Why Does My Dog Bite Me When He Approaches Me to Be Petted?

Biting the hand that pets you.

Posted Apr 04, 2016

 Emily Killian Molina (CC BY-SA 2.0)
"What? Do I look funny or something?"
Source: Emily Killian Molina (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Emily D. Levine, DVM, DACVB, MRCVS; Animal Emergency and Referral Associates of New Jersey

It has been a long day. You get home from work, you manage to get something on the table to pass for dinner, you’ve helped with homework, put the kids to bed and now you can finally take a deep breath and sit down on the couch to rest. You see your dog approaching you with an eagerness that makes you think to yourself how much you love your dog and how you are about to share a special cuddly moment together. You go to pet him and bam ... the little stinker bites you!

Well, now you are shocked (and probably a bit angry). You start wondering why in the world your dog would bite you, his beloved guardian. You tell your spouse, you tell your neighbors and friends. And, well, everyone has an opinion. Some people tell you your dog is trying to dominate you, whereas others tell you your dog is bipolar and needs to see a shrink (aka veterinary behaviorists). So somehow in between work, kids, spouses, household chores, you now need to need take your dog to a shrink? You think to yourself, "There is no way I’m going to do that!" Until you get home again that night and you look into those adorable eyes and start to wonder ... is my dog bipolar? Is he going to bite me every time I reach out to pet him? What is going on with my dog?

Well, we do not know if dogs experience a condition similar to the human bipolar diagnosis. But we do know that there are many reasons that a dog may approach and bite you if you try to pet him. And trying to be dominant is not one of them. Assuming there are no medical conditions or negative associations with hands that require a skilled professional, or some other often diagnosed condition, there is a very common, reasonable explanation for why some of our beloved pets snap when we go to pet them in the specific context described above. It can be summed up as “frustration.” The frustration comes from your dog’s perspective that you, his beloved guardian, doesn’t understand what he wants/needs.

You know how crazy busy you are during the day and how you can’t wait to get home and sink into the couch and not have to lift a finger? Well, your canine companion has been spending that time resting and waiting for something to do. When you arrive home, that is when their day gets started.  Many dogs are so eager to play and to be mentally stimulated that when they approach you and they see that darn hand coming out to pet them, they want to scream, "I don't want to be petted! It's time to do something! Let's go, let's go!" They have probably tried more subtle ways of telling you this but you have likely missed those signs. So now, the dog is very frustrated. For any of you that have experience with young active children, you know there are times when you can get them to sit and calmly listen to a story and other times when you would not even attempt such a crazy thing, because you know the kids just need to run around and get some energy out!

For those of you who have found yourself with a generally loving dog who goes to bite your hand in the specific context above, do this: The next time your dog approaches you while you are sitting, do not reach out and pet him. Ask if he wants to play tug—then get up and go get a tug toy or go get some treats and engage him in some training exercises. Better yet, do this before you sit down—be pre-emptive (let's face it, once we sink into that couch, it can be really hard to get back up). Have a play session or a training session before you collapse for the evening. If this doesn’t help, then indeed, make an appointment with your veterinarian for a physical exam. And, if your dog is given a clean bill of health, it is indeed time to see a skilled behavioral professional.

Find more information here.