An Obama Family Dog Bites a Visitor and Reminds Us How Uneducated We Are About Dog Body Language


Dogs don’t bite out of the blue.

Earlier this week, Sunny, one of the Obama family dogs, bit a friend of Malia’s while she was over at the White House. Reports say the teen was bending over to kiss the 4-year-old Portuguese Water Dog when the bite happened.

I’m sorry to say that these kinds of incidents are not uncommon. Studies show that most dog bites are from known dogs of family and friends, and are most often to children. I was not there, but I can tell you that many bites occur because most people do not know how to read dog body language.

Dogs talk to us all the time, yet most of us have no idea what they are saying. Their first language is body and energy. Dogs read us, however we fail dogs by not learning how to read them.

Several years ago, a Denver news anchor on the 9News morning show was bitten on air. She was petting the dog on top of his head (which most don’t like). Right before the bite, she had one hand on top and the other under his mouth. She then put her face right in his. He had been telling her for several minutes in every way he could to STOP! Get out of my face. His ears were back. He was panting. He was licking his lips. He even turned away from her. When the anchor continued to invade his space, lastly with her face, he bit her. If she had known how to read dog body language, she would not have been bitten.

This was meant to be a Good Samaritan story. A firefighter had rescued the dog the day before after the dog had fallen into a frozen pond chasing after a coyote. Stress played a huge part in this incident. Think about it: The dog almost froze to death, was rescued by a stranger, and then brought to a TV station where more strangers touched him. He was in an unfamiliar setting with lights, unknown sounds, and camera equipment. I’m sure his guardian was a little nervous, too, with he and his dog’s newfound stardom. This all added up to a very stressful and scary situation for the dog, hence the bite. You can see it coming in the video.

This is why it’s so important for us to learn to speak dog.

Reasons for dog bites

There are many factors that can cause a dog to bite. To find out the why after a bite, ask these questions:

  • What was happening just before the bite occurred?
  • Could the dog have undiagnosed medical issues? Dogs in pain can become protective of their body/space.
  • Was the dog hand shy? Was there hugging involved? Most dogs don’t like to be hugged.
  • Had their been a lot of stress in the dog’s life prior to the bite? A dog who hits his threshold of anxiety or stress may bite.
  • Was there mistreatment in the dog’s life, intentional or otherwise?
  • Was the dog properly socialized as a puppy. If not, that may be the cause of aggression.

The answers to these questions may explain the bite and identify the signs of anxiety that came before: lip licking, yawning, looking away, and even leaving the room. A dog may bite as a last resort because these communications went unnoticed. If a dog has no way out and no one sees he is uncomfortable, even after a growl, the dog may bite.

Signs that a bite may be about to happen

Take a look at these images from my Dog Decoder smartphone app about dog body language. They show a typical scenario involving someone being overly excited with a dog who is NOT interested.

All the warning signs are there! (Image from the Dog Decoder smartphone app/illustration by Lili Chin)

Listen to dogs by learning to read their body language.

Invading Diamond’s space is not a good idea. (Image from the Dog Decoder smartphone app/llustration by Lili Chin)

Here are the body parts talking. You could be in danger if you don’t know how to read dogs.

Look for these signs. (Image from the Dog Decoder smartphone app/illustration by Lili Chin)

Dogs are non-confrontational by nature and listen to each other very well. However, if we don’t know the signs of anxiety and stress in dogs and it’s their only form of communication, they may feel they must resort to biting.

A warning bite

Most dogs don’t want to really bite a person. A last sign before a full bite can be the warning bite. This looks more like an open mouth at the person that does not involve the dog closing his mouth. There will only be one bite mark or scratch. A full bite will have puncture wounds on the top and bottom, showing that the dog closed his mouth. A scratch is more like the dog saying, you are too close.

The incident with Sunny is a reminder that we are uneducated as a society about dog body language and bite prevention. It is a very rare case when a dog bites out of the blue, and it is most likely due to other factors such as brain trauma, genetics, medications, etc.

Please learn to speak dog through my app or other resources. Don’t let yourself or someone you know become a statistic. Help to educate.

About the author: Jill Breitner is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert. She is a certified Fear Free Professional and Fear Free Professional for Foundation for Puppies and Kittens as well as Certified in Animal Behavior and Welfare. She is the author of the Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language. Join Jill on her on her Facebook page

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