Humans don’t speak dog language and dogs don’t have a complex vocal language such as English.  Both species do, however, communicate by having different body parts moving into different positions.

Dogs Communicate By Changing Their Posture

Around 93% of human body language is non-verbal whereas almost the entirety of dog language is through body language.  This use of body language is one of the factors which first lead to dogs spending longer with people before domestication began.


Dogs let us know what they want through subtle changes in their body language. We often don’t notice these tiny changes but to them, they’re shouting whatever they are thinking.  This isn’t helped by our hectic lives meaning that evolution has increased our reliance on talking and stopped us noticing small changes in body language.


Most people associate a wagging of the tail with a happy dog. Sometimes their tails may be wagging but they may be angry, overwhelmed or just wanting to be left alone.  This common lack of understanding also means dogs body language is often misled.  An example of how this may be misunderstood can be as dramatic as you thinking “Rufus is telling me he wants to go out” whereas Rufus may desperately be saying “Don’t let me out, I’m scared”

Dogs Don’t Want to Bite

The most important things people need to pay attention to is when dogs are desperately telling people they are upset, anxious or angry.  These emotions, if heightened, can lead to a dog biting; something most dogs never dog want to do.  The majority of dogs send what they think are very very clear signals that they are unhappy before they are pushed over the edge and bite but people miss these signs.  Some are very subtle and completely different to what people associate with fear or aggression so aren’t spotted.


The key is; not all stressed-out dogs are backed away shaking in a corner or snarling and biting. Once they get to this stage the dog is so wound up you’re unlikely to calm them down.  The key is to look for the early signs; if you notice these you can help your dog to chill out before it gets too late, get them out of the situation so they are not feeling stressed and prevent anyone from getting hurt.


There is a pattern of behaviour called “The ladder of Aggression” which goes from a dog who is slightly stressed to one who is just about to bite.


Remember, biting is a big sign the dog is unhappy with the situation and usually is a last resort; very few dogs bite for no reason.  If a dog is unhappy enough to bite you need to find out why and do something about it otherwise their welfare is at risk.


The Ladder of Aggression

Yawning, Blinking and Nose Licking

= The first signs your dog gives to say they are unhappy. At this early stage, if possible,  look for ways prevent them becoming more worked up.

  • Very commonly missed, even by most professionals.
  • If you were in a scary or stressful situation you would not tend to feel tired. Adrenaline will surge through your body to wake you up; your dog will feel the same.  In a stressful situation if your dog starts yawning they are likely to be feeling uncertain or agitated.
  • Apart from yawning they blink and lick their nose (or even just the air) and look away at times.

Two dogs play fighting, as in this photo, can look very similar to actual fighting

They Turn their Head Away

  • A slightly more stressed dog will not only blink or avert their gaze but they will physically turn their head from yourself or whatever is bothering them.
  • They will also no longer interact with you as much so maybe quieter and won’t want to play.
  • Some dogs may shake slightly but not all. That depends whether the situation is scary or whether someone is winding them up
    • For instance, a child pulling at their ears won’t usually cause them to shake but a trip to the vets may do.

Sit Down and Pawing and/ or Turning Away

  • Your dog turns their head away but whatever is stressing them out is still there.
  • They move on to something less subtle but it may be misunderstood.
  • They now really want you to know they are stressed and turn their whole body away and try not to interact with you. Most people will recognise this act as being stressed but not all.
  • The dog may also now be sitting down instead of standing or pawing at the floor/wall/the air.
    • People may get mixed messages from this compared to turning away.
    • Many people may think their dog is just behaving really well when sat and their pawing is “cute”.
    • The vast majority of people will not recognise this as stress but the dog is exposing some of its belly; showing you that they are not comfortable with the situation but that you’re in charge.

They Start to Walk Away

  • Perhaps you’ve not noticed your dog’s signs or you’ve misunderstood them.
  • Your dog is unable to get out of a situation.
  • They want you to understand what they are saying as soon as possible and to get out of this situation.
  • Instead of just looking away, they walk away from whatever is bothering them. This may not necessarily look like a frightened walk or run, but may just be a simple stroll across the room; eg. walking away from a child who has been playing with them.
  • They may still show earlier behaviours such as nose licking, blinking or yawning.

They Put their Ears Back or Creep Away

  • Dog’s ears are exposed on their heads so are vulnerable to getting bitten and damaged.
    • When aggressive, scared, upset or stressed they hold their ears back towards the heads/ necks so they’re not as exposed and are less likely to be damaged.
  • When a dog is stressed they may also want to make themselves as small as possible and move slower and low to the ground so they are less noticeable.
    • Dogs creep away from whatever is bothering them rather than walking away.
  • If the whole situation is causing stress they may just slowly creep around the area rather than to one set place. commonly, or creep and lay down.

They Tuck Their Tails Under Them

  • The tail is also vulnerable to attack and being damaged.
  • When stressed, scared or upset, dogs tuck their tails under their bodies to protect them.
  • The tail is a huge part of communication as a major part of doggy body language is the movements and position of the tail.
    • Most dog owners can identify this as their dog being upset.

The Dog Lies Down on it’s Back Holding One Leg in the Air

  • It may seem quite counterintuitive, but stressed dogs often lay on their backs with one leg up in the air.
    • This stops them being able to get away and exposes their very sensitive structures leaving them more vulnerable to attack so seems the opposite of what you’d expect.
    • Some dogs may also wee themselves at this point.
  • The dog is now screaming to tell someone they will do whatever is wanted of them, they just don’t want to be hurt.
  • Some people still misinterpret this sign, again thinking the dog is being cute or even find it funny.
  • When your dog is like this you need to get them away straight away; they really are unhappy and need to be elsewhere and to have time to themselves.
    • If you really cannot get away from that area (eg if your dog is injured or at the vets), place a muzzle on your dog before it’s too late. Try to give them a break and some space to hopefully calm down and diffuse the situation.
    • Though it isn’t nice seeing a muzzle on your dog; if your dog bites sometimes it can have devastating consequences.
    • A muzzle, at times, can be the difference between life and death for your dog if they do bite.

      A stitched up dog bite wound

Your Dog Becomes Tense and Stiff and Stares at Whatever is Bothering Them

  • Your dog may shake slightly or quiver
  • Their tail may have become upright again but, in most cases, will not wag. It will be stiff like the rest of their body.
  • Your dog will likely to be staring at whatever is stressing him out.
    • Their eyes will usually be wide open, they may not blink at all and you may be able to see the whites of their eyes.
    • Dogs don’t tend to look away when they are this stressed/ anxious/ aggressive.


  • The first sign many people pick up on.
  • Your dog is very upset and agitated and is very close to biting someone.
  • Your dog’s jowls will be up and you’ll be able to see their teeth.
  • They’re still likely to be stood straight and stiff and staring.


  • Their heckles may be raised too.
  • Your dog has now become too aroused, their stress levels are too high.
  • You won’t be able to calm them down unless you completely take them away from the situation and even that may not work.
    • They’re past the point of no return.
  • They see no other solution than to snap at whatever is stressing them out and, at this point, it is often too late to muzzle them.
    • They will likely to be trying to bite you. Forcing a muzzle on them is likely to cause them even more stress.
    • You could, however, try using a tape muzzle.


  • In most cases, your dog has have been telling you for some time how stressed they are but you’ve not realised.
  • The only way they feel able to leave the situation is to bite; they have tried everything else they can think of.
  • This is the ultimate sacrifice in a misinterpretation of body language.

There are many reasons for biting. Even the most kind-natured, considerate dog can bite when stressed. This can be either when something unexpected happens or, when in pain.


The best thing you can do to avoid being bitten or your dog becoming aggressive is to recognise these early signs. Your dog is literally screaming at you but the message is being lost in translation.

Sadly, many of the early signs are subtle and different to our own body language that people don’t recognise them.  Want to learn more about your dog’s behaviour; check out the rest of the site, our courses or contact us.