Aggression or Non-Verbal Communication?

snarling dog may be trying to tell you something

If only our dogs could talk! Sometimes they're using the only tools they have - their behavior - but we don't understand what they're trying to say.

That was apparent to me as I watched some dogs at a dog park near my home. A woman was upset because her dog had snapped at another small dog.

From what I saw, this wasn't a truly aggressive dog. This was a frightened dog who was finally driven to an aggressive last-stand reaction.

There are signs we can watch for. Not all dogs will exhibit them and not all will be in this order, but these behaviors are a symptom that your dog is under some type of distress.

First stage warning signs

  • Blinking
  • Yawning
  • Lip or nose licking
  • Turning his head away

Second stage warning signs

Ignore the early warning signs and your dog will be driven to more assertive behavior.

  • Turning his body away
  • Walking away (especially from a human who's bothering him)

Third stage - if the other dog or human follows him

  • Standing crouched with his tail tucked under him
  • Lifting a leg
  • Lying down or standing very stiffly
  • Staring without blinking

Fourth stage - he feels his back is against the wall

  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Biting

See how far down biting is in the ways he tried to warn us? People claim that bites come without warning but in my experience, that's rarely the case.

The sad thing is that once a dog has learned that biting is the only reliable way to resolve his distress (the human or other dog didn't listen to his warnings), he is liable to bite as a first measure.

This is especially a problem when adult dogs are (in their minds) being harassed by puppies who haven't broken the dog code yet. The puppy could end up frightened of all dogs as a result.

Learn the signs that your dog is distressed. Step in and give him some quiet time alone until he calms down. Don't make him bite to get your attention.