Biting is commonly known as aggressive behavior and it is understandable that you may be quite concerned after your dog snaps at you for the first time.
This can happen quite suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.
There are many causes that could have led to this event and it is important to find the right one to prevent it from happening a second time.
Although snapping can look scary, it is part of a large repertoire of warning signals that your dog can use to communicate with you.
All that’s left to do is figure out what exactly your dog wanted to tell you and how to handle the snapping in the future.
7 reasons why your dog was snapping at you
Your dog may have snapped at you for the first time because of pain, fear, aggression from possession, play/puppy biting, or past experiences.
As you can see, there are several reasons why your dog may have been snapping at you. We will discuss them one by one.
The first thing you need to understand is that breaking the air is not something your dog does out of malice or with bad intentions.
It’s just a warning sign that follows a series of more subtle signals.
If your dog is uncomfortable, the only way he can let you know is through his body language and facial signals.
Let’s look at why he might have felt uncomfortable.
When sudden changes in dog behavior occur, health reasons are the first thing to consider.
Pain is one of the most common causes of ‘aggressive’ behavior such as growling, snapping or biting.
If your dog is in pain or you have just stroked an area that hurts, he may bar his teeth or even snarl air at you.
This is his only way of showing you that he is uncomfortable and that whatever you do will only make it worse.
It is also their way of protecting themselves from further pain.
If you suspect something is wrong with your dog, take him to the vet.
2. Just woke up
Just like people, dogs can be quite grumpy when they first wake up.
Some dogs really don’t like to be moved or touched while resting and prefer to have their personal space when they are tired.
If your dog is still sleeping and you suddenly touch him, this can also trigger a negative reaction.
Being shocked in the middle of a good dream would scare anyone.
Combined with the disorientation that comes with an unexpected awakening, your dog’s brain may send signals that he is in danger and act accordingly.
This is also called sleep terror or sleep aggression.
It is best to let sleeping dogs lie and if you are in a situation where you need to wake your dog, the best way to do so is to call him.
Most aggressive behavior comes from fear and not from real aggression.
It is a form of self-defense and can be aimed at people or other animals.
A dog that is afraid will show various signs such as withdrawing, shaking, lip licking and avoiding eye contact.
Growling and snarling are common warning signs that occur when your dog feels intimidated by someone else or by you.
When fight or flight begins and your dog has already tried to flee, the only option left is to warn by snapping.
4. Food aggression
If the biting incident occurred near food or similar objects, your dog may be experiencing food aggression or possession aggression.
Resources are essential for every animal on this planet and must be protected.
If your dog suspects that you may be taking something from him as food, he will try to protect it as much as possible.
This usually occurs due to a lack of early socialization and rivalry for resources in the nest.
If you want to learn more about this, check out my guide to food aggression.
5. Puppy biting
If you have a puppy that constantly goes after your hands and/or ankles, it is most likely due to the puppy biting.
It is very normal for puppies to experience their environment with their mouths and also use them to receive feedback.
Before you brought your puppy home, this feedback was provided by his littermates and mother.
With proper training and socialization, puppy biting will go away after a few weeks.
6. Play Bite
A dog that just snaps at you while playing may be doing so because he is biting or mouthing.
This is also a very normal behavior that is mainly seen between dogs playing.
They tend to leave their mouths open to ‘bite’ each other in a gentle manner.
If your dog exhibits this behavior, consider yourself lucky because you have just been promoted to a real playmate.
Not all dogs play bite with their owners and many like to use different play styles for different species.
As long as it is gentle and friendly and your dog is relaxed and enjoying himself, you have nothing to worry about.
7. Punished for growling
This is a reason that is often completely overlooked.
Growling is a dog’s main means of communication to tell the world that he or she is uncomfortable and that you need to back up.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not an aggression signal and the only way to communicate their discomfort with you.
Growling is a very important behavior because it is part of the various signals your dog gives you when he is stressed.
You can imagine it as a ladder with the most subtle signs at the bottom and a snack at the top.
If your dog has been repeatedly punished for growling in the past, he may skip that step of the ladder and go straight to more direct warnings.
How to respond when your dog snaps at you
An unexpected event that seemingly comes out of the blue can be very disturbing.
This is a behavior your dog may have never shown before, leaving you in a state of confusion.
The most intuitive response for most people would be to gasp out loud and perhaps even get angry at your dog.
When something like this happens, it is crucial that you remain as calm as a clam.
The last thing an excited dog needs is an angry owner, so we should try to keep our emotions in check as best we can.
Distance yourself from the situation and take a few deep breaths.
Once you have collected yourself, assess the situation with a neutral mind to find the reason why your dog acted the way he did.
If necessary, make notes of the dog’s bites in as much detail as possible.
Like I said before, the most common reason why your dog would snap at you is because he wanted to let you know that he feels threatened by whatever you were doing.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Maybe you tried to hug him, accidentally cornered him, or made a loud noise?
There were probably many more warning signs before the snap that you may have missed, so try to remember the situation in detail.
Keep an eye on your dog’s future behavior and pay closer attention to his body language.
Should I discipline my dog for biting?
Since nipping is part of the warning ladder, it would be counterproductive to discipline your dog for nipping.
Dogs can’t communicate how they feel to you in words, so they have to send you other signals.
If these signals are ignored over and over again, they will have to move on to hold you back.
Punishing your dog for communicating with you can increase that fear and anxiety and that’s the last thing we want.
Well-socialized dogs can notice the subtlest cues in another dog’s body language and will respond accordingly.
We’re not very attuned to reading these signals, so we need to get to know them and pay close attention to them.
Your course of action will depend on the reason why your dog is snapping at you.
If this behavior persists or worsens, rule out medical reasons and consider seeking help from a dog behaviorist.
My dog snaps at me when I pet him
A dog that snaps at you when you pet it clearly doesn’t want to be petted.
It can be quite intimidating to pet your dog, especially for smaller breeds.
Therefore, it is best to stand at your dog’s eye level when communicating with him.
Some dogs simply can’t be bothered to share much physical contact and prefer to maintain their personal space.
Dogs that have been abused by humans in the past may also bite as a way of defending themselves.
If this behavior appears out of the blue, it may be health-related and should be checked by a veterinarian.
My dog snapped at me when I tried to move him
Trying to pick up and/or move your dog is a level above petting and can be even more intimidating.
Imagine you’re a little sleepy and suddenly someone pushes your butt to make you move to another spot.
This sudden and rather awkward contact can clearly provoke a negative reaction.
Maybe you’re trying to move your dog from a spot on the couch or he’s just completely in the way.
Instead of grabbing and pulling your dog, you can use a treat to lure your dog away.
This is much less invasive and much more rewarding and gentle for both of you.
In the future, it may be useful to teach your dog a command for this so that you can easily use it to achieve the same result.
Disclaimer: This blog post does not and does not intend to replace veterinary attention. I am not a veterinarian or pet nutritionist. If your dog shows signs of illness, call your vet.