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Canine Communication and Social Behavior

This article highlights the importance of dog training and behavior professionals being fluent in reading canine communications so they can understand a dog’s emotional state at any given moment in any given context, as well as be able to educate owners when a dog is experiencing a negative emotional state, such as fear, stress, or anxiety.

Dogs often feel stressed or anxious in certain situations and will give signs to indicate their discomfort. In such cases, there is a need for awareness and, if appropriate, intervention to prevent pushing a dog to the point where he feels compelled to bite to make the discomfort stop or go away.

The goal in such situations is for the dog to attain a positive emotional state (i.e. happy) and not a negative emotional state (i.e. stressed or anxious).

Signs of Canine Stress or Anxiety

Here are just two examples of the more subtle or commonly misinterpreted signs a dog may give when feeling stressed or anxious:

  • One Paw Raised: This may look “cute,” but the dog who raises his paw is not happy and does not want to be petted or bothered. A raised paw is a sign that the dog is worried.
  • Half-Moon Eye: Also known as whale eye, this is when the whites of the dog’s eyes are visible. This is a common expression in dogs that are being hugged, when children are playing too roughly with him, or are too noisy or close to him. If the half-moon eye is seen when approaching or interacting with a dog, it is time back off as he wants to be left alone.

A dog may also vocalize stress, fear or anxiety in the form of a whine, growl or bark, a tongue flick, looking away, yawning, or by licking his lips.

It is imperative that a dog is not punished for showing he wants to be left alone, by growling, leaving the area, or demonstrating any of the more subtle signs highlighted above in order to avoid the risk of suppressing his warning system.

It is always a good thing that a dog shows when he is anxious or uncomfortable and gives a person the chance to change the situation, rather than put him in a position where he feels there is no other option but to bite to put an end to the uncomfortable situation once and for all.

States Miller (2005): “Most dogs don’t want to bite or fight. The behaviors that signal pending aggression are intended first and foremost to warn away a threat. The dog who doesn’t want to bite or fight tries his hardest to make you go away.”

Other signs of anxiety, stress and/or fear include:

  • Tail between the legs.
  • Tail low and only the end is wagging.
  • Tail between the legs and wagging.
  • Tail down or straight for curly-tailed dogs (husky, malamute, pug, chow, spits-type dogs etc.)
  • Ears sideways for an erect-eared dog.
  • Ears back and very rapid panting.
  • The dog goes into another room away from the person.
  • The dog goes into another room away from the person and urinates or defecates.

Masson et al. (2018) note that a number of behaviors such as these, “associated with a negative emotional state,” have been reported as an effect of e-collar use, including “lowered body postures (Beerda et al., 1998; Schilder and van der Borg, 2007; Salgirli et al., 2012) as well as avoidance, paw lifting, tongue flicking, yawning, panting, behavioral inhibition, or reduced exploration (DEFRA AW1402, 2013).”

Masson et al. (2018) state that these behaviors “can be seen in dogs trained with e-collars even under the most benign and controlled training conditions (Cooper et al., 2014).”

Canine Displacement Behaviors

Displacement behaviors are behaviors that a dog would normally do in another context. As such, it is important to look at the whole situation to determine whether the dog is feeling anxious. For example:

  • If the dog gets up, stretches, yawns and goes to his bed to rest or sleep, then that yawn was not a displacement behavior.
  • If children are hugging the dog or lying on him and he yawns or starts licking at them over and over, then these are displacement behaviors. The dog wants to get up and leave, or perhaps even to bite to put an end to the unpleasant situation, but instead displaces that urge with yawning or licking either the children or himself. In this context, the licking or yawning behavior tells us that the dog is uncomfortable, and it is time to intervene. (Note: Children should never lie on, sit on, or stand on any dog.)

Dogs in Conflict

As well as being typical behaviors that are displayed out of context, displacement behaviors also indicate conflict and anxiety, i.e. the dog wants to do something, but is suppressing the urge to do it. He may, then, displace the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn.

For example, an owner is getting ready to leave the house and the dog either wants to go too, does not want to be left alone, or does not want the person to leave. He is not sure what will happen next and may want to jump on the owner or run out the door, but instead he yawns.

The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog, and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict.

