Though dogs are capable of vocalisations like barking, growling, or whining, they express themselves best through body language. Most people are familiar with the friendly wagging tail, but there’s more to it than friendliness. As a dog owner, learning to decipher these signals deepens the bond you and your dog share.
Knowing what your dog is trying to tell you also helps you predict their behaviour. You can respond effectively by providing comfort or correcting them with the right training tools to prevent problems, as needed.
Where and how to look at your dog’s body language
Your dog makes use of their entire body to communicate with you and with other dogs. Where exactly do you look?
General body position. Observe your dog’s overall posture. Does it appear to be relaxed and in a neutral position? Your dog is likely at ease. A confident, alert, and sometimes aggressive dog shifts into a stiff and tall stance, with their weight shifted forward. Conversely, a dog that’s crouching may be feeling anxious or scared of something.
Ear position. This depends on the breed and their natural ear position. Generally, stiff ears that face forward are signs of an alert dog. Ears flattened against the head could indicate fear, discomfort, or even aggression.
Tail position. A confident dog has their tail high up in the air, and so does a curious dog checking things out. Look at the position of the tail relative to its body; if your dog is wagging its tail, consider its speed and intensity.
Mouth shape. A relaxed and open mouth is typical behaviour of a content dog. But if it’s paired with heavy panting, your dog may either be reacting to the heat or is stressing out about something. Consider these signs along with others they are showing you.
Facial expression. Your dog may appear to “smile” every time they open their mouth to pant, but pay attention to the other features. Do they have a wrinkled or tense forehead? Are they making eye contact with you? Look at how all these add up to discover what your dog is trying to say.
Look at more than one signal. Context is just as important, if not more important, than what your dog is actually doing. Treat your dog’s body language as a package deal: when you’re trying to figure it out, consider one signal along with the others they’re showing you to get the full picture.
Dogs respond differently to different things. Whenever they experience a rush of emotions, like nervousness or excitement, your dogs present self-calming signals. You usually see these when you walk your dog, on car trips, at the vet, when you have people over.
Here are some of the self-calming signals you can see your dogs do.
- Stretching. You know that feeling you get when you stretch after sitting down for too long, or after a long day at work? Dogs get that same relaxing feeling, too, and often do it to release tension.
- Shake-off. Whenever your dog gets a little too excited, or if something seems to be bothering them, they literally do what Taylor Swift tells them to do—shake it off.
- Lip licking. We understand lip licking as an indicator of hunger, and that may be true for dogs most of the time. But this self-calming signal is also a sign of submission, which dogs may do as a way to appease or soothe whatever is stressing them out.
- Yawning. Yawning, by itself, isn’t exactly something to constantly look out for. Excessive yawning, on the other hand, may be a sign that your dog is trying to calm themselves down.
- Sniffing. Dogs use their noses for just about anything, so knowing when they use it to calm down can get a bit tricky. Consider the situation your dog is in: if they were playing around before, for example, they might be sniffing around just to take a break.
- Scratching. It could very well just be your dog getting the occasional itch. Or it could be a self-calming signal as a result of a sudden burst of excitement or nervousness.
- Zoomies. You might be caught off-guard when your dog suddenly runs laps around your yard. “Zoomies” are moments where a sudden burst of energy hits your dog, causing them to run around to blow off that steam. While fun to look at, consider the possibility that they might be doing it as a result of built-up stress.
Some dogs have long tails, some have short ones. Some have stumpy tails, others, no tails at all. No matter the case, a dog’s tail is like their own natural emotive flag, waving their feelings for all to see. This might come as a shock to some: tail wagging doesn’t always mean your dog is happy.
The speed, height, and its position relative to the dog’s body are all crucial factors in determining what your dog is trying to communicate. Here are some examples of tail wags and their potential interpretations:
- Helicopter wag. You guessed it—it’s when your dog wags its tail in a circular motion. This means your pup is so happy and excited that they just might take off into the air.
- Quick wag. In the dog world, this is equivalent to a hand briefly raised in the air as a greeting gesture.
- Lowered, tucked between legs. This submissive gesture signals that your dog is feeling scared or stressed.
- Stiff and horizontal tail. Your dog is on high alert or keeping strict tabs on something or someone nearby. For hunting dog breeds, like pointers or setters, this tail also means that they’re pointing to something.
- Tiny, high-speed wag. Take caution with this signal—this either means your dog is about to bolt off into a different direction, or about to pick a fight.
- Slow, reluctant wag. If your dog does this, they are likely stressed out, anxious about something, or are sick. Keep an eye on them and take them to a veterinarian in case they eventually refuse to eat.
