Why Do Bears Wave? (For Food and Dominance)

Bears wave because they’ve learned it’s something they get rewarded for by humans. They’ve picked up on this behavior after increased human contact and often wave when trying to get food. 

Why Do Bears Wave

But, bears don’t just wave when they’re looking to fill up their bellies-it may also be a warning sign. In a lot of cases, bears are afraid of humans. If one sees a bear standing on their back legs and waving its paw, the bear may be trying to show dominance and scare the humans off.

No matter the reason behind the bear’s waving, a human must never mistake it for a sign to come closer, particularly if the bear is a mother with small cubs. They’re known to be very protective of their babies!

This article explores all the potential meanings associated with bears’ waving, as well as how to respond to bear’s waving in case of a bear encounter.

Why Do Bears Wave?

Waving isn’t a natural bear behavior and they never use it to communicate with each other or to be polite. But, bears wave, although the reasons for it are entirely different. Below are the most common ones that help demystify bear’s waving:

1. Trying to Get Food

Bears are intelligent mammals and it’s not uncommon for them to imitate the behavior of other animals and humans. This being said, in some parts of the world where bears and humans live in close range, their encounters are more frequent. 

For example, some campers in the wild can come across wild bears in the distance or humans come across bears in urban areas because they ventured out of their habitat in search of food. 

In an effort to photograph the bears or get their attention, humans may often wave at them and the bears end up imitating what they’re seeing. 

Since they may consume any leftovers from the humans or get fed by them, they may associate the waving with food and do it again when they need to eat.

Lack of knowledge ends up making people believe that it’s a sign of the bear’s politeness or its effort to communicate, but this is never the case. 

The so-called waving brown bears that live at the Olympic Game Farm in Sequim, Washington learned to wave on their own and are quite the tourist attraction today. 

According to the owners of the farm, tourists would get excited when the bears did a cute or funny thing and gave them bread or other foods.

Not long after, the bears figured out what they need to do for food since they’re known to be opportunistic eaters.

Read More: Are Bears Scavengers or Hunters?

This video shows one of the waving bears waving at the tourists in their car and getting rewarded for it:

2. As a Warning to Stay Away (or to Assert Dominance)

Bears are dangerous animals, no matter how cute or friendly they may look in a given situation. 

Humans are always advised to walk away slowly to a safe distance in case of a bear encounter. The waving of the bear may be a signal for humans to stay away, but not always. 

Read More: Is It Possible to Outrun a Bear?

Sometimes, they may be showing off dominance by standing on their hind legs. They’re trying to appear as big as possible and to remove the threat from their path. 

Female bears may also do this when they’re with their cubs of which they’re very protective and also the most dangerous! 

Yellow Stone Bear World note that a bear that’s standing up and is directly looking at a human’s eyes, making grunting signs, and has its head low with the ears back indicates that the animal is feeling threatened and it’s best to get away from it.

According to Bear Smart, the posture of a bear is often a tell-tale sign of their mood. For example, a bear that’s sitting or a bear that’s lying down conveys its subordination to another animal or a person. 

This bear isn’t looking to fight for a female, a feeding spot, nor for dominance. Sometimes, they will stand upright out of curiosity and to get a better smell or hear something clearer. 

Related Article: What Sounds do Bears Make?

How to React to a Bear’s Waving?

Humans have to understand that a bear’s waving is not something the bear does because it’s polite or friendly. Waving isn’t natural bear behavior, although they’ve learned to do it by imitating humans. 

When humans aren’t aware of this, they may react wrongly to a bear’s waving. Although it’s cute and a great moment to capture on camera, it’s never a sign to come closer or to even feed them, although it’s commonly seen.

As explained by the US Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, the best bear etiquette is avoidance and maintaining a safe distance. People must never surprise bears and take proper measures in case a bear has noticed them. 

Here are the recommended steps to react to a bear’s waving:

  • Slowly raise your arms so that they can recognize it’s humans-the bear may stand on their hind legs trying to get a better smell or sight. 
  • Remaining calm is pivotal-the bear doesn’t want to attack in most cases, but want to be left alone. 

If the bear begins releasing sounds, humans should keep talking in a low tone so that the bear knows they’re not a threat. Screams and sudden movements are never recommended!

  • Kids need to be picked up right away and when possible, hiking in groups is best in bear areas  because groups are scary to bears and they’ll avoid them.
  • If the bear isn’t moving, humans need to begin backing away slowly and sideways, but never run! Humans can never outrun a bear. Bears are also excellent tree climbers, so climbing trees is never a good idea.
  • Never leave any food or bags aside-they can serve as protection and prevent the bear from coming closer in search of the food.

Read More: How To Scare a Bear Away from your House Safely


Bears often stand on their hind legs and wave, but this isn’t their natural behavior. Waving is something they’ve learned through human contact and do it for a variety of reasons, but most commonly they imitate humans because they’ve learned it’s how they can get food. 

Sometimes though, they can do it when they want to show dominance or to protect their cubs. In no way does a bear’s waving signal humans to come closer, although it may be a nice moment to capture on camera from afar. 

Bears are dangerous animals and can attack if they feel threatened.

Humans need to follow proper bear etiquette to decrease the risk of attack, including walking away slowly, waving slightly and speaking quietly to show that they’re not a threat, and never scream or speak loudly. 

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