Picture this: A stranger walks up to you, stares directly into your eyes without blinking, and pats you on the head, all the while cooing sweetly that you are adorable. How would you react? Would you shy away from her patting hand? Politely ask her to stop? Punch her in the face? Being greeted by a stranger in that fashion is just weird.

Now, think about how you greet strange dogs. Do you say hello in the same fashion? If you do, you may now realize how many dogs back away or send a warning signal. Read on to learn the hallmarks of a happy hound, a nervous Nellie, or a provoked pooch.

Signs of a happy dog

Most people are adept at picking up on happy dog signals. But, picking up on the relaxed body language of an unfamiliar dog rather than your pet is likely more difficult. A happy hound ready for friendly interaction will send these signals:

  • A loose, wiggly body
  • Soft eyes
  • Relaxed ears
  • A soft or open mouth, usually with a lolling tongue
  • Fast, excited tail wags, either back and forth, or around in a circle
  • Play bow

Signs of a nervous dog

A stressed or nervous dog may be more difficult to read, but you can prevent being bitten by learning to interpret the indicators that she is stressed. It is rare for dogs to give no warning before biting. Dogs usually provide ample clues before they feel pushed too far and lash out. Know how to de-escalate these situations by recognizing these signs of a stressed dog:

  • Tense body posture
  • Closed mouth
  • Pinned ears, either flat or back
  • Whale eye (i.e., showcasing the whites of the eye)
  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Freezing
  • Low and slow tail wags, if the tail is untucked

Appeasement signals

Nervous dogs hoping to negate harmful intentions from another dog or person use calming or appeasement signals to indicate they are not a threat. A dog that demonstrates these behaviors is saying, “Please leave me alone. You’re scaring me, and I mean you no harm.” Be prepared to prevent a scary situation from escalating if a dog displays these signs:

  • Lip licking
  • Sniffing
  • Sneezing
  • Raising a paw
  • Looking away
  • Head bobbing
  • Low tail, usually tucked between the legs
  • Stomach exposure
  • Curved, lowered body

Signs of an aggressive or defensive dog

If a nervous dog’s appeasement signals don’t de-escalate the situation, she may feel pushed too far and defend herself. If defensive behaviors don’t defuse the stressors, she may feel forced to turn aggressive and lash out.

Quickly and calmly leave the situation without making eye contact or engaging the dog if you see or hear any of these signals:

  • Tense, stiff body
  • Bared teeth
  • Raised hackles
  • Growling
  • Hard eyes with dilated or pinpoint pupils
  • Stiff tail raised aggressively or lowered defensively
  • Forward-leaning body position
  • Snapping at air, or prepared to nip or bite

How to properly greet a dog

Always ask the owner’s permission before attempting to befriend a dog. Whether the animal is a service or therapy dog, working dog, or pet, she is not yours. Just because you love all dogs does not mean that all dogs love you.

Don’t approach the dog. Let the dog make the first move. If she is not interested in interacting, don’t push her.

Don’t make eye contact. Direct eye contact is a sign of aggression in the animal world. Look at your prospective furry friend from your peripheral vision and avoid locking eyes.

Don’t face the dog directly. Stand off to the side or turn completely around and face the opposite direction if the dog is extremely nervous. Avoid standing directly in front of a dog.

Don’t lean over the dog. Leaning over a dog, especially a small breed, is viewed as  threatening. Instead, crouch down next to the dog’s side.

Don’t pat the top of a dog’s head. Most dogs do not enjoy being patted on the head, even though that seems hardwired into human behavior. Gently scratch her chest or shoulder instead.

Armed with this knowledge, you may be tempted to form friendships with every dog you meet. Remember, always respect the wishes of the owner and the dog, and be aware of canine body language and warning signals.

Looking for some help unraveling your dog’s behavior? Can’t pick up on those canine cues? Give us a call—we’d love to talk doggy with you!