How well can you read your dog’s body language?
Dogs communicate with us in all sorts of ways, and body language is an important one. A dog’s body language can tell you if they’re feeling happy, anxious, or afraid, and can help you know what your dog needs in that moment. Here’s our guide to reading canine body language and forming a closer bond with your dog in the process.
Why is it important to understand dog body language?
Understanding a dog’s body language is a key part of communicating with them. Since our dogs can’t verbally tell us how they’re feeling, it’s important for us to be able to read their cues in other ways. This is especially important when our dogs are introduced to, or interact with, humans or other dogs. We need to be able to tell if our dog is having a good time or is feeling nervous or threatened. Being able to pick up on these signals can help prevent dog fights, as well as bites to humans, and helps minimize stress for your dog.
Happy dog body language
Most of us are familiar with the body language of a happy dog, even if we haven’t quite put our finger on the indicators. Here are some signs that a dog is having a good time:
If your dog is clearly having a good time, just keep doing what you’re doing, whether it’s petting, playing, or simply letting them lie in the sun!
If the happy dog in question is new to you, be sure to always approach with caution. If you see a dog that seems to be having a good time, but the dog is unknown to you, do not approach the dog too quickly or assume she will be friendly to strangers. Use caution and look to her human handlers for guidance.
Worried/nervous dog body language
Some of the signals that a dog is stressed or nervous are subtle, and some may even mean different things depending on the situation. For these reasons, it’s important to pay close attention to your dog and to be on the lookout for these indications:
How to help your worried/nervous dog
If you see your dog becoming stressed or nervous, pause and assess the situation. In many cases, you’ll want to immediately stop what you’re doing. It might be obvious what the cause of the stress is: perhaps your dog is reactive to other dogs and he sees another pup across the street while you’re out on a walk.
However, it might not always be obvious what the stressor is. For instance, maybe you’re cleaning the house, and noticed your dog exhibiting nervous behavior when you came close to him or reached toward him. Maybe he is guarding a treasured toy or bone that is hidden in the couch cushions, or maybe he feels that you got too close to his bed. In any case, stop and give your dog some space while you try to figure out the situation. This is not a time to try and force things: it’s a time to back off. If you’re reaching toward your dog, calmly draw your hand back. If you’re standing near your dog, calmly walk further away. Avert your gaze and speak in a happy voice to communicate that you’re not a threat. Once you’ve defused the situation, try to figure out what caused the stress.
It’s especially important to pay attention to canine body language when your dog is meeting another dog or person. If your dog begins displaying any of the behaviors above, calmly and politely end the meeting as quickly as you can. You may have to be direct with other dog handlers: for example, you might say something like “my dog seems nervous, so we’re going to keep walking,” or “it seems like she needs some space, so let’s stop petting her for now.” Advocate for your dog by speaking up for the needs she’s communicating to you with her body, and never force your dog to meet a dog, person, or other animal that they don’t seem comfortable meeting. (The same goes for being petted by another person—or being petted by you, for that matter.)
Never punish your dog for displaying worry or fear.
Fearful dog body language/signs a dog may become aggressive
If a dog feels threatened or protective of resources, he might become aggressive. A helpful saying to keep in mind is “an aggressive dog is a scared dog.” If a dog feels afraid, it could lead to what is typically called “aggressive” behavior.
Here are the signs to look for:
In addition, a dog may bark or growl if feeling threatened. A dog growling is not necessarily a bad thing (and should not be punished). A growl is a warning that means “stop” or “stay away.” If you stop the offending behavior, the dog is unlikely to act aggressively. If pressed further, however, there’s a chance he may lunge or snap.
How to help a fearful or aggressive dog
In the moment: Just like when you notice your dog feeling stressed, do your best to defuse the situation as quickly and calmly as possible. This is especially important if your dog displays any of the above body language, as it indicates that aggression against others (humans or animals) may come next.
To the best of your ability, get your dog out of the situation. If a dog is walking toward you, cross the street. If your cat is getting too close to your dog’s food, move the cat (or the food), and so forth. Your goal is to end the fear-inducing situation as quickly and safely as possible.
Long term: There are many reasons that dogs may display aggression. If your dog regularly seems fearful or aggressive, it’s a good idea to begin working with a trainer to get to the root of the issue. Make sure you find someone who uses positive reinforcement training and has a fear free certification.
