How to Read and Understand Your Dog's Body Language

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12 Minute Read
Updated August 3, 2021

Your dog is communicating with you, but not with words. Here’s how to understand your dog’s body language so that you can strengthen your bond and improve their training.

Just as humans communicate with one another using both verbal and nonverbal communication techniques, your dog is communicating her feelings and needs to you—and to other dogs. Learn how to decipher your pup’s various whines, barks, and growls, as well as his body language, gestures, and overall demeanour.

The primary purpose of communication, for any living thing, is to connect with others in a meaningful way. This is true even of inter-species relationships, like the one you share with your canine companion. Your dog wants to communicate with you about her feelings, and she wants to convey her own concern for how you’re feeling, too.

All the same emotions you experience on a daily basis affect your dog, as well—emotions like fear, sadness, joy, anxiety, affection, and more. Let’s go over our dog body language guide to learn more about some of the key ways your dog communicates his or her emotions to you.

Deciphering Your Dog’s Messages

Your bond with your dog is a powerful one, built on mutual trust and respect. One of the best ways to improve your connection with your dog is by learning to discern their various behaviours and messages. Your dog is trying to communicate with you, even though he or she is unable to use recognizable human language. (Though some dog owners, like Alexis Divine—Bunny’s mom—have learned to hack the system.)

Let’s discuss some of the ways your canine companion is trying to communicate with you using their various verbal cues.

Your Dog’s Vocal Communication Techniques

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Understanding dog behaviour starts with learning your dog’s vocal communication techniques. Though they can’t talk, they can use their voice in other ways to let us know how they’re feeling.

Barking

Your dog’s bark is the primary way she communicates with you. Whether she is barking happily when you come home, barking to alert you of someone at the door or a possible intruder, barking at passersby when she’s in the back yard, your dog is communicating her feelings with her bark.

Whether it’s a yip or a woof, if your dog’s bark is low-pitched, this indicates that he feels threatened, whereas a high-pitched bark typically signals to you that he is feeling happy and playful.

Does your doggo have a bad habit of disturbing the neighbours while you’re not home? Check out our blog How to Stop Dog Barking When Left Alone to learn some helpful pointers!

Whining

Few sounds can raise anxiety levels like a baby crying—or, in this case, your fur baby’s whines. And that’s no mistake; we have evolved to be carefully attuned to these particular sounds, as both indicate a range of emotions, from discomfort to fear, on the part of our otherwise helpless family members.

Your dog uses whining to let you know he needs to go outside, he’d like to play, or that he’d like to go for a walk, for example. Whining is also a hallmark of nervous dog behaviour, such as in the case of dogs with separation anxiety. Moreover, whining is your dog’s primary method of letting you know he is in pain.

Groaning or Sighing

Both the groan and the sigh are indications, typically, that your dog has simply found a comfortable position to relax in. While puppies may moan and groan as they begin to fall asleep, most other dogs will express their comfort with an audible sigh.

Howling

Though most dogs use howling primarily to communicate and announce their presence to other dogs within earshot, your dog may use small, often entertaining howls to imitate sounds in their immediate environment, including sirens, alarms, and even human language.

Growling

While some of the sounds we’ve mentioned are simply indicative of normal, everyday emotions, when your dog growls, it’s a signal that she has a much more intentional and immediate message to convey. More than any other sound a dog makes, when your dog growls, he is warning you (and anyone else nearby) about what is to come if the immediate threat isn’t removed: a bite, or worse.

How to Understand Your Dog’s Body Language

We’ve all heard the stats thrown around that human communication is roughly 90% non-verbal. Dogs, too, send most of their messages via dog body language. Your dog uses his ears, eyes, tail, mouth and teeth, hackles, and overall posture to convey a wide range of emotions and needs.

Check out this dog body language chart for a visual understanding of dog behaviour and meaning:

dog body language

Different dogs show different visual cues in their body language. They may look different depending on the dog's size, and breed, so beyond just looking for behaviours that look fearful or aggressive, let's take a look at some specific body language that your dog may display. 

Eyes

A calm, happy dog will have soft eyes with relaxed eyelids and may look as if he is squinting. An agitated dog will have more of a laser focus with a cold, hard stare intended to warn other dogs or to alert you to something in their immediate environment that requires your attention.

Direct eye contact is one form of aggressive dog body language, as it is seen as a clear challenge by other dogs.

Along the same lines, if your dog feels threatened and uncomfortable, he will avoid eye contact with you or other dogs to convey this sense of submission. Averted eyes are a noted example of timid dog behaviour.

