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Dog Bite Prevention Week 2018: Dog Body Language

This week is dog bite prevention week!  In this post I’d like to focus on one of the foundations of preventing dog bites: Learning dog body language.

Normal dogs do not like to bite or fight and use a system of non-verbal cues both to signal their discomfort with a situation and to defuse tension. In return, other normal dogs recognize these signals and respond appropriately. Many dog bites result from humans not recognizing these cues and pushing a scared or uncomfortable dog past its limits.

Here are pictures of my dogs Aspen and Maisy in situations where they are very uncomfortable.

When this picture was taken, Aspen had only lived with me a very short time and didn’t know all the house rules yet; he was unsure how I would react to him being on the couch and his body language reflects his uneasiness. His overall body posture is tense, tight, and crouched. In particular, his eyes are tight (“hard”) with furrowed eyebrows and forehead. His mouth is closed and his lips tight, almost pursed.


Here, my dogs were playing in the backyard and Maisy was getting a little overwhelmed and needed to take a break. She is leaning her weight back into a crouching position. Her lips are tight and tense, and her eyes are wide (“whale eye”). Her ears are pinned back tightly and tail tense. She is telling Aspen (just visible to the left) to back off (which he did).


In contrast, here are pictures of Aspen and Maisy when they are relaxed.


Look at the difference in Aspen’s face: His eyes are relaxed (“soft”) without the tight furrowing of his forehead and brows. His mouth is open and his lips are very relaxed. His posture is loose and his ears look floppy.


Similarly, Maisy is clearly more relaxed in this picture. Her weight is neutrally distributed.  Her ears, face, and lips are loose and her eyes look normal. Her tail is up but slightly curved/relaxed.

Keep in mind that uncomfortable dogs may or may not growl, and they may be wagging their tail. 


In general, “loose” or “floppy” dogs are comfortable and “tight” or “stiff” dogs are uncomfortable: Scared, anxious, nor aggressive. Never pet a strange dog without asking the owner’s permission, and do not approach uncomfortable dogs.



-Karen Christopherson DVM