Some examples of canine displacement behaviors include:

  • Yawning when not tired.
  • Licking chops without the presence of food.
  • Sudden scratching when not itchy.
  • Sudden biting at paws or other body part.
  • Sudden sniffing the ground or other object.
  • All over body shake when not wet or dirty.

Canine Avoidance Behaviors

Sometimes dogs are more overt when they feel anxious and want to remove themselves from a situation. Examples include:

  • Getting up and leaving an uncomfortable situation.
  • Turning the head away.
  • Hiding behind a person or object.
  • Barking and retreating.
  • Rolling over on the back in a submissive way.

Dogs should not be forced to stay in any situation where they feel anxious. All dogs should have a safe place, such as a crate or mat, or even a separate room, where they can go when they want to be left alone. All family members and guests should be taught not to bother the dog when he is in his safe place.

Canine Calming Signals

Rugaas (2013) talks of approximately 30 canine calming signals used by dogs to reduce stress. These include many of the behaviors outlined above and below.

Rugaas (2013) explains thus: “For species who live in packs it’s important to be able to communicate with its own kind. Both in order to cooperate when they hunt, to bring up their offspring, and perhaps most importantly: to live in peace with each other. Conflicts are dangerous – they cause physical injuries and a weakened pack, which is something that no pack can afford – it will cause them to [become] extinct.”

Canine Cutoff Behaviors

Cutoff behaviors are designed to end social contact. If, when greeting a dog, a person does not recognize that he is scared or stressed, or they choose to ignore his signals and push forward with their approach, they are unfairly pushing him into a situation where he may feel he is only left with one option – to bite.

Thus, the onus is on owners and professionals to understand and respond to a dog’s communication signals so he does not reach that point.

Dog’sTail Carriage

One of the biggest misconceptions about canine body language is that a dog wagging his tail is a happy dog. A dog’s tail can indeed indicate that he feels happy and relaxed. When looked at in isolation, however, the tail is one of least reliable indicators of how a dog is feeling.

When looking at the topography of a dog’s body and his communication signals, one must look at the entire package, i.e. all of the body parts. A wagging tail does not always mean that a dog wants to be friends and is safe to approach.

Dogs Meeting and Greeting

When meeting and greeting a dog, it is important to have a relaxed posture. The person should allow the dog to approach them (only if/when the dog wants to) and turn slightly to the side, as this is less threatening than standing in a full-frontal position, leaning over the dog and/or staring directly at him. The person can then talk gently to the dog without making eye contact, which the dog may perceive to be threatening.

Dogs should not be approached head on or in a straight line as this may be viewed as hostile or threatening. In general, when they have the option, dogs will approach each other indirectly, meandering, or walking “in curves” (Rugaas, 2013).

When meeting a new dog who is happy to proceed, it helps to crouch down and keep one’s hands by one’s side without making any sudden movements. When it is determined the dog is not showing any signs of stress or fear and his body language is relaxed and happy, then the person can allow the dog to sniff their hand.

If he does so and continues to encourage the contact, they can then slowly move their hand to the side of his body, just below the neck, and stroke him gently across his chest and side.

If at any time the dog shows passive appeasement signals (i.e. signs of unease or fear) such as those described above, the person should slowly stop and/or retreat, give the dog space and allow him to approach them on his terms and at his preferred timing.

If he chooses not to, then the person must respect that, accept that he is not ready to interact at that moment and is saying “no.”

Conflicted Dogs

A dog in conflict will want to approach but at the same time may be too scared or unsure of the outcome. His body language will vacillate between displays of distance decreasing behaviors and distance increasing behaviors.

“Some dogs feel two things at the same time. It is not uncommon, especially for herding breeds, to exhibit both distance-increasing and distance-decreasing behaviors at the same time. These dogs will approach, lick and then retreat. Conflicted body language must be interpreted as a ‘no.’” (Steinker, 2015).

Interacting with a dog that is conflicted can be risky. If one makes a wrong move and the dog cannot avoid the approach, then he may become aggressive. This can happen very quickly and is often the case with a “fear biter.”

People may think that a bite happened “out of nowhere,” but this is rarely the case. It is more likely to be the case that the dog showed initial signs of distress that were either unseen, unacknowledged, or ignored: “As a consequence, a so-called ‘unpredictable’ aggressive response, without any obvious preamble, may occur in any context which predicts inescapable threat to the dog, when in reality it was entirely predictable.” Shepherd (2009, p.13-16).

