Signs That a Dog May Bite

Dog Body Language Gives Important Hints

We have to teach dogs to understand our language, and to help prevent dog bites, we should do our best to understand theirs. Dogs use body language – from facial expressions to posture – to communicate how they're feeling.

The dog bite signs below aren't intended to be a definitive guide, and are only an educational tool to give you some information on dog bite safety. Just because something is or is not mentioned here is not a guarantee that a dog will or won't bite. The descriptions below are generalizations, and keep in mind that each dog and situation is unique.

The Eyes and Gaze

  • Eyes are normal shaped: Dog is probably happy and relaxed
  • Eyes are larger than normal: Dog may feel threatened, stressed, or aggressive
  • Eyes are smaller than normal: Dog may feel frightened, stressed, or may be in pain
  • Dog meets your gaze with relaxed facial expression: Most likely friendly
  • Dog stares at you with tense facial expression: May be a threat. It's best to look away slowly.
  • Dog looks at you out of the corners of his eyes, exposing a lot of the whites of his eyes: May be leading up to an aggressive outburst

The Mouth

  • Mouth is closed or slightly opened: Dog is likely relaxed and happy
  • Lips pulled back with teeth exposed: Dog is probably telling you not to come any closer. However, if the dog has a submissive posture (lowered head, yelping, and whining), this may be a submissive "grin."
  • Lips pulled back and up with mouth open and all teeth exposed: Dog is likely ready to bite

The Ears

  • Ears held naturally: Dog is relaxed and happy
  • Ears held high and head issigns pointed towards an area of interest: Dog is alert
  • Ears pulled slightly back: Dog is probably friendly
  • Ears flattened completely back or stuck out to the sides: Dog is likely frightened or submissive
  • Ears pulled up high and forward: Dog may be aggressive


  • Tail held in a natural position and wagging gently from side to side: Dog is happy
  • Tail moving strongly from side to side or in a circular pattern: Dog is very happy
  • Tail lowered or tucked between rear legs: Dog is probably nervous or submissive
  • Tail held higher than normal (likely stiff, without movement): Dog is probably aroused
  • Tail held stiff and high and rapidly moving back and forth: Dog is probably standing his ground. It may look like he's happy, but the rest of his body will indicate that he's not relaxed.


Dogs generally do one of three things with their body: Stay the same size, try to look smaller, or try to look larger.

  • A happy dog will look normal with their weight distributed evenly.
  • A scared dog will hunch as though trying to look small. He may lower to the ground or pull back from what is frightening him.
  • A submissive dog will also try to look small. His head might be high, however, if he's greeting another animal or a person.
  • A dominant dog will make himself look large. He will stand erect with his muscles tensed. His weight may be distributed over his front legs.
  • An aggressive dog will try to look as large as possible, and his posture will be accompanied by other angry signals.


  • Dogs sometimes shed more than normal when they are scared or stressed.
  • They will also raise their "hackles" – the fur along their spine – when they are afraid, angry, insecure, nervous, or very excited.

Injured by a Dog Bite and Have Questions?

Even the most knowledgeable and cautious people can be the victim of a dog bite. If you've been injured, we can help answer any legal questions you have about your situation. There are time limits to file a claim, so if you are even considering taking further steps, it's best to act quickly. Our legal consultations are free – just call 412-710-9581 or fill out the form at the top right of this page.

Source: "Canine Body Language." ASPCA. April 18, 2014.

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