The Misreading of Social Cues Can Lead To Dog Aggression

People and dogs can both be guilty of misreading or being totally oblivious of each other’s social cues. Sometimes this is just a simple lack of clear communication but, in other cases, this can lead to an aggressive reaction from one or both parties. Miscommunication can happen between dogs as well as between humans and dogs. Let’s have a quick look at a few examples: 

Play Fighting Interpreted As Aggression

  • It is very hard for most people to distinguish whether their dog’s growling, barking and biting is play or aggression. Dogs can also make this mistake. 
  • This can lead to the participant that “just wanted to play” being on the receiving end of an aggressive response from a dog who misinterpreted the play behavior as aggression. 
  • This can also lead to an unwarranted or overly intense punishment from a human who believes the playful dog is being aggressive.  
  • Puppies and young dogs are often accused of being aggressive simply because they play with their teeth and people don’t like it. 
  • Insecure or unsocialized dogs are more likely to misinterpret rough play as a threat or an attack and retaliate out of Fear or defensiveness. 

A “Correction” Interpreted As An Attack 

  • Sometimes what is meant to be a correction or punishment is interpreted by the receiving participant as an attack. 
  • Rather than simply stopping the unwanted behavior in order to escape or avoid punishment, the sense of being attacked can trigger aggression due to fear, panic, self-defense, rage, etc.   

A “Correction” Interpreted As Play

  • Sometimes what is meant to be a correction or punishment is interpreted by the other participant as play behavior. This leads to an escalation of the behavior that triggered the correction, which leads to an escalation of the intensity of the correction and viola, now we snowball into an aggressive incident. 

Hugging and Affection Interpreted As Dominance

  • Most dogs do not naturally like to be hugged. They can learn to like it but most dogs will not like it from strangers. Hugging, or even just putting an arm over the top of the neck or leaning over the dog, can feel similar to dog behaviors such as mounting or putting a head or paw over the top of the other dog’s neck or back, which can be dominance-seeking behaviors. 
  • Of course, the person hugging the dog is not seeking dominance but hugs can still be interpreted as such by some dogs. 
  • A quote from Patricia McConnell, PhD, animal behaviorist, ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: “We, as primates, have arms with which to hug one another, and hugging is found in all primate species (ape, chimp, etc.) as an expression of love, endearment, support, or as a gesture of mutual fear or sadness. So, humans naturally think of hugging as an expression of positive or supportive emotions. Canines, on the other hand, being quadrupeds, do not have free ‘arms’ and thus have evolved to have no understanding of a ‘hug.’ However, the closest gestures or body language that dogs have to a hug would be either mounting or placing a paw or head on top of another dog’s neck or back. Aside from true sexual mounting, the great majority of mounting is dominance-seeking behavior. Placing a head or paws on top of another dog are also often assertions of dominance, which, if not accepted submissively by the other dog, can turn into ritualized aggression. There are other common canine expressions of dominance that resemble aspects of a human hug, such as leaning, where an assertive or dominating dog will lean on another dog to make it move.” 
  • Important Note: Patricia McConnell is embraced by the positive (and generally dominance denying) dog training community. She also appears to be on the anti-dominance page herself when it comes to many dog training techniques and ideologies, such as those used by Cesar Millanyet she still speaks and writes openly about the fact that dominance and cross-species dominance are real and have relevance. She is not alone, in fact, I do not know of any legitimate source who denies the existence or relevance of dominance or cross-species dominance. They do, however, pick and choose when, why and how they believe it is and is not relevant and that, my friends, is why there is still so much confusion. Nuance appears to get lost in translation as the world’s “influencers” and “content creators” fight for dominance over your clicks, likes and shares.  
  • (See Part 7: Dominance

Unrecognized Warning Signals, Appeasement Signals, Stress Signals, etc. 

  • Lip licking, yawning, looking away, ears pinned back, tail tucked, freezing, whale eye, moving slowly, turning away, etc. 
  • There are many signals that dogs give to show they are uncomfortable that often go unnoticed by both humans and other dogs. 
  • When subtle signals are ignored, many dogs will escalate into more obvious warning signals such as growling or showing teeth. Others will quickly move to higher levels of aggression such as snapping, nipping or biting. 
  • A history of subtle signs being ignored can lead some dogs, especially insecure or fearful dogs, to start going for the bite right away. (see: Fear) I find that small dogs are more likely to bite quickly because people don’t respect their space or heed their warnings the same way they do with big dogs. 

Many people will go their entire lives and never get a good read on dog body language and never get bit or have a dog that bites. (a.k.a. getting lucky) However, if you are dealing with aggression of any sort, you will definitely need to learn as much as you can about reading canine body language. Learning to read canine social cues can be the difference between avoiding a fight or breaking up a fight, getting bit and not getting bit, having your dog bite someone else or avoiding having that happen, etc. There are entire books on the subject of dog body language but, whether you read the books or not, just be aware and pay attention.

Dogs are “talking” all the time but they don’t use words, they use body language. 

Chad Culp – Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

© Thriving Canine 2022

We offer in-person training in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as virtual consults anywhere in the world.




Thriving Canine University private Facebook group. (please read the rules before joining)

Related Content: