How to Speak Dog—and Why Learning Dog Language Could Save Your Pet’s Life

Have you ever been at the dog park and seen two dogs get in a fight? Or heard of a dog that viciously attacked another dog “out of nowhere?” In reality, dogs give plenty of signs of fear or aggression before things escalate to a fight—signs that often go undetected or get overlooked.

Dogs obviously do not speak English but they do have their own communication cues that you as a pet parent are responsible for learning. Being in tune with your furry friend’s communication signals will help prevent problems and may even save your pet’s life—of the life of another pet your dog might attack.

You may know some classic cues, like raised hair on the back or baring teeth, but did you know hiding behind your legs is a problem, too?

“Knowing when your dog is fearful or agitated or even in pain are all important things to learn,” behavioral therapist and expert dog trainer Beverly Ulbrich says. “You want to teach your dog to be relaxed and comfortable so they don’t do harm to themselves or others when they are not feeling well— emotionally or physically.”

The major signals you should be on the lookout for are:

  • Tail tucking
  • Hiding
  • Posturing or humping
  • Dog-on-dog aggression
  • Resource guarding

If you see your dog exhibiting these behaviors, you should address it immediately—and most likely with professional training.

Tail Tucking and Hiding

Both tail tucking and hiding are signs of fear—and fear is not to be taken lightly.

“If a dog is tucking his tail and/or hiding behind you, benches, etc. to try to get away from other dogs, you need to get help from a professional to get him over his fears before he starts becoming aggressive to protect himself,” Ulbrich says.

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Yellow is tucking his tail here and looking a little spooked by something but not totally afraid since his ears are still forward. He’s alert and interested.

Ulbrich says fear usually turns to aggression around 18 months of age when a dog moves into adulthood.

“At some point [fear turns to aggression] because these emotions and reactions are very closely related— the fight or flight syndrome,” Ulbrich says. “Therefore, fearful dogs often end up biting in reaction to their emotion.”

Each dog will respond differently to training for getting over fear.

“It depends on their age,” Ulbrich says. “Puppies can be more easily pushed through it with a nudge or a cookie. Teaching and reinforcing curiousity over fear is an important part of raising a puppy. With older dogs, you might need some slower-paced reconditioning to get them to be comfortable with the stimulus that’s affecting them.”

Yellow has made leaps and bounds in getting over his fear but it’s important to remain vigilent so your dog doesn’t fall back into old habits.

Posturing Over or Humping Other Dogs

Posturing over or humping another dog are two signals we’ve seen overlooked or flat-out ignored at the dog park countless times.

Dogs sometimes try to assert dominance over other dogs. They can do this by simply stealing a bone or ball—or more often in public parks by humping or posturing.

Humping is not a sexual behavior. Many people wrongly assume a humping dog is in heat and simply laugh off this very dangerous behavior.

“It’s at best impolite and at worst an aggressive accost,” Ulbrich explains. “The dog being humped will feel scared or—more likely—angry or aggressive in response to the act. They can easily turn on the accosting dog, which starts a fight.”

Although there is no posturing here, this greeting could use some work. “These dogs are standing very tall and a bit stiff, so they would have to be monitored closely to see whether they relax into the sniff, or if they start reacting to each other,” Ulbrich observes. “It’s best if dogs come in more relaxed and a bit low.”

Posturing is when a dog puts his head over another dog’s neck or back and just stands there—or he might jump around a little. Usually he is very stiff, waiting to see how the other dog responds. If the other dog “submits,” then it’s typically fine. But if the other dog challenges by growling or snapping, it could quickly escalate to a fight.

It’s important to be on the lookout for these behaviors not just from other dogs but your dog, too! It’s your responsibility to train your dog these behaviors are not acceptable so he doesn’t hurt anyone.

“If your dog is posturing over other dogs or humping other dogs, you should stop him then and there before it escalates to a fight,” Ulbrich says. “If this is a pattern, seek professional help to teach your dog proper ways to interact.”

Dog-on-Dog Aggression

Are you afraid of coming into contact with other dogs on a walk for fear of what your dog may do? Avoiding other dogs, not allowing other dogs to sniff, and growling or snapping at other dogs are all unacceptable behaviors.

“Of course, if your dog has only snapped once in a year and it was at an obnoxious puppy, then you don’t have to worry,” Ulbrich says. “But any pattern of this kind of behavior needs to be addressed before it escalates.

The dog will not just ‘grow out of it.'”

There are also different stages to aggression. Beginning stages may include:

  • Stiff body
  • Hair rising on the scruff of the neck and back
  • Strange, stiff tail motion

Some of the more advanced signs of aggression include:

  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Baring teeth
  • Snapping
  • Biting

“If a dog is young, it might be avoidance—like looking away—or literally running away,” Ulbrich adds.

Also be aware of how you’re feeling. Dogs are adept at picking up on their owner’s emotions and this plays into their behavior, good or bad. If you tense up, your dog will tense up, too—and may even feel the need to protect you.

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Both dogs are being a little shy and avoidant here. Sundown’s head is slightly averted from the larger dog.
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The dogs warmed up to each other after we showed Sundown the proper way to greet this harmless dog. It’s hard to tell from a still photo but they were running and playing together for almost an hour.

“Naturally, we’re embarrassed if our dog barks or lunges at another dog,” Ulbrich says. “Our stomachs drop, we cross the street, we turn around, we walk our dog late at night when no one else is around. But when we cringe, we’re letting our dog know something is wrong. We set our dog on high-alert. Now he feels he has to protect his scared owner as well as himself.”

You may need advice from a professional on how to stay calm and in control when interacting with people and dogs.

Resource Guarding

A dog guarding food or bones is normal behavior in nature but it is not welcome for domesticated pets in our homes.

“Companion dogs should trust us to take dangerous things out of their mouths and listen to us when we ask them to get off furniture,” Ulbrich says. “We should be able to easily take food and toys away. Just as a child should not get mad at you for removing his dinner plate, your dog shouldn’t mind you taking his bowl.”

But all too often, people do not appropriately respond to the signs of resource guarding, especially in two-dog households. For instance, if two dogs fight over the food bowl, the owner starts feeding them separately. If they fight over rawhides, the owner takes rawhides away.

“You’re removing the obstacle and not fixing the problem,” Ulbrich says.

It’s important to address the problem as soon as possible before it escalates to aggression.

“Once a dog realizes that growling or snapping keeps people and other dogs from taking her prized possessions, it’s all downhill from there,” Ulbrich says. “People and other dogs back off, and the dog becomes more confident that it’s her role and duty to protect her stuff.”

The Bottom Line

Problem behaviors won’t just go away—they will get worse if not addressed. To keep your dog from starting fights—or putting him a position to defend himself against another dog—it’s important to learn his subtle communication cues. The most important thing is not to shrug off these behaviors as normal.

“It’s not always that owners don’t see the signs but they don’t think it’s a big deal,” Ulbrich says. “They think the dog doesn’t mean anything by the behavior and they don’t understand how much or how quickly it can escalate.”

*Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be a substitute for professional advice. Please seek out the help of a qualified, certified dog trainer if you feel your dog exhibits these behaviors.