Traveling Dog Lady: A to Z Challenge, Day 5: E is for Excitement vs. Aggression

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A to Z Challenge, Day 5: E is for Excitement vs. Aggression

How can you tell the difference between a dog exhibiting excitement vs. a dog exhibiting aggression?

Learn how to read canine body language.  If you're a "dog person", like me, you know the difference.
I can tell when a dog, even a strange one I've never seen before, is excited, or aggressive.  While aggressive dogs do exist, I'm not saying that they don't... aggression is rare.  A dog would rather not be mean.  It's in canine's general nature to be accommodating and friendly.  What the average non-dog-person person views as possible aggression is usually really excitement.

Things to consider:

Dogs bark.  A barking dog does NOT mean the dog is aggressive.  Excited and friendly dogs bark, a lot.  Aggressive dogs bark, too.  Barking is not the only, nor is it a good, indicator of whether or not a dog is aggressive or just excited.

A quiet dog.  This is not always a good thing.  In fact, I'd be more wary of an unfamiliar quiet dog, especially if it's exhibiting any of the other body languages I'm about to describe.  A quiet dog lying down in the corner is probably just well trained... that's different.  I'm talking about a quiet dog at the front door of the house or in the driveway when an unfamiliar human approaches.  Quietness can be guarding behavior -- the dog could be assessing the situation.  If you're not a dog person, you'd most likely be happy to be greeted by a not-barking dog... not so fast!  I'd much rather be greeted by a barker, myself.  Barking = normal behavior = excitement.

Wagging tail.  Conversely, a wagging tail does not always mean a dog is "happy".  Happiness is a human description.  Dogs aren't really "happy".  I mean, they are, but they aren't.  What a human sees as "happiness" is really "excitement".  A wagging tail means many, many things.  Just because a dog is wagging its tail does NOT mean everything is ok.  A lot of people get this wrong.  Look at the rest of the body to get a better read.

Other tail signals.  An upright, but not wagging, tail is a sign that the dog is on alert, and may or may not be happy to see you.  You might see him/her ease up after a moment, and start wagging.  This is probably good, as long as the "easing up" behavior is definitely observed.  If the dog is tense, barking repeatedly, with a tail wagging, beware.   A tucked tail is not good.  It means the dog is really scared. This doesn't mean it will bite you... although it could!  But it also might pee on the floor, or on your feet!

Eyes.  If the eyes are big and "happy-looking" things are a.o.k.  If the eyes are slitted, things may NOT be ok.  However, I remember my dog Timba always slitted her eyes, and she was the most mild-mannered dog on the planet.  I think she just liked to have slitty eyes!  If you see the WHITES of a dog's eyes, that means the dog is nervous, frightened, wary, unsure or scared.  Sometimes this is called "Whale Eye".  Here's a picture of Whale Eye.  If a dog has whale eye, give it some space.  A little footnote here:  I see a lot of pictures on social media of dogs with babies -- "aw, how cute", right?  No! A lot of times, I notice that the dog in such a photo has "whale eye".  Not good.

Ears.  This is my "go to" in terms of doggie body language -- I look at the ears first every time I meet a new dog.  Example:  A friend just brought his new dog over to my house yesterday, so I could meet the dog and my boys could play with the dog.  The first thing I looked at were Red's ears, then I looked at his tail, then mouth, then his eyes.  If ears are up/forward and the dog's mouth is relaxed (but not panting heavily) this is great.  If ears are up or forward and teeth are bared, mouth is closed, or dog is panting heavily -- this isn't as good.  If ears are pinned back against the head, this is a scared, nervous, unsure or wary animal.  Give it some space.

Here are my two dogs, Cooper (left) and Charlie Brown (right) meeting Red (middle) for the first time.  Notice everyone's ears are "forward" and mouths are closed but relaxed.  You can't get a good read on tails because this is a still photo.  Red's ears are a little bit "back" because he's being checked out by two large dogs.  Within moments, the three were running around and playing like old friends.

Mouth.  A relaxed "smiling" mouth with soft panting is actually a good thing.  It means the dog is relaxed.  Down in the Caribbean there are what we call "smiling" dogs.  They expose their teeth repeatedly while approaching humans, giving the appearance that they are smiling or talking.  But their mouths are relaxed, head is low and their tails wag. There is aggressive teeth baring -- like a dog will flip up its upper lip and even growl; and there's also non-aggressive teeth exposing which just looks like a "smile".  If the teeth-exposing activity is aggressive, the tail would possibly be wagging, but it may be still or tucked; head may or may not be low.  A closed mouth is ok, as long as it's relaxed (see above photo).

Head.  "Head low" is what to look for in an approachable dog, but make sure the lowered head is accompanied by happily-wagging tail, relaxed mouth, ears normal (forward and relaxed, I mean), happy-looking eyes.  If head is low, ears are back, teeth are bared and tail is tucked... well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist, right?!

Some tips:

Never approach an unfamiliar dog.  If you encounter an unknown, loose dog, turn your body to the side and do NOT make eye contact.  Do not speak.  "No touch, no talk, no eye contact."  is the rule when you see an unfamiliar dog!  This is an especially good rule to teach children (or adults who are afraid of, or do not like or understand dogs).  This is also a good rule if you're helping look for a lost dog, and you find it!

My personal favorite is "Let him smell you first".  If someone asks if they can pet my dog, I say "No, let him smell you first."  Dogs communicate by smell first, then sound, then sight.  Always let them smell you first.  Observe how they interact with other dogs -- it's all nose, nose, nose.  Once he's satisfied with all the messages he can pick up from smelling you, then he can be petted, but not on top of the head, please!

Here is an infographic I found online that displays some typical dog body language.  Special thanks to for publishing this infographic.

 Notice how "dominant", "excited" and "aggressive" graphics differ.  A dog can be friendly, but "dominant" (like our Charlie Brown who thinks he is the pack leader, until he gets with non-family members and then he completely backs down and becomes lower on the totem pole).

What's different about the two pictures?  In the "dominant" drawing, the dog's ears are forward, tail is up, mouth is relaxed, head is slightly tilted down almost, but not quite, into a "head low" position, legs are firmly planted on the ground.  In the "aggressive" graphic, the ears are pinned back against the head, tail is up (and maybe even wagging!), legs are in a crouched position and head is aimed up, nose first, which looks like a warning, mouth is open and NOT relaxed.  Let's look at the "excited" depiction:  the ears are forward, mouth is open but relaxed, tail happens to be down (but that's not always the case) and the legs are not firmly planted, but dog is in a crouched position, one paw is lifted and dog may actually be clawing at a person in order to get attention (not to hurt them, although this is almost always misunderstood), head is mid-level not tilted back ready for the bite, but not forward in a totally confident, relaxed stance either.

You can very easily see by these drawings that "excited" and "dominant" (which are not aggressive behaviors, by the way) can be misconstrued as just that.  The ones you want to be worried about are:  aggressive, anxious & nervous, and frightened.

I am not a veterinarian, medical professional, canine or feline professional or specialist.  I have owned and parented nine dogs and more than 40 cats in my lifetime. I write this blog based on my own experiences as a pet owner/pet parent.  Please consult a professional if you need help with a canine or feline medical or behavior problem.  Thank you.  


  1. Hi, thanks for that. i am a postie and come across dogs on a regular basis, and though after ten years I do feel more confident at reading doggy body language i found it very interesting.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. It took me a second to figure out what a postie was LOL!


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