Bear Naturalist Guide
Certification Manual
Index of  Bear  Webpages
Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior

Answers to questions commonly asked by wildlife viewers on the topics listed below:
Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior
The following is quoted from the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of Canada website.

Mild Distress

  • A pause in activity or regularly stopping what it is doing and looking directly at the group. Not a quick scan or
    glance, but a direct look before returning to what it was doing.

  • A stiffening stance and change in body orientation.

  • A yawn or scratch or other behaviour, like sitting down, apparently out of place.

  • Moving into the bush and back out repeatedly.

  • Appearing nervous and uncertain.

  • Subtle teeth snapping or jaw popping.

Moderate Distress and Threats

  • Rapid and conspicuous teeth snapping or jaw popping.

  • Moaning or growling.

  • Huffing or chuffing, which can escalate to rapid huffing.

  • Pacing.

  • Running away from or toward the group.

  • Salivating; roaring and open-mouth jawing.

  • Ears laid back.

  • Stamping the ground or paw swatting.

  • A hop charge.

  • A running charge, which may or may not stop short of contact
Signs of Distress That Might Lead to Escape or Aggression Toward Viewers
  •  Why learn an animal’s body language?
  •  Bear threat signals
  •  Other moods & motives


Why? Because the foundation of diplomacy and peaceful coexistence is “communication” – which can formally be
defined as gathering and sending information or disinformation to influence other individuals,” be they human or
animal.  Crying, giggling, smiling and other behaviors by a human infant compel its mother to care for it. Grunts, sucking
sounds, and tongue flicks by a moose calf stimulate its mother to al-low nursing.  Loud bawls and begging induce a
mother bear to share salmon with her cubs.  Threats compel smaller bears to surrender fish to larger bears.

How do we learn the body language of bears? By studying how the animals communicate with one another. Animals
often use the same signals to communicate with people.

Likewise, animals tend to interpret our behavior as though we were their peers.  Just as we are sometimes
anthropomorphic, dogs may be canimorphic and bears ursimorphic – meaning that the dog or bear tends to interpret
some body language by other species as though it were made by a fellow dog or bear.

The more perceptive we are at reading an animal’s body language, therefore, the more likely we are to understand and
appreciate the behavior we observe; and the less likely we are to trigger aggression.

Aggression means causing another individual pain and/or injury, or at least by threatening to do so.   Aggression can
be motivated by rage, pain, fear, frustration, or the intent to manipulate another individual into doing (or not doing)

  • Consider a scenario – imagine yourself visiting a next-door neighbor.   As you walk into the yard, her Doberman
    bursts out of the bushes, rushes to stand with its head lowered beside your leg, growling, muzzle wrinkled, with
    saliva dripping from its teeth, demanding that you leave. Trying to kick the dog or even to reprimand it could
    trigger attack. You are probably safest standing still for awhile and setting it at ease, before inching away.  

  • Now another scenario:  You are BBQing steaks at home. That same Doberman gets a whiff and comes running to
    join the feast.  Snarling and snapping, it tries to steal your meat. You keep it at bay as long as possible.  
    Surrendering the steak might get rid of the dog – but only until it is ready for another snack.  Rewarding the
    animal’s aggression would only assure that it comes back, more assertive than ever. So you assess the situation,
    gather your guests, then together rush at the dog, driving it from your yard and teaching it to never again
    challenge you on your own turf. You command its respect and submission.

Compared to dogs, bears have a different, often more subtle language.  Yet, for those of us who know how to read the
ursine language, it eloquently reveals much about their moods and motivations – enough to dramatically facilitate
earning their trust, respect and cooperation.  Communication can facilitate bear-human coexistence in nearly all

Recognizing an animal’s mood and motivation can tell you a lot about what it intends on doing, and something about
how its behavior could be modified by how you act.  Whether you are dealing with dogs, livestock, people, or bears and
other wildlife, certain basic rules of con-duct seem universal: appeasing behavior that can pacify a protective or
domineering animal might just embolden one that is predatory. On the other hand, actions that intimidate and deter a
domineering or predatory animal might just provoke a protective one.

Once you grant the importance of knowing subtleties of aggression psychology and body language, how do you learn?  
Not, hopefully, with a seat-of-the pants trial-and-error approach. Sure, Tim Treadwell got away with that for 12 years;
but not for 13 years.  People lacking in-depth knowledge of ursid body language and psychology are likely to overlook
subtle signs that a bear is stressed. An absence of such blatant signals as growling, snarling or barking can trick people
into a false sense of security, leading fools to frolic where experts fear to tread. When even one error could trigger
aggression, there’s a lot to be said for learning from the mistakes and successes others have already made, rather than
by repeating them yourself.  That’s where this book can help.  It distills the wisdom gained from decades of mistakes
and successes by myself and other guides and biologists.

During a tense confrontation with a bear, you may have mere seconds to read its body language and respond
appropriately.  There is no time for even the most cursory kind of scientific assessment.  It is not intellect but intuition
that keeps you alive and healthy.  Intuition is the conscious output of your cerebral biocomputer.  It unconsciously
processes the body language information gathered by your senses.  That is integrated with prior learning and with other
information input by mil-lions of years of natural selection. Our inherited knowledge of fellow people and of dogs is
moderately good; but many gaps must be filled by personal learning.  The challenge is even greater with reading bear
body language, probably because we did not evolve with bears to the same extent we did with animals like dogs and
wolves.  Fortunately, studying this book is a good start in helping train your intuition to assure that your gut responses
during encounters will be the right responses.  

