Paw Prints: Playing it safe with dogs

Recent news stories about dog attacks remind us of the need to be vigilant when approaching and interacting with our canine companions.

Recent news stories about dog attacks around B.C. remind us of the need to be vigilant when approaching and interacting with our canine companions. If you’ve been bitten by a dog, chances are it was by your own pet or a neighbouring dog. But there are clear signals to watch for and steps we can all take to reduce our chances of a nasty dog bite.

Play nice. By far, most children are bitten while playing with dogs. What starts out as fun can lead to over-excitement, and because dogs use their mouths and teeth to grab in the same way we use our hands, accidental bites can occur when dogs get over stimulated. When dogs roughhouse with one another they have thick fur to protect themselves – but we have thin skin. The solution: If a dog is getting over-excited, call a “time out” and walk away until he or she is calmer. If the dog is prone is overstimulation, play fetch instead of chase or tug-of-war games.

Beware of the protector. Many dogs have a tendency to protect things they value – their toys, food or beds. They will usually give you clear signals that they are in “protector mode” – hunching over a food bowl or toy, emitting low growls and barring their teeth. The Solution: Never put your hand – or worse your face – near a dog in protection mode or try to remove the object. If this protection behaviour continues, seek some training or behavioural counselling for your pet.

Give an anxious dog space. Fearful or anxious dogs are the most likely to bite without warning – they are unsure of new situations and act out of self-preservation and fear rather than aggression. Their signals can include a lowered head, tail low or between their legs, lip licking and ears folded back. They may appear sad and scared, but can quickly snap if they feel cornered and unable to escape. The solution: Be calm and confident around anxious dogs. Let them come to you – never try to hug them, crowd or corner them, sneak up on them or pick them up if they are giving you signals that they are frightened. If they are showing clear signals of fear back away slowly – if you turn and run you are more likely to get bitten.

Leave the Lonely Alone. Seeing a lonely dog by himself in a backyard – or worse, tied to a chain – can touch our hearts and make us want to reach out to offer our companionship. But backyard dogs can be unsocialized and fearful. In particular, chained dogs, may bite if their “fight or flight” response kicks in and they have no means of escape. Their tail may be wagging – but not all tail wagging is friendly – it can also be a warning sign. The solution: Don’t reach through a fence to pet a strange dog or approach a dog on a chain – ever! DO report chained or neglected backyard dogs to your local SPCA.

When approaching dogs, always ask permission from their guardian before petting, approach from the side rather than leaning over top of a dog’s head (a sign of aggression in dog-dog communication) and hold out an open palm for the dog to sniff before petting.

If a strange dog approaches you in a menacing manner – don’t scream or run away, this will only escalate the situation. The best approach is to stand still with your hands at your side, looking slightly away from the dog. If the dog attacks, lie on your stomach with your face buried and your hands behind your neck. The stiller you can be the sooner the dog will stop and move on. For more information on dog bite safety, visit

– Lorie Chortyk is General Manager, Community Relations, for the BC SPCA.

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