How not to get bit by a dog
October 13, 2010

I believe a lot of people think walking dogs is easy. Ok sure, walking your dog or a friend's dog that you know is easy.  But what about a dog that you don't know that has suddenly entered an unfamiliar and overwhelming environment such as a busy shelter like ours here at Nevins Farm?  And how about a stray dog whose history is unknown?  How will that dog react to all these new strangers that have to handle them for walks, vaccines, etc.?  

One of the most important skills staff and volunteers should have to avoid getting bit by a dog is recognizing dog body language.  Dogs can't talk and tell us how they are feeling and suggest a manner in which we should approach them.  Life would be much easier for us if a dog would just say "hey, if you touch me, I will bite you.  Give me a chance to settle in and trust you and then I will be fine."  Or, "could you let me approach you and sniff first, then slowly attach the leash?"  It is up to us try to understand, through their body language and facial expressions, how they may react to our approach.  

As humans we tend to be anthropomorphic (attributing human characteristics to animals) when it comes to animals.  We may make the mistake of assuming they are feeling the way we would feel in a situation.  I have a friend that always approaches stranger dogs as though that dog has been waiting to be pet by her its entire life.  She just gets in their space, rubs on them- just too forward without taking into consideration the dog's comfort level.  I tell her, your gonna get bit one of these days.  It is surprising she hasn't yet.  Even more concerning is when parents allow their children to do this.  Kids may not understand that dogs have complex feelings and temperaments.  Just last week a young boy ran up to one of our dog's kennel and poked his fingers in at her.  The dog bit his finger in response.  It was not a significant bite and the boy is ok, but nonetheless not a fun experience for anyone involved.  This dog is not an aggressive dog, but a young dog that is still a bit insecure and somewhat nervous here.  That experience probably scared the dog and she may have instinctively reacted in a defensive manner.

When a new dog comes in, it is immediately assigned as a "staff only" dog, meaning only staff can walk and handle that dog.  This is done so we can get to know the dog and determine if it is safe to be walked by volunteers.  Here I will list some facial expressions that helps us determine a dog's temperament and how we should approach him/her or if the dog is even safe to take out on a walk.  I will simply categorize it by "red light," "yellow light," or "green light."

Baring teeth,lunging forward,
dilated pupils

RED LIGHT (not ready to be approached/walked):                               

  • Lunging at you or the kennel door
  • Growling
  • Baring teeth
  • All of the above at the same time!



half moon eyes,
ears back,leaning
away,closed mouth


YELLOW LIGHT (go slowly, use caution): 

  • Ears back
  • Whale eye/half moon eyes/dilated pupils
  • Wrinkled skin on forehead
  • Lowered head
  • Closed mouth, holds breath
  • Licking lips 

Open mouth,
relaxed ears&eyes

GREEN LIGHT (Happy, relaxed, ready to be handled):

  • Neutral ears (not back or too erect)
  • Relaxed eyes (soft, not dilated)
  • Open mouth (relaxed, not showing teeth)



Are you wondering how often if occurs that one of us gets bitten?  Well, its not often thankfully.  Personally, I have been bitten only once by a dog (cats are another story- I have many wounds from that species!).  It happened with a small, scared dog.  I was reading all of his signals that communicated he was scared and was going very slowly and not moving toward him.  However, when he made a sudden quick bolt to get pass me and out of his kennel, I involuntarily raised my hand to block him as if he got free he could potentially run into another dog or person and there could be an incident.  Wrong move on my part as putting your hand in front of a frightened dog that is attempting escape is not wise.  He responded with two quick bites to my blocking hand.  Fortunately for me his canine teeth were pretty small and he did not pursue an attack.  I once had a scary incident where a large dog was trying to get away from me and went on the offensive.  He was trying to attack me and luckily I was able to get a kennel door between us.  I was alone in the holding room and honestly got scared.  Fortunately a colleague came in, I warned her what was happening (althought the scene was quite clear).  She went and got a "rabies pole" and bravely secured the dog with it.

There have been some hairy incidents with aggressive dogs here but most dogs can be easily handled by any staff or volunteer.  The trickier ones, for example those that are fearful, have high-arousal issues, or low tolerance to handling, are handled by staff or our experienced dog walkers.  Often they are assigned to our Behavior Mod Squad volunteers that work on their issues with positive reinforcement training.  We have had many successes by utilizing this training.  For example, dogs with bad manners, such as jumping up on people constantly, are taught that they get rewarded with treats for keeping all four paws on the floor at all times.  With dogs that have negative reactions (for example incessant barking) to strangers or dogs while on leash (but are not determined to be aggressive), are reinforced with treats and praise when they are focused on the handler and remain quiet when strangers or dogs are nearby.  These examples are just a tip of the iceberg, however.  For information on our dog training classes, click here.  If you have specific questions, feel free to email me, Michelle, at  If I haven't scared you off from being a dog volunteer, check out our Volunteer Program page on our website to get more information.  Happy dog walking!

Happy Chuck