How To Speak Dog: Reading Body Language and Bite Prevention
Body language is a big part of communication. We can tell if a person is happy, sad, mad, or bored, just by looking at them, even if they aren’t speaking. Dogs can tell us these things too, but it can take practice for us humans to understand. One major reason dog bites occur is that dogs are trying to tell us something (like ‘I’m scared!’) and we don’t understand. Here are some common signals dogs give us, and what they often mean. Of course, never pet a dog without their owner’s permission, and never approach a stray dog.
How a dog is moving their tail, holding their ears, or even positioning their eyes are all important signals to tell us how they are feeling, and can be just as informative as a bark or growl. Below we discuss some of the common body language signals dogs send us, and what they might mean. Again, NEVER approach or pet a dog without asking permission from their owner first, and it’s always best to let dogs come to us if they want to play or be petted. While most dogs will use these warning signals, some dogs can snap unexpectedly without any warning or signal at all! Additional resources for dog bite prevention are linked at the bottom of this page.
If a dog is showing any signs of anxiety or nervousness we should give them space to help them calm down. A nervous or anxious dog may react unexpectedly, and fearful dogs can become aggressive and bite (called ‘fear aggression’). This is especially true if a dog feels cornered and cannot escape from a situation. Knowing the signals dogs give us when they are nervous can help us prevent a situation from escalating, and keep everyone safe.
Tense vs Relaxed, Stiff vs Wiggly
Dog body language can be very subtle, but a good general rule of thumb to gauge how a dog is feeling is to look at their overall motion. Happy, relaxed dogs are generally loose and wiggly, and often have their tongues dangling out of their mouths. Nervous or alert dogs are generally much more stiff, even frozen in place, and usually have closed mouths. Of course, exceptions exist; a frantic, panicking dog may run back and forth, trying to retreat from a situation. Panting with an open mouth can be an early sign of stress. We have to interpret our dog’s posture in relation to what is going on around them. A dog with perked up ears and a tight, closed mouth might be telling you to stay away because they are aggressive, or they might be looking at a squirrel they want to chase!
Generally relaxed dogs will keep their mouth open and lips loose. A dog who suddenly shuts their mouth when you approach is nervous (or possibly looking at a squirrel). If the lips begin to pull backward that is a sign of increasing anxiety, and of course bared teeth means stay away! A few dogs will show their teeth in a ‘happy smile’ but this is relatively uncommon. If the skin on the snout begins to crease together (like a furrowed brow) back away!
Panting in dogs can mean many things, but a dog who starts panting when someone approaches is probably nervous. Again, look to the rest of their body language to help differentiate a happy open mouth from a nervous panting.
Yawning and lip licking are two more obvious ways dogs show signs of stress. These behaviors tell other dogs ‘I mean no harm!’ and are used to try to diffuse situations that are making the dog nervous. You may also see the dog turn and start sniffing the ground, which is how they say ‘please ignore me, I’m no threat!’ These signals are signs that we should give the dog more space, to prevent them from getting more nervous or scared.
We are often taught that a wagging tail means a happy dog, but this is not always true! A tail that is held loosely and furiously wagging back and forth all the way through the hips is indeed happy, but a slower wag can indicate nervousness, and a very upright tail making quick flicking motions can mean aggression. A tail held down between the legs means the dog is very nervous! This is usually accompanied by a hunched back and ‘whale eye’ (see below). A tail held up high usually means an alert dog, which could be aggressive if someone is approaching, or hunting if a squirrel is around!
Dogs use their ears to show their emotions, but they are a bit harder to interpret than the rest of the body. Dog ears come in many shapes and sizes; some are always down, some are always up, some are barely there at all! The base of the ear is usually the best place to look, but again, it can be tricky! Happy dogs might gently pull their ears back, keeping them back but loose. However, nervous or aggressive dogs will pull their ears tightly back or flatten them out to the side, and these can look similar depending on the ear shape. Ears that are pricked up and forward means a dog is alert and focused; similar to a raised tail, this can mean an aggressive posture or a nearby ball to chase!
Dogs are sometimes described as having ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ eyes depending on their emotional state. This refers in part to their eyebrows - tense, furrowed brows indicate focus and possible aggression, while looser eye brows indicate a more relaxed animal. ‘Whale Eye’ is a very common signal dogs give us that indicates stress. A ‘Whale Eye’ occurs when a dog turns their head away from the source of anxiety (such as an approaching person or someone giving an unwanted hug) and turns their eyes towards them. This results in the white of the eye (the sclera) being highly visible, like a crescent moon. Because dogs have rather large eyes, you generally cannot see the white of the eye in a relaxed dog. A nervous dog will open their eyes wider, so if you can see the white of a dog’s eye, beware! The dog is likely upset. Aggressive dogs do not always open their eyes wide, but they will often stare directly at you. A dog staring at you with a tense face is likely very upset, and you should back away. As always, there are exceptions; a dog staring at you with a wagging rear and soft features might just want to take the hotdog in your hand!
Human body language - what we are telling our dogs!
While dogs send us lots of visual messages intentionally, we humans often accidentally send messages back! Two big signals we give by accident that can make a dog scared are 1) staring them in the eyes (remember, in dog speak this means aggression!) and 2) looming over them (which is easy to do by accident, since we are taller than dogs!). Try to avoid direct eye contact with dogs, and don’t walk towards them from head-on. Letting the dog come to you is a good way to help keep the dog more calm and ensure we don’t make them uncomfortable.
Other things to avoid include fast hand motions or running around (or away from) dogs, which can encourage them to nip or chase. While dogs appreciate sniffing you before you pet them, you should not shove your hand at their face to be sniffed; again, let the dog come to you!
Standing next to a dog (instead of in front of them) and making sure you are not hovering over them will help keep dogs more relaxed; if you notice a dog starting to cower (tucking its tail between its legs and arching its back), take a step back to give them more space and feel less closed in.
You should never surprise a dog, which includes petting them when they are asleep, or sneaking up behind them. Dogs who are surprised may bite defensively before they realize it’s you!
So if you see a new dog…
Always ask permission from the owner!
Let the dog approach and sniff you
Aim your body away from the dog
Avoid direct eye contact
Speak softly and move slowly
Gently pet around the shoulders and sides
Lower your body, but keep your head away from the dog’s face
Approach a dog without permission
Approach a dog head-on
Stare in a dog’s eyes
Lean over a dog
Stick your hand in a dog’s face
Stick your hand over their head to pet them
Make fast motions
Yell or be loud near a dog
The more we can understand what a dog is telling us, the better we can respond to help that dog stay comfortable, and prevent miscommunication from turning into a bite!
For more tips on dog bite prevention, check out these resources with the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: