Just like how body language plays a big part in communicating with people, body language plays a big part in understanding your dog too!
Having a dog by your side gives you a sense of belonging and companionship, and you want to understand them better as you spend more time together. Understanding what your dog is trying to tell you will help you know when they’re either uncomfortable or focused during training, when they’re hurt or happy during playtime, or when they’re anxious or excited outside with other dogs and people.
Learn how your dog uses body language to communicate with you!
Understanding your dog’s body language
Tail movement and positions
You can learn to understand your dog by observing the movement and positions of their tail. Most people associate a dog’s tail wagging with happiness and excitement, but that’s not entirely true.
Tail wagging only means that your dog is emotionally aroused, and their emotion isn’t always happy at that. Instead, it might be frustration or something even worse. To understand better what your dog’s feelings and intentions are, observe the movement and position of their tail.
The faster your dog wags their tails, the more emotionally aroused they are. Those long, slow, side-to-side tail sweeps your dog does when greeting you? That means they’re relaxed. And when they wag their tails faster and twitch-like, that means a higher level of emotion and more likely a negative one.
The position of their tail also gives you signs. The higher the tail, the more assertive your dog is. When their tail is pointed downward or tucked behind their legs, it means they’re scared or stressed. When their tail is raised up, it means they’re feeling confident, or even aggressive.
You can tell that your dog is relaxed if their tail is in a neutral position, and neutral depends on their breed. Once you identify your dog’s tail's neutral position, you’ll easily know when their emotions changed.
If your dog’s hackles are raised, it means the hair along their back is standing up. The fur can puff up over their shoulders or down the back and all the way to their tail, which is technically called ‘piloerection’.
This is clearly a sign that your dog is aroused, though not entirely in a bad way. They might be feeling stressed or frustrated, but they could also be excited or curious about something. Raising their hackles is an involuntary reaction for them, just like goosebumps with people.
Dogs can also express their emotions with their ears. The position of your dog's ears might show if they are calm, attentive, worried, afraid, or aggressive.
When your dog's ears are down and neutral, it often means that they’re relaxed and feeling comfortable. When your dog pulls their ears back against their head, it might be a sign of fear or submission. When their ears are perked up and turned slightly forward, they may be interested in something.
Looking into your dog's eyes might tell you a great deal about their thoughts and feelings. Every dog's eyes can either be soft or hard. Soft eyes are when your dog has relaxed eyelids, like they're squinting. Soft eyes means they’re relaxed or happy.
Hard eyes are when your dog's eyes seem to go cold. You'll know hard eyes when you see them, and this usually means your dog feels a negative emotion. If your dog stares sharply at something and lasts longer than usual, that typically indicates threat.
Dogs use eye contact as a communication signal. Just as the hard gaze might signal impending aggressiveness, they also glance away when trying to calm a situation. When your dog is stressed, they will look away and avoid eye contact. Don’t mistake this as them being stubborn because the truth is they’re uncomfortable.
Your dog’s posture tells a lot about their mood. When they’re hunched towards the ground, most likely that means they’re scared or stressed. They're trying to show they meant no harm by making their body appear smaller.
And if they’re feeling extremely scared, they roll onto their backs and expose their tummy. This might look like your dog wants a belly rub, which is true when they’re calm, but this can also be a sign of severe stress or anxiety.
A better posture is when your dog’s weight is shifted forward. This means they’re trying to get close to something they’re curious about.
Although dogs' face structures are almost similar to humans, dogs use them differently. Unlike people who yawn when they’re bored or tired, dogs yawn when they’re stressed.
According to Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, dogs yawn to calm themselves, and even others, including their owners, during tense situations. She recommends yawning at your dog to calm them during anxious situations. And if your dog yawns in response, don't be shocked! Dogs can "catch" yawns too.
Another facial expression is lip licking. Dogs lick their lips after a delicious meal, or when they’re anxious. It might be difficult to notice the tongue flick as it happens so quickly. Your dog doesn’t want to lick your face and is rather telling you that they’re feeling uncomfortable with something.
The most confusing facial expression of dogs is when they smile. If you’re not familiar with this, it might look scary at first. Dogs usually show their teeth as a warning, as if to say, "Look at my weapons," especially when it’s paired with a growl.
But your dog’s smile can also be seen as a submissive grin, especially when they do this with a loose and wiggly posture. They want to tell you that they come in peace!
What your dog is trying to tell you
Knowing how your dog uses their body to communicate makes you mindful of what and when to observe. You get to associate their posture and stares to specific emotions they might be feeling at that moment.
Here are the emotions your dog is trying to get across to you with their body language:
They’re stressed or scared
If your dog is stressed or scared, they look like they're avoiding something. If something bothers them, they may turn their heads away or avoid staring at you. They suddenly become very interested in sniffing the ground as a kind of deflection to calm themselves.
They can also start licking or scratching themselves at random times when they are feeling confused or concerned about a situation.
Because of their breeds, dogs have different ears and tails, and it’s good to know what your dog’s ears and tail look like, and what they do when they’re relaxed.
Most of the time when a dog is relaxed, they wag their tail softly, look at you with soft eyes, and may tilt their head to the side when you talk to them. These actions indicate that they’re eliminating any distance between the two of you and they want to interact with you.
Sometimes, your dog may seem relaxed but the truth is, they’re uncomfortable. For instance, when your dog rolls onto their back, this is not because they want a belly rub— this can be a signal that they are uncomfortable. This action means they’re building distance with you, and the best you can do is move away and change the situation.
Other signs when they hide their tail between their legs, their face looks tense, or they’re lifting one of their front paws while standing.
They’re happy and wants to play
You can tell your dog is happy when you see them in a relaxed posture– their mouth, eyes, and ears appear soft and relaxed. You can also see them observing their surroundings but are not hyper-focused. Their body don't look tense.
When your dog lowers their front end till their elbows are on the ground while wagging their tail and sticking their butt in the air, which is called a play bow, that means they are trying to initiate play with you or another animal.
Understanding your dog’s body language is an integral part in forming a good relationship with them. It’s best to learn first how they express their feelings before proceeding to dog training. That way, you can check if the training is effective– are they showing a calm posture as a sign of obedience, or are they growling at you in resistance?
And don’t stop observing your dog’s body language– they could use new signals as they grow up and learn more things. Understanding your dog is a continuous process.