Interacting Safely With Dogs

You are walking through your neighborhood on your way home. A large dog you do not recognize walks toward you. You glance around, but cannot see the guardian. Uncertain of the dog and his intentions, what should you do next?

People spend a lot of time outdoors and interactions with other people and animals are common. The downside is that occasionally people are bitten by the dogs they encounter. While generally most bites are by dogs known to the victim (their own dog or a neighbor's), serious dogs bites can also be inflicted in public places on victims who did not know the dog.

In many cases, victim behavior is thought to contribute to the risk of being bitten. We can reduce this risk by adapting our own behavior and subsequently appeasing an approaching dog if we understand firstly, its emotional state and secondly, how the dog will interpret our actions. Body postures, facial expressions, ear and tail positions, movement and vocalizations can reveal what a dog is thinking.

Why do dog bites occur?
Researchers have investigated the reasons why guardians of aggressive dogs believed their dogs had bitten. The most common reason was dominance; the dog felt challenged in some way by its victim.

Further reasons were because the dog was overexcited during play, because the dog was fearful and felt threatened, because the dog was ill and possibly in pain and because the dog wanted to protect its guardian. More specific to being outdoors, people get bitten as they run, skateboard or cycle away from dogs in large open spaces. This type of movement may trigger a chase response that arises from canine predatory instincts and can climax in a nip to the fleeing target. It is rare for a dog to bite for no apparent reason.

How to behave when encountering a dog
While fewer than 10 per cent of dog bites receive medical attention, the frequency and intensity of dog bites can be reduced if we understand how to interact with dogs. Signals used between dogs also provide insights into their characters as they encounter people.

Some dogs are difficult to read, particularly if they have had their communication mechanisms altered (e.g., docked tails, cropped ears, long curly coats that obscure eye and ear positions). An unfamiliar dog is an unpredictable dog and so vigilance is necessary. Never put your face near to any dog you meet, no matter how friendly he appears.

A relaxed greeting (Photo 1)
Certain ritualistic behaviors are displayed when dogs meet. A typical greeting consists of sniffing the other dog’s anal glands, which produce pheromones indicating each dog’s identity. If both dogs are relaxed, they will have a relaxed body posture, as revealed by their ear, tail, body and facial expressions. This type of greeting can readily escalate into play.

A fearful greeting (Photo 2)
Some dogs are fearful of other dogs and prefer not to be approached. They indicate this by moving away from the other dog. However, sometimes they may be tethered or cornered and unable to escape their advances. Fearfulness is exhibited through a low posture, trembling and avoidance. Fearfulness may escalate into aggression if the advances continue.

A dominant greeting (Photo 3)
Often one dog will assume the higher status as dogs meet. This is communicated through a high posture, where the dog makes itself look larger by stiffening its legs, holding its head, ears and tail up (the tail may even wag) and perhaps raising its hackles. It will also stare at the second dog. This can escalate into aggression if the second dog responds in the same way.

A submissive greeting (Photo 4)

Alternately, the second dog can appease the dominant dog through submissive gestures, referred to as calming signals. Adopting a low posture when approaching (staying quiet and calm, head lowered, tail tucked low), orienting sideways, muzzle licking, avoiding eye contact and blinking indicates that this dog is not a threat to the first dog. The first dog is generally calmed by this behavior as his higher status is acknowledged.

Dealing with aggressive canines
If you encounter a dog who appears threatening or of which you are uncertain:

1. Keep your distance – This instantly minimizes your chances of being bitten. Even dogs that appear to be tethered may be on long lines or not attached to anything.

2. Remain calm, quiet and still if the dog approaches you – Do not scream, shout, run away, make rapid jerky movements or stare at the dog. Keep your arms by your side — adopt the strategy of a submissive dog — see photo 5. Wait for the dog to lose interest unless it makes friendly or submissive advances. Otherwise, back away slowly.

3. Remain calm if the dog lunges at you – Give the dog something to bite such as a purse, backpack or newspaper. If you are knocked over, lie on your stomach or curl into the fetal position, keeping your head tucked and your arms folded over your neck and head — see photo 6.

4. If you are bitten seek medical attention – Inform Animal Control, the local health authority or the SPCA of the situation if the dog was a stray. Contact the guardians (if you can find them) to inform them of their dog’s action.

How to be a responsible guardian


  • Keep your dog under control at all times in public places – you may be fined and found negligent if your dog causes a disturbance to others;

  • Muzzle your dog in public places if your dog’s behavior is unpredictably aggressive;

  • Warn people not to approach your dog if you think he may feel threatened or challenged;

  • Inform people how to interact with your dog. Tell them to be calm and gentle and to avoid crowding him. Demonstrate how he likes to be touched;

  • Avoid situations where your dog is able to chase children, cyclists and joggers;

  • Seek advice from your veterinarian or dog trainer to address your dog’s behavior problems. The sooner you address the problem, the easier it will be to manage it appropriately. 

Do Not:

  • Allow your dog to stray;

  • Tether your dog so that he is vulnerable to intimidation by people or other dogs;

  • Allow unfamiliar or irresponsible children to approach or handle your dog;

  • Encourage your dog to chase people or other animals.

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