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How To Read Your Dog's Body Language

Barks that sound like “I love you” aside, dogs do much of their communicating through their body language. Posture, ear and tail position, and facial expressions are how they tell people what they're feeling.

When it comes to how to read your dog’s body language, it’s important to note that the sum is greater than the parts. If each body movement – a wagging tail or a raised hackle – is a word, it’s the combination of behaviors that complete the sentence.

Only by looking at all the signals a dog is giving can you tell the difference between aggressive or insecure dog body language, stressed or submissive dog body language, or even playful or dominant dog body language.

For example, your dog’s erect ears can mean any number of things. Combined with a closed mouth, smooth forehead, and tail held out behind him, his erect ears are part of a message that says, “I’m alert, curious and assessing if there’s danger or not.”

Alternatively, erect ears with a stiff, upright tail, raised hackles and an open mouth with lips curled back, say, “I’m the boss right now, watch out because I might attack.”


How Breed Affects Your Dog’s Body Language

Interpreting your dog’s body language can also be complicated by your dog’s breed. A Doberman with a docked tail is limited in how much she can communicate with her tail stub. Chow Chows have ears that are always erect and slightly pointed forward, making it harder for them to tuck their ears back to communicate fear.

“There are hundreds of dog breeds and body types and so the same behaviors won't look identical on all dogs,” says Lili Chin, author of “Doggie Language: A Dog Lover's Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend. “There are body language signals which are fairly consistent across all dogs. When a dog is alerting to something, their muscles may tense, their bodies lean forward, their ears face forward, eyes focus, and so on. A floppy-eared dog's ears will also face forward but these ears will look different.”

Not sure how to read your dog’s body language?

Chin says the most important thing for all dog owners is to pay attention and sensitive to how your dog’s body movements change according to what is going on. To help you identify what you’re seeing, here is a broad range of canine body language behaviors with their most common interpretations.


 Dog Body Language: Tail

Let’s start off with one of the easier signals of your dog’s mood: your dog’s tail.

The way in which your dog holds and moves his tail is a strong indicator of what he’s trying to communicate with you. It’s a body part most dog owners know how to interpret.

But there’s more to tail body language than thinking a wagging tail equals a happy dog.

“This is one of the most persistent myths about dog body language - that a wagging tail means a dog is happy and friendly,” says Chin. “We need to look at the whole body, how is the tail wagging (loosely? tightly? high carriage? low carriage?)  A high wagging tail on a tense body could belong to a dog who is very stressed, aroused, and ready to attack.”

In an article in the peer-reviewed journal “Animals,” researchers sum up the body language of a dog’s tail this way: “The tail is held high to communicate confidence, arousal, or the dog’s willingness to positively approach another individual, for example greeting and playing, while it is held stiff to express a threat or fear, anxiety, or appeasement…”

Furthermore: “Dogs wag their tail loosely from side to side to communicate friendliness or their excitability. Fast movements of the tail, instead, express different inner states according to its position; dogs communicate confidence if they hold their tail high, while a low wagging is generally associated with anxiousness, nervousness, or internal conflict…”

As an example, what doggy mom or dad hasn’t come home from a day of work to be greeted by an excited pup whose upright tail is wagging quickly from side to side. That’s an excited – and usually happy – dog.

Most dog owners are also familiar with the tucked-in-between-the-legs tail of a scared dog at the vet or during a loud thunderstorm.

Here are few other tail-related dog body language meanings:

Slow tail wag: As referred to in the article above, nervous dogs hold their tails out behind them, often moving them slightly from side to side. The more nervous the dog is, the lower his tail will be until it’s firmly tucked up against his backside or between his legs.

Erect, unbristled tail: Alert dogs hold their tails straight up and still, like a hunting dog that is alerting its owner to prey. The tail of an alert dog is not bristled, as this is not an aggressive stance. Dogs displaying this tail behavior are assessing whatever has caught their attention to determine if there’s danger or not.

Erect, bristled tail: A dog that’s displaying his dominance or signaling aggression holds his tail up stiffly, often with bristled fur. You may also notice his tail is quivering or vibrating. An erect, bristled tail is a clear signal that your dog wants you (or whoever he’s directing his attention at) to back off.