A dog’s body language is an important way they communicate with us (as well as with other dogs). Learning to read your dog’s body language is key to training your dog, bonding with them, and making sure they thrive. Keeping an eye on your dog’s body language in all situations will help ensure your dog has a safe, happy life. If you want to practice observing your dog’s body language, book a Sniffspot and watch your dog play and react to different stimuli!
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
These is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner - Ahimsa Dog Training, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Co-host, “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” on KIRO 97.3 FM
We all hope our dogs will never bite anyone, but the reality is that it’s always best to be prepared. It’s good to know the reasons dogs may bite, how to stop them from biting you and others, and what to do if a bite does happen.
Why do dogs bite?
Play: It’s normal for dogs to bite while playing. Dogs use their mouths to explore the world around them, and playing with their littermates as puppies helps them learn to control the pressure of their bite, so as not to hurt others while playing. Play biting probably comes from dogs learning how to fight through play. Developing the ability to fight is crucial for wild dogs, and play fighting—and the play biting that comes with it—is a safe way to practice this skill.
Fear: Dogs may bite when they feel fearful or cornered. This kind of biting will be preceded by fearful body language, growling or lunging. Most dogs won’t bite out of nowhere, and many dog bites can be prevented by keeping a careful eye on the dog’s body language. A dog may bite a person, or another dog, if she feels threatened. If a dog is in a state of fear, any person or animal that walks into the situation (even unknowingly) could be in danger of getting bitten.
Pain: Dogs are more likely to bite if they’re ill or have an injury. They might bite if they feel that a person (or other animal) is getting too close to their injury or source of pain. And just like us, dogs’ moods are affected when they are sick or in pain, so a sick dog might be “cranky” and potentially quicker to bite than when he is healthy.
How to stop your puppy or dog from biting you
Play biting: You might experience play bites, or “mouthing,” from your dog or puppy while playing. This is a normal behavior for dogs, who explore the world with their mouths, and who use their mouths in play with each other. However, these nibbles can be annoying or painful to humans.
To teach your dog or puppy not to bite while playing, just follow the lead of how puppies play. Play with your puppy as normal, and he will likely mouth your hands. When he mouths too hard, yelp and stop playing for a moment. When he stops mouthing, praise him, and go back to playing. Repeat this cycle a few times per play period.
Once the dog has learned to back off on the intensity of his bites, repeat the same steps whenever the puppy mouths you at all. He will soon learn that mouthing garners a negative reaction from you and leads to you pausing playing. Provide your adult dog or puppy with a toy or ball that is ok for him to chew, and he will soon learn to chew on appropriate items instead of hands.
Adult dogs might take longer to learn this process than puppies, but that’s ok. An adult dog who play bites may not have been socialized with other dogs properly, and thus may not have learned not to nip while playing. Be patient and repeat the process over several play sessions, and continue to provide your dog with appropriate toys that he can chew on when he gets excited.
Fearful biting: Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between play biting and biting out of fear-based aggression, but the situation and your dog’s body language should give you some clues. If you think your dog is biting out of fear, the ASPCA recommends finding a qualified dog trainer or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist to work with you. You’ll want to identify your dog’s triggers and use positive reinforcement training to change their associations with those triggers. The training will be different depending on each dog’s triggers, but will include rewarding your dog when a “scary” object or person is present (for example, the mail carrier or a stranger walking by).
Never punish a dog for biting. You might be tempted to, but it will only reinforce their fear around the situation.
How to stop your dog from biting other dogs
Dogs may bite other dogs for the same reasons listed above, namely play or fear.
If your dog bites other dogs while playing: Like we talked about earlier, play biting is a normal behavior among dogs. It’s only a problem if the dog is doing it hard enough to cause the other dogs pain (or if other dog owners don’t like it).
Training your dog not to bite other dogs during play is simply an extension of training him not to bite you during play. As you continue to teach your dog that nipping leads to a pause in playing, he should be able to extend this learning to playing with other dogs as well. If your dog gets over excited during play with another dog and won’t stop play biting, employ a “time out” policy and give him a few minutes to cool off. You can also give him a toy to channel his excitement/ biting energy out on.
It’s difficult to teach this to a dog while he’s playing with another dog, as he’s going to be worked up, and you have the other dog to contend with. If this continues to be a problem, contact a qualified dog trainer or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.
