Dogs that show aggression to people usually exhibit some part of the following sequence of increasingly intense behaviors.
These behaviors are primarily about communicating a dog’s intention to cause harm. Dogs also communicate their intentions through facial expressions, vocalizations, and body postures.
20 Warning Behaviors of Dog Aggression
1. Giving a threatening body posture.
A dog may be thinking about attacking when it stands very stiffly, rears up on its hind legs or holds its head up high, and stares directly at you. It may also be thinking about attacking when it looks tense and feels relaxed and loose in the body. A slightly fearful dog that’s holding its head low and looking away but still standing tall with tense muscles is probably just feeling threatened. These are warning signals that you should not ignore. If they are given by a dog that you own and react to you, take care to change your behavior not to trigger the dog’s aggression.
2. Growling, snarling or baring teeth.
When a dog bares its teeth, it looks like it’s smiling in a friendly way. Dogs bare their teeth when they play or when they are playing with an insect or a ball. When a dog shows its teeth and growls simultaneously, it may be trying to communicate that it is thinking about attacking. However, the vast majority of aggressive dogs do not growl as part of their attack. Growling is a threat and should be taken seriously.
3. Snapping or biting at people.
Bite aggression in dogs is relatively rare than the number of dog bites inflicted on people every year. This is because most aggressive dogs toward people do not use their mouths to attack unless they are very angry or frightened. However, dangerous dogs use their mouths to attack, and it’s essential to know how to recognize this behavior.
4. Lashing out and injuring a person with their paws.
Dogs who are aggressive toward people rarely use their paws for an attack, but it is still something you should be aware of. A dog who moves off its feet in a stiff-legged fashion may be planning an attack on you even though it is holding its paws up relatively high. This kind of behavior is seen when a dog is lunging at you.
5. Becoming very still and rigid when they are approached.
Some dogs will hold their body still and rigid when you threaten them, but keep in mind that this stiff and controlled posture can also indicate that the dog is under extreme tension and ready to spring into action at any moment. A tense and rigid dog that is watching you may be thinking about attacking.
6. Standing very tall and looking aggressive.
Dogs may think about attacking when they stand on their hind legs to see what you are doing or when they look down at you from a higher place. Commonly, dogs that are being aggressive will pull their lips back and bare their teeth in an obvious display of aggression.
7. The dog moving toward the person, even when the person moves away.
This is just showing that the dog’s attention is on you, so keep backing up, grab something to protect yourself if you can. You need to put as much distance as possible between you and the dog.
8. Quick nip that leaves no mark.
Most dogs will bite only as a last resort since it puts them in a highly vulnerable position to be easily injured by the person they are attacking. The vast majority of dogs who show aggression to people will give some warning signal before an actual bite occurs. If you see a dog nip at you, know that it is not yet ready to seriously injure you or severely punish you for your actions. If the dog is nipping at you in an obvious and regular fashion, it may be trying to communicate that it is thinking about attacking.
9. Quick bite that draws blood.
If a dog bites you on the hand or arm and you can feel its teeth through your jacket, it wasn’t a serious bite. A serious bite will rip your skin and will break your skin so that blood starts to flow. However, a dog who is just nipping at you will probably not break your skin. A dog that gets carried away with nipping may end up breaking the skin, but it’s not likely to happen during its first few attempts.
10. Serious attack that maims or kills.
Several factors will determine whether an aggressive dog becomes so dangerous that it starts to attack people seriously and tries to injure or kill them:
a) The person’s behavior (how he responds to the dog).
b) The dog’s behavior (how it responds to the person).
c) The severity of the conflict between the person and the dog.
d) Whether a specific type of event (“trigger”) was involved in triggering an attack.
11. Using the body to pin down and catch the person’s arms and legs.
When a dog clamps down on your arm or leg with its mouth, it is trying to hinder you so that you can’t escape from it. Dogs who are aggressive toward people rarely bite their victims more than once because, if they do, they often end up getting bitten in return due to their aggression. Dogs that are trying to hinder you may bite you more than once for the same reason. If a dog is pinning you down, it’s probably trying to get you to stop moving and stay still while it thinks about attacking.
12. Flying at the person.
When a dog attacks, it usually does so in a way that lands its body close to the ground and gets its teeth into what it intends to bite. The dog is trying to pin you down with its weight so that you can’t move away from its bite. A flying dog may startle you if it pounces at you out of the air. This is a threatening gesture that should be taken seriously.
13. Delivering a serious bite.
If a dog is trying to bite you, it might accidentally hit you in the wrong place and wound you severely. It’s possible that the dog’s teeth could even sever an artery or break a bone. If the dog can’t catch hold of your arm or leg, it will try to bite you somewhere else. If a dog can bite you, it’s probably trying to grab hold of something and use its teeth as a weapon.
14. Growling or barking at the person when the person is nearby — but not following them.
Some aggressive dogs toward people will bark or growl at them when they are close by but are not following them around. If a dog is doing this, it may mean that the dog is thinking about attacking but doesn’t know what to do next. It could mean that it feels the need to defend its territory but doesn’t know-how.
15. Keeping away from the person under ordinary circumstances.
Aggressive dogs are more likely to act aggressively when forced into proximity with people than when they live in any other situation. If a dog is aggressive toward people, you should keep it as far away from other people as possible, and you should expect that the dog is likely to behave aggressively at some point. If a dog has never shown aggression toward people, you should still take precautions to keep the dog from approaching you or anyone else in the situation.
16. Watching, glaring, and growling at the person.
This is similar to the previous situation, except that it means that the dog is not thinking about attacking now but feels a need to stand its ground in defense of its territory. The dog might switch from looking threatening to stare at you for some other reason if it feels threatened by your presence.
17. Showing teeth and barking more often.
A dog showing its teeth and growling is probably thinking about attacking you at some point, but it’s not ready to do so yet. It could be trying to intimidate you or express the fact that it feels aggressive toward you. Either way, you should expect that the dog will take some action very soon.
18. Tapping the ground with a foot or paw when the person moves away from the dog.
This is a sign of submission. It’s a way for a dog to show its submission without actually making any move to attack the person.
19. Urinating on the person or his clothing.
If a dog urinates on you, it’s almost certainly doing it because it wants to get its scent onto you. It is not thinking about attacking or marking your presence as its territory. If the dog is incredibly aggressive toward you or is trying to tell you that it’s in an aggressive situation, urine may signify that the dog is trying to communicate with you and warn you of its aggressive intentions.
20. A tendency to show aggression toward people without warning signs (e.g., growling, barking).
If you think that your dog may be aggressive toward people, the first thing you should do is observe its behavior when it’s not attacking anyone. You should notice a difference in how the dog acts when it’s in an aggressive situation and when it’s not. If the dog remains aggressive most of the time, then it probably is an aggressive dog. If the dog seems to be friendly most of the time, it probably isn’t an aggressive dog.
Dogs who are aggressive toward people usually show warning signs before they attack. They might growl, bark, leap at the person or show other signs of aggression. If a dog reacts quickly to you in an aggressive situation, you should be wary of what it might do next. But it does not mean that because a dog is aggressive that it will carry through its threats to attack you.