Signs your dog is happy, relaxed, and content
Few things in this world can give you the joy of witnessing a dog expressing their happiness. Understanding what these indicators will not only give you insight into your dog’s emotional state, but will also provide cues on what brightens their day.
- Happy tail-wagging. The telltale sign of a happy dog is a tail moving around in a circle. It’s what you see when your dog greets you at the door, or when you’re about to give them a treat.
- Their whole body is relaxed, not tense. Standing tall but appearing relaxed, ears in neutral position, “soft eyes” or relaxed lids, making the dog look like they’re squinting, and a relaxed mouth hanging open all show a dog that’s completely at ease.
- They lean into you while you’re petting them. This shows how relaxed your dog is with you, and how much they crave your touch and attention. Give them all the ear and cheek scratches they deserve!
- Rolling onto their back, exposing their belly. Generally, relaxed and content dogs do this to solicit belly rubs. But consider the circumstances first, as this is also a sign of submission.
Signs your dog is feeling excited or playful
Whether you’re breaking out their leash for their afternoon walk or holding one of their chew toys, your dog can’t help but turn into a cute, playful mess. Know when to share in their enthusiasm by looking for signs that your dog is feeling excited and ready to play.
- Play bow. It’s almost like the start of a wrestling round: chest lowered to the ground, rump in the air, eyes focused on the target. Let’s get ready to rumble!
- Bouncy movements. Dogs that are feeling playful seem to hop around like bunnies, as if unable to contain their excitement.
- Barking, loud growling, mouthing, nipping. Dogs playing with their owners or with other dogs often vocalise, so it’s normal to hear high-pitched barks and growling while they’re horsing around. In their excitement, they may even nip at you, jump on you or furniture, or generally wreak havoc, so take extra caution and correct wrong behaviours as needed.
Signs your dog may be feeling anxious or fearful
We all have things we’re afraid of, and our four-legged furry friends are no exception. Your dog may feel anxious over new items at home, strangers, or unfamiliar animals in their sight. Take note of these signs to know what to avoid in order to keep them from getting stressed out.
- Tail pointed towards the ground or even between their legs. This is an instinctive response that dogs do when they’re feeling scared or threatened.
- Cowering. When dogs cower, they are attempting to make themselves look small and not at all a threat. This is a submissive action they do to try and protect themselves from harm.
- Rolling onto their back, exposing their belly. An unsettled dog doesn’t exactly do this to ask for belly rubs. They do this to submit to an authority figure, such as the leader in their pack or their owners.
- “Whale eyes”. These may look like your dog is “side-eyeing” you, but it’s not the expression of disgust that we now equate the look to, but a signal that your dog is getting uncomfortable with something.
- Retracted tongue while rapidly panting. Panting is not just a way for dogs to regulate their internal temperatures—it also tells you what your dog is feeling emotionally. A dog panting rapidly with a slightly retracted tongue indicates that they’re feeling stressed or overstimulated, likely due to what’s happening in their environment.
Alert and aggressive signals
Dogs have a natural instinct to stay on their guard and be ready to defend. Their aggression can be motivated by different things like fear and possessiveness.
If your dog’s aggression is sudden, contact your veterinarian to check for any medical issues that might be behind it. Never punish your dog by yelling or hitting them, as this only makes things worse.
Behavioural problems, on the other hand, may need professional help with a dog trainer.
- Curved and tall tail. A dog that’s feeling threatened will show it with their tail. This is a clear sign that your dog is about to snap or bite at any second.
- Entire body is stiff and tense. Ears are up or completely still, eyes wide, weight shifted forward as if to lunge—this is a dog that’s alert and ready to fight. Assess the situation properly to see the reasons behind this sudden shift in demeanour.
- Raised hackles. To us, raised hackles are like goosebumps—they often happen involuntarily. On its own, it’s not exactly a sign of alertness or aggression, but this might change depending on what’s happening and what other signs your dog’s showing.
- Curled lips, wrinkled nose. If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: this is your dog telling someone (or even you) to back off before things get ugly. This is usually paired with low growling.
- Baring teeth. This isn’t a happy-go-lucky grin. It’s now more of a “check-out-these-things-I-can-rip-you-apart-with” kind of grin. If this is directed towards you, relax and avoid eye contact to de-escalate the situation. If it’s towards someone or something else, block your dog’s view of whatever’s threatening them.
Dogs are creatures that have their fight-or-flight response on speed dial. They can change moods and behaviour at the drop of a hat. Learning what triggers certain behaviours by studying your dog’s body language can be the key to ensuring that your dog lives a comfortable and secure life.