If your dog bites other dogs out of fear or “aggression”: Unless you’re an experienced dog trainer yourself, this situation calls for the help of a professional. As we talked about above, the ASPCA recommends hiring a qualified dog trainer or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist to help you train this behavior out of your dog. You’ll need to use positive reinforcement training to establish positive associations with other dogs, though, according to VetStreet, there is no single strategy that works for every dog who bites another dog.
In the short term, you might consider training your dog to wear a basket muzzle while out on walks. As the American Kennel Club points out, muzzles have gained an unfair association with “aggressive” dogs, but they are handy tools for preventing some dog behaviors, such as biting or ingesting food off the ground, and they are comfortable for dogs to wear, though they will need some training to get used to them. Check out the VCA’s guide to muzzle training your dog for more information.
Consider also that most dogs bite other dogs when they feel threatened. You can take steps to minimize or eliminate the situations that your dog feels threatened in, depending what they are. For example, if your dog bit another dog at the dog park, avoid future dog park visits.
How to stop your dog from biting other people
Again, if your dog develops an issue with biting other people, this is the time to call in a qualified professional. You’ll need to call in a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a trainer who is experienced with biting. The trainer will help you identify your dog’s triggers and teach you how to rewire your dog’s associations with these triggers.
Similarly to a dog who bites other dogs out of fear, training your dog to wear a basket muzzle can be a good solution in the interim. Once you’ve trained your dog to be comfortable with the muzzle, remember that he doesn’t have to wear the muzzle all the time, only in situations where he may be fearful or prone to biting people.
What to do if a dog bite happens
Stay calm: It’s difficult, but if your dog bites a person or another pet, try to stay calm, to the best of your ability. Be kind and polite to the victim and make sure they know you are there to help.
Check on the victim: If your dog bit someone and broke the skin, they should seek medical attention. Go with them to the hospital or urgent care center and make sure they receive all the medical help necessary.
(Sometimes a dog may snap at someone without actually biting them. This can be scary, but it’s different than biting. To the best of your ability, try to determine whether your dog actually broke the skin before seeking medical treatment for the victim.)
Swap contact info: Just like you would with a fender bender, exchange contact information with the victim (if you don’t already have it). This is required in some jurisdictions, and is good practice even if it’s not legally required.
Find your dog’s medical records: You’ll need to provide proof (to the victim and possibly their doctor) that your dog is up to date on vaccinations, especially rabies.
Seek legal advice (if necessary): Most people who are bitten by dogs do not sue, but you are legally responsible for your dog’s actions, so know that it is a possibility. If you think the person might sue, contact a legal professional for advice.
Start behavior modification training immediately: You’ll want to find a qualified trainer or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist to work with your dog on biting. The trainer will help you figure out your dog’s triggers and will help in trying to prevent the situation from happening again. The ASPCA has a handy guide to finding the right behavioral care professional for your dog. Make sure you choose a professional who only uses positive reinforcement training, which means rewarding the dog for a desired behavior. Positive reinforcement has been shown to be the most effective form of training. Moreover, with a dog who is biting, it’s important not to use any fear-based training (such as punishing an undesirable behavior) as that might create fear or anxiety in the dog and make the situation worse.
What to do if your dog is biting out of pain or illness
If your dog starts acting differently or suddenly starts biting “out of nowhere,” it’s a good idea to take them to a vet, as this behavior could indicate pain or feeling unwell.
If you’ve identified the dog’s illness or source of pain and it’s being treated, be patient with your dog and remember that the biting is situational. Make your dog as comfortable as possible and be extra careful to avoid situations that may cause them to bite. For example, if your dog has an injured leg, she may try to bite people who try to touch that leg. While some such interactions are unavoidable (such as with the vet or with you), you can at least minimize her contact with other people during this time. Give her extra space and remember that she is not acting out of malice, but because of pain and the instinct to defend herself.
Dog bites happen for three main reasons: play, fear, and pain or illness. It’s important to understand why your dog is biting and to know what to do in the event of a dog bite. It’s also important to remember that biting does not mean your dog is a “bad dog.” With some training and patience, you can stop your dog from biting, no matter the cause.
Trainers that reviewed this article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Professional Canine Trainer - Accredited / PCT Level 2
Courteous Canine/DogSmith of Tampa
AKC CGC® and STAR Puppy Approved Evaluator
Licensed Pet Dog Ambassador Instructor/Assessor