Aggressive Behavior

Cullinan, Blackwell and Casey (2004) report that the highest instances of aggressive behavior were found in “dogs whose owners used a combination of positive reinforcement and positive punishment.”

According to Ha and Campion (2019), using both positive reinforcement and positive punishment is “one of the worst things you can do to your dog…Some of the most confused dogs, showing the strangest behaviors or responses to their environment, have turned out to be those that were facing significant levels of training: punishment or aversive based training as well as positive reinforcement training.”

Cullinan, Blackwell and Casey (2004) hypothesize that “aggressive responses in dogs can develop as a result of ‘conflict,’ or anxiety about an uncertain response to their behaviors from inconsistent owners.”

Ha and Campion (2019) speak of “conflicting [neural] pathways for the learning involved with each method” and also reference the risk of using both methods in tandem as simply teaching the dog that their owner (or, indeed, trainer) is “inconsistent” and “unpredictable.”

Dogs Reacting to Threats

In her Canine Ladder of Aggression, Shepherd (2004) details how a dog reacts to stress or threats and how his emotional state can escalate if early warnings (ranked here from mild to severe) are not heeded:

  • Yawning, blinking, nose licking.
  • Turning head away.
  • Turning body away, sitting, pawing.
  • Walking away.
  • Creeping, ears back.
  • Standing crouched, tail tucked under.
  • Lying down, leg up.
  • Stiffening up, stare.

A dog may not display every signal, and signals displayed by an individual dog at different times and in different contexts may vary.

Depending on the situation, dogs may progress up the ladder within mere seconds, which does not necessarily give enough time for the untrained eye to acknowledge them or react appropriately, if, indeed, the signals are observed and understood in the first place.

“It is most important to realize that these gestures are simply a context and response-dependent sequence which will culminate in threatened or overt aggression, only if all else fails.” (Shepherd, 2009, p.13-16).

It is essential that anyone working with dogs in any capacity is schooled in canine communication, body language, and facial expression, and is able to understand the signals given by the dogs in their care at any time so they can manage the environment accordingly (a.k.a. antecedent control) to ensure a dog never feels the need to escalate up the ladder to the more severe warning signals. This knowledge must also be passed on to their dog owner clients, both adults and children.

Dogs Biting as a Last Resort

Many dogs who bite, bite out of fear. Movement toward them, or even the mere presence of a person may be scary to them, and they bite as a last resort to encourage the person to leave because they feel that, in that moment, they have no other option.

A dog in this state is highly emotionally aroused and virtually incapable of rational thought. In cases of extreme emotional arousal where the emotional brain inhibits the rational brain, an animal will go into fight or flight mode, meaning it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to select an appropriate behavior or to learn productively.

Because they know this, “positive trainers focus on building relationships with pets by using positive reinforcement to train new skills, and to build new behaviors as replacements for problematic ones.” (Tudge & Nilson, 2019).

When a dog is experiencing fear, it is advisable to avoid sudden movements, and to allow him an escape route. It is essential that owners and professionals – and, indeed, anyone wishing to interact with a dog – do not force a meet and greet by moving toward the dog, have the dog’s handler manipulate the dog into moving toward them, or try to touch the dog in any way.

Mood State

According to current scientific literature, “canine aggression and other behavior problems are not a result of dominant behavior or lack of the owner’s ‘alpha’ status, but rather a result of fear (self-defense) or underlying anxiety problems.” (Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009).

It is imperative that dog training and behavior professionals understand this so they can work with the owners to change a dog’s current emotional state and overall mood state, as well as elevate confidence levels, so he no longer feels motivated to react aggressively in specific contexts to specific stimuli “because many behavior problems are associated with increased anxiety levels.” (Blackwell, Bolster, Richards, Loftus & Casey, 2012).

Punitive and outdated “training” techniques “such as forcing a dog down by the collar or by pushing on its neck and back—as, for example, in the ‘dominance down’—are associated with increased physiological stress (Beerda et al., 1998).

Frightened animals are often self-defensively aggressive; it would not be unexpected, then, that dogs respond aggressively to such provocative handling.” (Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009).

Canine Warnings

As we have explained, dogs will typically give plenty of warning if they are uncomfortable with something another dog or a person is doing, or with a certain situation.

