What many people don’t know is that the behavior a dog exhibits when it is happy, versus when it is stressed, look almost identical. Licking, tail wagging, yawning, and barking are all behaviors that can mean different things. The key to deciphering their meaning is through body language.
The above image is what is called a “play bow.” This is what a dog does when it’s excited and feeling friendly, usually towards another dog. This is what you would hope to see from any dog at any dog park. Notice that the dog’s tail is up. In other situations, this can mean something else.
A high tail means a dog is alert. Whether that be because they are excited to play, or wary of some sort of threat is up to the owner to decipher based on their other behaviors. Is their mouth in a close-lipped “smile?” This could mean stress. Humans have to be careful interpreting dog behavior, to avoid personifying the animal. Dogs are not human. They behave differently and what may look like a sweet expression to an owner, may really be a signal that they are afraid and need intervention. This is especially pertinent to owners of dogs with fear-based aggression.
An owner of a dog with fear-based aggression should tread very carefully with exposure to triggers. There are ways to re-condition a dog to be less afraid of particular things, but the reaction to fear will not change.
Never scold a dog for growling or otherwise expressing discomfort. Once a dog learns that they shouldn’t lick your palm excessively, they will only escalate in reaction. Once your dog growls, their next available response is to mouth at (not bite) the other dog or owner, and when they see this as no longer an option, they will bite.
If you see warning signs, remove the trigger immediately, and praise your dog for trying anyways. Treating fear with fear only produces a more erratic and fearful pup. It is important to know what these signs are to protect yourself, other dogs, and your own dog.