For more advanced training, read this book’s sister manual The Language of Bears and watch their companion videos.


There are two extremes to the spectrum of threats:  defensive and offensive.
  An offensive threat signals If you don’t ______ (e.g., surrender your salmon) I will assault you.”
  A defensive threat signals If you ______ (e.g., approach my cub or assault me), I’ll retaliate.”
The same basic signal components are used throughout the threat spectrum; but how they are used differs somewhat
according to whether the emphasis is on offense or defense.  

Some defensive threats can be thought of as intermediate between offensive threat and appeasement.  Offensive
threats tend to display weapons and readiness to use them.  Defensive threats express reluctance to fight; they tend to
be more like saber rattling.  Related to this is the distinction between weapon threats vs. challenge threats.

A bear’s principal weapons are its canine teeth and finger-claws. Preparations for using weapons signal readiness for
combat – which may or may not be a bluff.
  • Bite Preparations: A bear “points” its jaws at an opponent and opens its mouth, baring its upper canines.

  • Swat-Claw Preparations:
  • Crouching hindquarters prepares a bear to stand upright, freeing its hands and arms for ripping and
    grappling with the opponent.
  • Swatting the ground or some other object with the hands.
  • Biting or clawing the ground, logs, trees, or other objects.

“War is declared” by this combination of bite and swat preparations, especially if they are augmented by heavy
salivation, growl-moaning or roaring – which can quickly lead to combat.

  • Reluctance-to-fight-now is conveyed by signals that are the antithesis of weapons threats – as first recognized by
    Charles Darwin with dogs: (a) Bears usually do this by aiming their jaws and perhaps the body away from the
    opponent while standing four-footed, or (b) in some low-risk encounters, by sitting down – usually with the upper
    lip low enough to cover the upper canines. In some cases, the mouth is fully closed. Some reluctance signals can
    appease an opponent.


During a confrontation between two grizzly/brown or black bears which have not yet established who will dominate
whom, they usually begin by trying to intimidate one another without declaring war. This is done by combining weapons
threats with reluctance signals: their heads drop from more-or-less neutral positions (Figure 2.2, upper left diagram)  to
reciprocal  head-low threats,  with noses  pointed toward the ground, mouths at least partly gaping, as the bears
salivate heavily, moan, pulse-moan, bellow/growl-moan or roar.

To escalate domination signals without quickly provoking combat, a bear must simultaneously intensify reluctance
signals. Such signal mixing is ursine saber rattling.  Sometimes, head-low threats alone suffice to establish a winner or
reach a draw. If not, bears may escalate to full weapons threats, or even combat.
Figure 2.  Body language associated with various combinations of a pair of competing motivations or
.  Upper left corner:  In a confident non-aggressive mood, a bear commonly walks or stands with its face
30-45 degrees below horizontal, and its neck at an angle between 30-45 degrees above or below horizontal. As
aggression increases, the mouth gapes and widens, increasing exposure of its upper canines. The more intense a
bear’s determination to dominate its rival, the wider its jaws gape and its upper lip ex-tends.  Also as aggression
increases, vocalizations become harsher and more prolonged, until the bear is roaring.  As reluctance increases,
neck angle tends to drop farther below horizontal, and face angle drops towards vertical. At the bot-tom right:
aggression and reluctance are both intense – a highly unstable balance of motivations that can suddenly tip into
either attack or submission.  A bear tries to de-escalate a confrontation by turning its head/jaws to the right or left,
away from the opponent, watching it only with peripheral vision.

The greater the number of audible or visible signs of aggression or reluctance shown by a bear, and the greater their
intensity and duration, the more likely that the bear perceives its target as a dangerous threat to itself or its companions;
or as a rival for dominance or resources – but not as prey.  By contrast, a predatory bear is unlikely to exhibit any of
these signs, except in immediate defensive response to retaliation by the intended victim.  In that event, a predatory bear
might huff and jaw pop. But these stress signs tend to cease as soon as the victim quits attacking.

Whenever I have seen a bear hunting mammals, birds or fish, the predatory bear was both excited and tightly focused as
it approached or circled its intended victim. Or, the bear simply charged and tried to at-tack its prey without “foreplay.”

Alternately, if an animal or a person is asleep where visible to a predatory bear, the bruin might just walk up and bite.  
Bites to the head seem particularly common.  If a large animal (or person?) is awake but unaware of a predatory bruin, it
might stalk with its eyes and ears locked on target and its body partly crouched.  In extreme cases, the bear’s belly is near
the ground, and the bear’s movements may alternate between standing still while the prey is alert, then moving forward
abruptly as soon as the prey looks away.

Once a bear gets ready to strike with its forepaws, it has to shift its weight to its hindquarters, which causes the bear to
crouch (Figure 2 row 1, column 3). In this situation, the stooped body posture while a bear threatens to swat, or does
swat, has nothing to do with the deeper crouch and the head-low approach of a predatory canid or felid.
Body Language
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Body Language
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(c) 2016 S. Stringham