Warning signs may include a direct stare, a rigid face or body, a growl, a curled lip (this can be minimal and hard to spot), or “whale eye” (i.e. flashing the whites of the eyes, also known as half-moon eye). The dog’s ears may be flat against his head and he may have a closed, tense mouth.

When any of these signals are seen, the person should stop what they are doing immediately, back away and/or allow the dog to slowly back away.

Dogs can make signals extremely quickly, within nanoseconds, and because of this it is not always easy to spot them.

States Shepherd (2009, p.13-16): “In all dogs, inappropriate social responses to appeasement behaviour will result in its devaluing and the necessity, from a dog’s perspective, to move up the ladder [of aggression]. Aggression is therefore created in any situation where appeasement behavior is chronically misunderstood and not effective in obtaining the socially expected outcome. Dogs may progress to overt aggression within seconds during a single episode if the perceived threat occurs quickly and at close quarters or learn to dispense with lower rungs on the ladder over time, if repeated efforts to appease are misunderstood and responded to inappropriately.”

It is also important to note that using aversive stimuli to reduce distance increasing behaviors “may suppress signals that warn of a more serious, and potentially imminent behavior, such as biting. Without ritualized aggression behaviors, people and other pets will receive no warning before the pet subjected to punishment feels forced to resort to biting.” (Tudge & Nilson, 2017).

Dog-Human Interaction

Ha and Campion (2019, p.48) propose the ethogram as “one of the most reliable and effective ways to get a glimpse into another species’ possible emotional states, thoughts, perspective and actions.”

The ethogram “catalogues an animal’s behavior, comprising the placement, configuration, and movements of body parts and behavioral contexts, including locomotion and travel. The behaviors included in an ethogram are typically defined as objective and mutually exclusive, thus making them individually recognizable to any observer.”

It is likely that dogs were the “first animals to be domesticated and as such have shared a common environment with humans for over ten thousand years.” (Udell & Wynne, 2008).

They are social animals whose personalities range from being social butterflies to shy wallflowers. They are very clear with their intentions and emotions and respond accordingly to those of humans. Indeed, human body language and approach speak much louder than words and dogs are expert readers of human body language and nonverbal communication.

Dogs Living with Humans

Domestic dogs kept as pets today remain “dependent on humans for primary reinforcers, such as food, water, access to mates, and even touch, throughout their lifetimes. Consequently, their access to reinforcers is contingent upon appropriate behavioral responses within the human social environment dependence and sensitivity to human contingencies are shaped quickly in domestic dogs in human households.” (Udell & Wynne, 2008).

Udell and Wynne (2008) propose that “[o]ne of the most interesting behavioral characteristics of the modern domestic dog is its predisposition to attend and respond to human social gestures and cues.”

They cite examples of common human gestures, such as a signal to stop, pointing, nodding, reaching toward something, or glancing between an object and another individual.

“The degree to which individual dogs attend to human social cues and their tendency to rapidly integrate new behaviors into their repertoire based on the consequences that follow from them, says something about both their development and their environment. For dogs to provide adaptive responses to human gestures requires not only attentiveness and close proximity to human action, indicative of some sort of social attachment to humans, but also sensitivity to context within a human environment.” (Udell & Wynne, 2008).

Canine Social Behaviors

Dogs can thus display social behaviors “adjusted to the living constraints of the human environment. For example, research has shown that dogs can learn to communicate with humans, whether incidentally or explicitly.” (Deldalle & Gaunet, 2014).

Reid (2009), giving the example of locating hidden food, points out that dogs are “more skillful than a host of other species at tasks which require they respond to human communicative gestures.”

Further, dogs “produce apparent referential and attention-getting signals to let humans know which object or action they desire from their owner (Gaunet, 2010; Gaunet & Deputte, 2011).” (Deldalle & Gaunet, 2014).

Dogs have also “shown to be successful at following human cues to solve the object choice task” (Elgier et al., 2009), and “tend to look at the human face in situations of conflict and uncertainty.” (Barrera, Mustaca & Bentosela, 2011).

Data collected in a study by Siniscalchi, d’Ingeo and Quaranta (2018) found that “dogs displayed a higher behavioral and cardiac activity in response to human face pictures expressing clear arousal emotional states,” leading the authors to suggest that dogs are “sensitive to emotional cues conveyed by human face.”

