make sure that other people do, too. For example, if you know that your dog is scared of men wearing motorcycle helmets, warn any biker friends!

Other people's dogs

These rules are particularly important for children as their faces are at the right height to be bitten by dogs - adults tend to suffer bites on the hand or leg. If you are a dog owner, ensure that any children who meet your dog know the rules.

  • Even if you know the dog, or you think he looks friendly, look for its owner and ask permission before your pat or stroke it.
  • Don't rush up to the dog and stroke or pat it. Hold out your hand, and let the dog come to you and investigate your hand. Children should try not to giggle or squirm. Then, if the owner says it's OK, stroke the dog.
  • Even if you are a dog owner yourself, remember that not every dog is like your dog. Treat all dogs with care, caution and respect.
  • Try not to make sudden movements or noises near a dog, as this could make him nervous, and more likely to bite.
  • Never stare a dog in the eye, as this can also make him feel uneasy.
  • Like people, dogs don't like to be teased - they may retaliate - with their teeth!
  • Never run or scream if a dog frightens you - the dog will be more likely to chase you. Try to remain calm, stand your ground, then slowly back away.
  • Don't disturb a dog you see tied up upside a shop, or go over to pat him. Being tied up can make dogs feel insecure, and more likely to snap.
  • If a dog growls, assume he means business!
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