Reading Dog Body Language: How to Understand What Your Dog is Telling
This guide will introduce everything you need to know about dog body language.
Wouldn’t it be great if dogs could talk? Imagine being able to chat with your furry friend about his day, how he’s feeling and what he wants to do next.
But even though dogs can’t actually speak, there are several other ways they communicate with us — and the most important way is through their body language.
From the point of the nose to the tip of his tail, your dog’s body can offer many clues about how he’s feeling. Whether your dog is happy, sad, anxious, aggressive or anything in between, these emotions are all expressed in the way he stands, looks and moves.
The challenge as a dog owner is working out exactly what your pooch is trying to tell you, so let’s find out how to decipher dog body language and build a stronger bond with your dog.
Where to Look and What to Look For: Common Dog Body Language Signals
There are several main areas you can focus on when examining a dog’s body language, and each area offers telltale signs that indicate your dog’s mood.
You can get a better idea of how a person is truly feeling just by looking into their eyes, and the same goes for our canine companions. When checking your dog’s eyes, take a moment to assess how intense their gaze is and where they’re looking, as well as how much you can see of the whites of their eyes.
When a dog’s eyes are soft and relaxed, this is usually an indication that she is feeling happy and content. But if the eyes are hard and the gaze is intense, this can indicate that a dog is tense and potentially even feeling threatened.
Another sign of a stressed dog is known as “whale eye”. This expression occurs when you can see the whites around the outside of your dog’s eyes, and it usually means your pooch is worried or tense.
The most widely recognizable body language associated with the mouth is aggression, with lips back and teeth bared.
However, some dogs will also bare their teeth in what’s known as a “submissive grin”, while a happy dog with soft body language may also reveal his teeth in a smile.
A relaxed and happy dog will usually have an open mouth and relaxed facial muscles.
But if you notice tension around the face or mouth, such as if the mouth is closed and the lips are pulled back at the corners, this could be a sign that the dog is frightened or tense.
Panting, yawning and lip-licking are other body language cues to consider. While panting could be your dog’s way of trying to cool down after exercise, it can also indicate that he’s uncomfortable with a situation.
Yawning can simply mean your dog is tired, but it can also indicate that he is stressed. And while there are many reasons why your dog might lick his lips, this can also be a sign of a stressed pooch — consider the rest of his body language before you decide.
The body language cues you can pick up from looking at the ears vary depending on the type of ears your dog has. Erect ears are easier to read than floppy ears, but there are still a few telltale signs to look for in all dogs.
When a dog is relaxed, her ears are relaxed and may even turn a little to the side. But the ears then move forward or back as the dog becomes aroused and alert — of course, you’ll need to look at their entire body language to work out whether their arousal is due to happy excitement, fearful aggression or something in between.
Tail position and tail movement are the two key factors you need to consider. The classic sign of a frightened or anxious dog is a tail tucked between the legs.
In a relaxed dog, the tail might extend out horizontally or even hang below the level of the spine. But as your pooch becomes aroused or excited, the tail will typically be lifted up above the horizontal.
A loose and relaxed wag is usually a good sign that a dog is happy, but a stiffly wagging tail can indicate that a dog is tense.
Raised hackles, when the hair on a dog’s back is raised, is commonly considered to mean aggression.
However, this isn’t always the case, as raised hackles are actually an involuntary reaction and quite similar to when people get goosebumps.
They simply indicate that a dog is excited or aroused, so you’ll need to examine other body language cues to work out exactly what’s going on.
Putting It All Together
Looking at different areas of your dog’s body is very useful for determining their state of mind. However, make sure you don’t just look at one area in isolation — you’ll need to form a complete picture of your dog’s body language to work out exactly how they’re feeling.
For example, a wagging tail is commonly seen as a sign of a happy dog, which is often the case. But if that wagging tail is attached to a dog who is crawling along on her stomach with her eyes averted, nervously licking her nose, then the canine in front of you certainly isn’t happy or at ease with the situation.
By looking at your dog’s overall body language, you’ll have a much better chance of understanding what they’re trying to tell you.
Warning Signs: Dog Body Language Before a Bite
Any dog is capable of biting, so it’s important that you recognize the warning signs that indicate a dog may be about to snap. But there are several reasons dogs bite, so there are several body language cues to look out for.
A dog may bite if he is:
Fear-based aggression is a common cause of dog bites, so look for a pooch who is crouched down and appears eager to back away from the situation.
The ears may be pinned back to the head, the face and body will be tense, the tail will be tucked between the legs and the dog may be growling.
Tense and protective.
If a dog sees you as a threat, he may take a more proactive approach. Rather than retreating, a tense dog may stand his ground and have raised hackles.
From the tip of his tail to the muscles around his mouth, every body language cue will indicate that he is on high alert.