Behavior Myopia

According to Steinker and Anderson (2014), the fundamental goal of any behavior change program should be to “improve the dog’s and owner’s emotional states, both during and after the process.”

They highlight the importance of professionals being able to read dogs’ communication signals, noting that it can be “particularly catastrophic when covert or subtle behaviors are ignored as, arguably, they are the most important information a behavior consultant has. But we are all prone to focusing on what is most obvious.

“For example, if a dog is engaging in overt behaviors such as barking and lunging, it can overshadow nuance and make us miss the more subtle behaviors. When this occurs however, we overlook our obligation to improve the animal’s quality of life – even though we might be presenting a potentially effective behavior modification program.” (Steinker & Anderson, 2014).

Steinker and Anderson (2014) refer to this as “behavior myopia” of which the “most damaging aspect…is the complete disregard for [the dog’s] emotional state.”

They cite disregard or ignorance of canine body language as a key cause of behavior myopia: “In order to interpret subtle behaviors, dog trainers need to understand canine body language. Some dogs are just hard to read, no matter how experienced the trainer.

“Certain breeds are stoic and simply ‘quiet’ in their nonverbal communication. Sometimes a dog’s behavior can be globally suppressed from the use of punishment and/or negative reinforcement. Such dogs can be particularly dangerous and difficult to work with.” (Steinker & Anderson, 2014).

Emotional State

Another cause of behavior myopia cited by Steinker and Anderson (2014) is a lack of consideration of a dog’s emotions and their subtle indicators: “If a dog is barking and lunging at a stimulus then he is usually fearful or angry. If the behavior modification protocol does not address the dog’s emotional state then it is flawed…Often, trainers are only aware of obvious, reactive behaviors and unaware of the small changes that occur as a stimulus becomes gradually more aversive to the animal.”

They state that dog trainers have an “ethical obligation” to do everything they can to improve the quality of life for both the dog and owner, and that having completed a behavior modification program, “dogs should feel safer and happier. Similarly, the process should create dogs who are more resilient because of the improved baseline regarding joy and happiness – which also leads to a more desirable result for the owner. (Steinker & Anderson, 2014).

Sensory Perspective

Rugaas (2013) highlights the fact that dogs live in a “world of sensory input: visual, olfactory [and] auditory perceptions,” leading Ha and Campion (2019) to conclude that the “key to a successful relationship with our dogs is fluency in both canine communication signs and in their unique sensory perspectives.”

Dogs use their communication systems towards humans, “simply because it´s the language they know and think everyone understands.” (Rugaas, 2013). It is when humans fail to see the signals, to understand or acknowledge them, or worse still, punish the dog, that problems can start to occur.


Susan Nilson BA (Hons) DipCABT PCBC-A is editor of BARKS from the Guild and a Reuters-trained journalist with over 10 years’ experience in print journalism in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. She also studied feline behavior at the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) in the United Kingdom and completed her diploma in companion animal behavior and training with COAPE in 2005. She is also an accredited professional canine behavior consultant through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. In 2018, she co-authored Pet Training and Behavior Consulting: A Model for Raising the Bar to Protect Professionals, Pets and Their People.

Niki Tudge MBA PCBC-A CABC CDBC is the founder and president of the Pet Professional Guild, DogNostics Education and The DogSmith. She has substantial leadership experience in business management and administration, particularly in the nonprofit sector, which encompasses her role as the president of Doggone Safe, a nonprofit educational organization. She has published numerous articles, which have been featured in publications such as the New York Times. She has also authored five books; her most recent project, Pet Training and Behavior Consulting: A Model for Raising the bar to Protect Professionals, Pets and Their People, which she co-authored, was published in 2019. Before following her passion into small business and nonprofit management, she enjoyed a distinguished career in the hospitality industry, holding executive positions all over the world. Along with her business degrees from Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., her professional credentials include ISSA certified fitness trainer and ISSA certified transformation specialist coach. She is also Six Sigma Black Belt certified, specializing in data analysis and process improvement and is also an International Training Board (HCITB) certified people trainer at levels TS1, TS2 & TS3, and a certified facilitator and project manager. In addition, she was recognized for her outstanding contribution to the business community and honored with a Fortune 500 Company Leadership Award for her accomplishments.

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