Reading Dog Body Language: Anger and Aggressive Body Language Cues

Angry Dog Behavior

Aggressive Body Language CuesIn my last post, I covered the importance of understanding canine body language. I also profiled a few stress-related behavioral profiles. Today, I will be continuing this series on reading dog body language with a look at anger and aggression-related cues.

Anger and Aggressive Body Language Cues

Anger or aggression related body language cues are generally quite obvious and easy to understand. These are the cues that most people know to look out for because they mean danger.

Anger or aggression can be the result of many different circumstances, but if you see this behavior, you need to take action immediately to avoid escalating a situation.



I should note here that stalking is not always related to aggressive behavior, it is also seen in play (most often in young puppies) as well as in “normal” behavior when a dog has become used to catching their own prey through a feral lifestyle or when a dog has been trained to work this way (as in herding dogs). Stalking can, however, be an aggressive behavior, particularly when seen in the context of dogs that stalk other dogs.

Stalking Behavior in Dogs

Body Posture

  • Body held low to the ground in a crouched position
  • Shoulders tend to be pushed upward and the shoulder blades are quite prominent
  • Ears alert
  • A locked gaze


  • Slow and deliberate creeping movements
  • Often holding one front paw off the ground and standing still while crouching
  • A sharp burst of energy during the chase
  • Nipping or even biting once “prey” has been caught

Most Often Seen When…

  • This is a behavior most often seen in a modified form in herding dogs like border collies and Australian shepherds. If seen in another setting, however, the intent should be questioned and it should be assumed (until otherwise known) that this is a predatory or aggressive type behavior.

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • If this is your dog recall immediately. Make a note of this behavior and do NOT allow your dog off leash in the future until this behavior has been addressed. For some dog’s a high prey drive that results in continued stalking behavior means that they can never be trusted off leash outside a controlled area.
  • If this is someone else’s dog assume that the intent is aggressive and act accordingly using the tips I mentioned in my last post. NEVER turn your back, lock eyes with, run away from, or smile at a potentially aggressive dog. Slowly back up and if possible grab something that you can use to put space between you and the dog if needed.
  • Should the stalking behavior be targeted at your dog and you have a smaller dog, you may choose to pick up your dog to protect them from attack. Keep in mind, however, that by doing this, you may not deter the stalking dog, but there are few choices in such a situation. None of us want to stand there and watch our dog getting attacked. IF you do choose to pick up your dog, do so confidently and calmly. You want to avoid shouting, flailing, screaming, or anything else that gives the impression that you do not have control of the situation.

    Many times when larger dogs stalk smaller dogs it is the result of high prey drive with no healthy outlet and the small dog’s resemblance to a prey item. In this situation, picking up your smaller dog can interrupt this thought process because the small prey is no longer easily attainable.


Impending Aggression (Biting May Ensue if You Continue)

Dog Snarling

Body Posture

  • Lips pulled back, teeth exposed
  • The skin on the muzzle is pulled upward
  • Gaze locked
  • Fur on the back and back of the neck may or may not be raised
  • Tail wagging combined with the cues above is a sign of an unhappy dog


  • A low, deep growl is not uncommon
  • Licking the front teeth or sticking out the tongue as the teeth are bared
  • Snapping at the air
  • Standing their ground or slowly moving forward

Most Often Seen When…

  • Often seen when entering the territory of unfriendly dogs or in dogs with guarding or aggression related behavioral problems.

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • De-escalate. If this is your dog, you need to de-escalate the situation as soon as possible before it results in biting. Quickly assess what is causing this behavior and what you can do to change the outcome of the situation. This may mean shutting the door and putting that barrier between you and your dog, it may mean leaving your dog alone to finish their food (or other guarded item), or it may mean intervening in a way that breaks your dog’s thought process.

    In an incident with a family dog that showed this type of behavior, when the family member was unable to calmly “talk their dog around” a bucket of water broke the dog’s thought process enough to remove the stimulus from the situation.

    When de-escalating the situation ALWAYS use your common sense and be aware of the potential for warning behavior to escalate.

    Once you have addressed the immediate situation, it is important that you address a long term solution for this behavior to avoid it reoccurring.

  • If this is someone else’s dog calmly talk to the dog’s owner if they are present and ask them to maintain control of their dog while you back up. Follow the retreat process discussed in previous examples.


Angry Dog

Body Posture

  • Teeth bared, often gnashing
  • Lips pulled back to facilitate biting
  • Fur on the back and on the back of the neck raised
  • Stiff raised tail held away from the body (generally straight out or up and straight out)
  • Erect ears that are pushed forward (this contrasts defensive aggression where the ears are pinned back)
  • Locked gaze
  • Weight shifted to the front to facilitate forward motion


  • Lunging forward
  • Barking and growling

Most Often Seen When…

  • A dog has given warnings that they are aggravated with a situation (in the form of aggressive body language) but these warnings have not been heeded. The dog is now ready to act on their aggression.

    When a dog gets to this point of aggression there is generally two situations in play. Most frequently, a human is not heeding the dog’s body language and behavioral cues to “get out of their space”. The dog is now frustrated and does not know how else to convey to you that they want you OUT! Another potential factor in play when a dog shows this type of aggression is physical or psychological illness. Disease, pain, injury or repeated abuse can all result in a dog acting “unusually” or “illogically” in their escalation of aggressive behavior.

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • If this is your dog and this is something out of character for them, visit your vet immediately to check for any underlying causes of this aggressive behavior. (Our family once had a chocolate Lab who developed nasal cancer that quickly spread to his brain. The first sign of his illness was a rapid shift in his temperament and sudden signs of aggression.)
  • If this is something “normal” for your dog, make an appointment with a trainer NOW. This is a behavior that needs to be addressed for everyone’s safety. In the meantime, keep your dog leashed, away from other dogs or people, and use a muzzle when traveling with them.
  • If this is someone else’s dog or a loose dog…you know the drill, retreat. Once in a place of safety, call animal control to secure the dog and address the aggressive behavior.

More to Come

So far in this series,we have covered stress-related and now aggressive body language in dogs, tomorrow in the third installment of this series, we will take a look at positive body language! From ‘let’s play’ to ‘I’m so glad you’re here!’ you will learn what to look for in a happy dog!

Previous Reading Dog Body Language: Stress Related Cues
Next Reading Dog Body Language: Positive Dog Body Language and "Normal" Behavioral Cues

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