Thanks to county leash laws, loose dogs are a fairly uncommon sight these days. This may have led to a decrease in the number of dog bites, but the Centers for Disease Control reports that 4.5 million people are still bitten each year. You may encounter a stray dog and want to approach it, perhaps to return it to its owner or a local shelter. Your intentions are good, but you want to stay safe. Do you know how to read a dog’s body language to avoid getting bitten?
Control the Situation
You can control the situation, in part, by how you approach the dog. If you want to convey to the dog that you mean him no harm, try turning your body slightly sideways, and don’t make direct eye contact. This will make you appear smaller and less threatening. Speak to the dog in a soft, calm voice to assure him that you want to be his friend. Don’t make sudden movements that may startle him or make him run away from you. If he appears approachable, that’s a good sign, but it’s better to squat or lower yourself to his level and let him approach you. Now you’re in a better position to observe his body language and determine whether you can continue, or if you should move away slowly and get help from a professional.
In general, the size and weight of the dog don’t matter as much as temperament. The smallest Chihuahua can be a real terror, while a gigantic Great Dane can be a mild-mannered couch potato. What matters is if the dog is trying to make itself look bigger to threaten you. In order to look more confident and in charge of the situation, he will hold his head high on an arched neck. You will see the hackles – the ridge of hair along his spine – stiffen and rise up. His tail and ears will perk up to add to the illusion of height. He may try to challenge you with a direct stare. This is a dog to avoid. The reverse of this aggressive confidence is a fearful dog, which can be just as dangerous. Look for a dog that is trying to look smaller: ears and tail lowered, head down, cowering. This behavior can lead to fear-biting. A truly submissive dog will roll on its side or expose his belly, surrendering to you as the “alpha” and inviting you to approach.
If the dog looks relaxed and approachable, you can continue to observe other clues and behaviors. Most people assume that a dog wagging his tail is a happy dog, but unfortunately that’s not really a given. Depending on the position of the tail, that wag can mean different things. A dog that is wagging his tail level with or below the line of his back is welcoming you; a stiff, vertical wag means “stay away” and a tail that is hanging low or between his legs means “you’re scaring me.”
Another easily observed cue is the dog’s mouth. In general, if his mouth is open with the tongue showing, a dog is relaxed and comfortable with a situation. If the muzzle is firmly closed or the lips are curled back and teeth are bared, the dog may be showing anxiety, fear, or aggression and should be avoided.
If you are able to hear the dog’s vocalizations, the safest sounds are in the middle range. A high-pitched bark or yapping indicates excitement, which can show happiness or stress. A low growl indicates hostility and often escalates in depth/volume if the threat does not go away and the hostility increases.
With practice, observing dogs of different shapes, sex, and sizes, purebreds and mixes, you can learn to combine cues to form a more complete picture of a dog’s temperament and approachability. If you can interpret a stray dog’s body language to mean that he is approachable, you may be able to help return him to his family without endangering yourself. If your instincts tell you that the dog is aggressive or overly fearful, it is better to separate yourself from the situation and get the help of a professional.
Contact Dolman Law Group
If you are injured by a stray dog despite your efforts to stay safe, call the Dolman Law Group for a consultation at (727) 451-6900.