Wanting to be left alone.
If a dog is anxious or uncomfortable with a situation, he may try to move a safe distance away from you and then roll over into a submissive position.
Don’t misinterpret this as being a sign the dog wants a pat — he moved away from you for a reason, so respect his need for a little extra personal space.
The Eyes Have It: The Truth About Eye Contact
When you’re talking to another person, making eye contact is important. But this gesture is viewed very differently in the dog world.
If your dog avoids making eye contact with you or looks away, don’t assume this means she is fearful or even being sneaky. For a dog, making direct eye contact can be seen as a rude or threatening move, perhaps even a challenge, so looking away may simply be your dog’s way of being polite and showing deference.
That’s why when meeting an unfamiliar dog for the first time, avoiding direct eye contact can help prevent the situation turning hostile.
What is a dog’s body language when they are…
As well as the obvious symptoms of illness or injury, a sick dog can also use body language to communicate their pain or discomfort.
A dog with their ears back and tail tucked between their legs may be feeling under the weather, and they may shy away from being touched.
In other situations, a dog who is in pain may develop raised hackles, bared teeth and even a growl if you move to touch them somewhere sensitive.
A happy dog will appear calm and relaxed. Their body language should be loose, their movement free, and there won’t be any sign of stiffness in their tail. Their mouth will often be slightly open and their eyes will be soft and relaxed.
An excited dog will have a rapidly wagging tail, keen and alert eyes with an intense focus, and will ooze eagerness from every angle.
Some will be still but tense with concentration, while others will be practically bouncing up and down with excitement. This may also be accompanied by an excited bark.
Anxious and fearful?
An anxious and fearful dog will show every sign of being keen to get away from a situation. Look for a tail tucked between the legs, ears pinned back and eyes looking around for a way out.
Another telltale sign is that you’ll be able to see the whites of their eyes, while you may also notice lip licking and yawning.
An aggressive dog will have its tail up and may have its hackles raised. Their posture will be alert and even menacing, and the muscles around their mouth will be tense.
Lips may be pulled back and teeth bared, while the ears will be up and angled towards the threat. This may also be accompanied by a snarl or growl.
What does it mean when my dog…
As mentioned above, a dog who avoids eye contact may simply not want to seem threatening to you — it’s his way of showing that he means you no harm.
You’ll also notice plenty of head turning and looking away when two polite dogs meet each other for the first time.
However, in different circumstances, looking away can also indicate that a dog is uncomfortable with or anxious about the situation he finds himself in and is looking for a way to escape.
As always, you’ll need to examine the rest of his body language to work out what’s going on.
Lies belly up?
When a dog rolls onto her back and exposes her belly, this could mean a couple of things, so make sure you keep a close eye on other body language cues.
If her eyes and body are relaxed, her mouth is open and her tongue is lolling around, chances are she’s happy and simply showing you she’d love a belly rub.
But if her ears are back, her tail is tucked and she turns her head away, this can indicate fear and that the dog wants to avoid confrontation.
Has chattering teeth?
Chattering teeth can indicate a variety of emotions and health conditions.
For example, chattering teeth can be a sign of excitement or anxiety, but it’s also a common indicator of pain in and around the mouth. You’ll need to check other body language cues to get the full picture.
Has his ears down?
The meaning of your dog putting her ears down can vary depending on the type of ears your dog has.
In dogs with droopy, floppy ears, having them down might merely be their natural resting position. However, ears that are dropped or pinned to the side of the head could indicate stress or fear.
Has his tail down?
When a dog is stressed or afraid, she will tuck her tail between her legs. The tail may even be wagging slightly, but this doesn’t indicate that the dog is happy.
Has squinting eyes?
Squinting eyes are usually a sign of a relaxed and happy dog.
However, as squinting can also be a sign of appeasement, make sure you check the rest of the dog’s body language — if they’re tense and backing away, this may be a sign of fear.
Dogs have many different growls they can call upon in a variety of situations. For example, a growl accompanied by tense body language and bared teeth is an obvious sign of aggression.
However, it’s not uncommon for some dogs to emit a gentle growl when having fun and playing a gentle game of tug-of-war with their owner.
Dogs can also growl when they’re in pain, when they’re territorial or when they’re afraid, so you’ll need to consider the situation and any other signals they may be giving off.
Understanding Your Dog
While the world would be a wonderful place indeed if our dogs could talk to us, the reality is that it’s up to us to learn how to decipher our dogs’ body language.
Once you get to know your pet, you’ll come to recognize his or her different body language cues and any signals that are out of the ordinary.
And when you know what’s normal and what’s not, you’ll be better placed to work out when your dog is uncomfortable, anxious or sick, and when they’re up for a game or just want some time alone.
More importantly, this will help you develop a stronger bond with your dog and keep them safe in a wide range of situations.