Neutral tail: Content dogs keep their tails relaxed in whatever position is natural to them. Usually this means their tails are lowered, but does vary by breed.

Dogs communicate many emotions through their body language, including stress. Here are common signs of stress in dogs to be aware of.


Dog Body Language: Ears

Like her tail, the ears are one of the most expressive features of your dog’s body. But because they come in all shapes and sizes, they’re not always as easy to interpret.

Most familiar to dog owners are the erect, ears forward signaling of an alert dog and the flattened against the head sign of a scared and possibly aggressive dog.

Think for instance of a dog that has seen a squirrel. Her ears will be erect, but directed at the squirrel.

On the other hand, a dog that’s scared of a passing motorcycle will flatten his ears against his head to show she’s scared.

Here are few other ear-related dog body language meanings:

Erect, tense ears: As mentioned above, erect ears can be a sign that your dog is alert and paying attention to something specific. But she may also be signaling dominance or aggression.

Flat ears: A dog with her ears pulled flat against her head is nervous or scared. But flat ears can also be a sign of submissiveness, particularly with another dog.

Relaxed ears: When your dog is feeling calm and content, her ears stay in a relaxed position. But, what “relaxed” means for your dog is unique to her breed and her personality. Some dogs always have erect ears, some are always in some state of floppiness.

Dogs don’t only communicate their emotions through their behavior. Here are important signs of dehydration in dogs to watch out for.


Dog Body Language: Body

Dogs don’t only communicate their moods through the movement of specific body parts. They also use their entire bodies to signal dominance, fear, and excitability.

In general, a dog’s body posture can be summed up like this: Comfortable, relaxed dogs make no effort to change the appearance of their size. Dominant and aggressive dogs try to appear bigger. And, frightened and submissive dogs try to appear smaller and less threatening.

That’s why an angry or dominant dog stands tall, with his neck and head raised high and his ears erect. In some cases, his fur may even be erect (referred to as piloerection) to make him appear even larger.

And it’s why a scared dog cowers close to the ground and pull his ears in tight to his head. A completely submissive dog may go even further and lie down, exposing his belly to show he’s no threat at all.

Not all body posturing is a sign of fear or aggression. Ever seen a dog with his butt up in the air? Head up but front legs down, wiggling his tail and looking at you with his tongue hanging out? Any dog owner knows, that’s a sign your pup wants to play!


Dog Body Language: Mouth

Like humans, dogs communicate a lot about their moods with their mouths. A relaxed dog has an open, relaxed mouth. A tense dog has tight, tensed-up lips (mouth open or closed). 

Here are some important mouth-related dog body language meanings to know.

Curled lips and exposed teeth, dominant: A universally recognized sign of aggression in most dogs. This is often accompanied by a wrinkling of the skin above the nose or muzzle.

Exposed teeth, submissive: Unlike above, this curled upper lip behavior exposes only the front teeth. Plus, the skin above the dog's nose or muzzle is smooth, not wrinkled. And, his mouth will be mostly closed. It’s primarily used between dogs or if your dog is feeling threatened by a person he wants appease.

Yawning: In dog body language, yawning often signals that your pup is nervous or scared. Yawning helps lower your dog’s blood pressure, which, in turn, aids in calming him down.

Licking or tongue flicking: Scared dogs often lick their lips or flick the air with their tongue. If there’s another dog present, this is usually a sign of uneasiness and submissiveness.


Dog Body Language: Eyes

Their eyes may be the window to your dog’s soul, but trying to interpret what he’s saying with them isn’t always easy. Dog eye body language is some of the subtlest there is.

There are some general rules of thumb, however.

When a dog’s eyes are relaxed or “soft,” it’s almost always a sign he’s feeling content and relaxed.

Staring, on the other hand, is a sign he’s alert or asserting his dominance. If he’s staring at you or another dog and his pupils are dilated, watch out. That’s a sign of aggression. Similarly, if he’s staring at you out of the corner of his eyes, he’s probably feeling aggressive, as well.

When dogs look away from a person or another dog, they’re showing submissiveness. By avoiding direct eye contact, they signal that they're not a threat and want to avoid confrontation. If his eyes are also dilated when looking away, it’s a sure sign he’s scared.