Finally, a good indicator of your dog’s mood is how much of the whites of his eyes he is showing you. “Whale eye” is a term used to describe the look on a dog’s face when he feels frightened or nervous; an anxious dog will widen his eyes, much like you would if you heard a bump in the night and needed to bring all your senses to high alert levels, enabling you to see and hear everything more clearly, in preparation for fight or flight.

Ears

Dogs of all types, whether they have normally erect ears or even floppy ears, will position their ears to indicate their emotions. A calm pupper will typically relax her ears down, back, or out to the sides.

A nervous dog will point her ears forward toward the point of concern or interest. Next time you notice your dog's ears standing up and forward, pay attention to where he is pointing them for a better understanding of what is alarming him.

Tail

When it comes to your dog’s tail, there are two nuanced points to consider: where his tail is in relation to the base of his spine, and the speed and direction in which his tail is moving.

Generally speaking, the higher your dog’s tail is raised, the more emotionally aroused he feels. A dog whose tail is in a neutral or slightly lowered position is a dog who feels at ease. If your dog is high and alert, it’s a sign that he feels aggressive and confident, whereas a lowered or tucked tail is indicative of fear, stress, or even pain.

Contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail is not always an indication that your dog is happy, as much as it is evidence that your dog is emotionally aroused.

When looking at your dog’s tail to discern his feelings, pay attention to the speed and direction of his tail wagging. A dog who is wagging his tail quickly is typically emotionally aroused. This may mean he is happy to see you or that he feels particularly distressed, but in both cases, he is on high alert.

More than anything, it’s important to take note of his entire demeanour in relation to your dog’s tail wagging. Is she wagging it slowly back and forth, making her entire body move in unison, or is she wagging only her tail in short, frantic sweeping motions?

The slower wag is indicative of a calm and carefree doggo, while the quickly wagging tail is indicative of more heightened emotions.

Mouth and Teeth

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Generally speaking, a more relaxed dog will have a more relaxed mouth. If your dog feels at ease in his space, he may even have his tongue lying lazily out of the side of his mouth.

    • Smiling.

      Yes, your dog can smile at you, and interestingly, it isn’t usually because she is happy. In fact, dogs are masters of mirroring human emotions, a skill they developed through centuries of human-dog interaction. In other words, your dog may be smiling simply because she has learned to imitate your own smile, or because you reward her for smiling.

      But keep in mind that there are two types of smiles when it comes to your dog’s facial expressions.

      The submissive grin is a facial expression your dog will make when he is trying to appease you. It’s a sign that he understands and is responding to your emotional needs, not necessarily that he is happy. The relaxed grin will show only the front few teeth, behind parted lips.

      The snarl, or aggressive smile, is a very different indicator of your dog’s feelings. When your dog snarls, he pulls his lips all the way back and bares all of his teeth and may even growl, as a way to warn you that he’s about to attack. In fact, this type of smile is one of the most well-known examples of aggressive dog body language.

    • Lip-licking and tongue-flicking.

      You might think this means your doggo is hungry for a treat! But that might not be the case. When your dog feels anxious, he may lick his lips, and the occasional tongue flick can also indicate heightened stress levels.

    • Yawning. 

      Did you know that dogs yawn, just as people do? When you see someone yawn, you likely assume they are tired. But when a dog yawns, it’s a signal to you that he is stressed. Your dog may also be yawning because he saw you yawning.

      Yawns are “contagious” between dogs and people, just as they are between you and other people—and it’s even more evidence that you and your dog share an emotional bond, as yawning has been shown to be a sign of social empathy.

    • Tongue out.

      Your dog could stick his tongue out for a number of reasons. If she has been active and playful or is overheated, she may be panting, in which case her tongue will move in and out of her mouth in rhythm with her breaths.

      On the other hand, if her tongue is laying languid from the edge of her mouth, this is typically an indication she feels calm. In instances where she feels threatened by a dominant dog, or by an aggressive human, she may attempt to lick at them, as a sign of submission.

Hackles

When you experience something which scares you or makes you feel uneasy, you may describe it as “hair-raising” or say that it “made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.” You may also describe something which moved you in a positive way as giving you “goosebumps,” meaning the experience made the hair on your arms stand alert. These phrases describe a universal reaction, familiar not only to humans but to other mammals, like dogs.

When a dog feels threatened or is alerted to possible dangers in his vicinity, the hair on the back of his neck, along his shoulders, and lower down his spine, near his tail, will stand on end, too. This grouping of hair is known as a dog’s “hackles”—technically called piloerection— and this reaction doesn’t necessarily indicate doggy aggression as much as it indicates emotional alertness in your dog.

Posture

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Much as we’d like to reduce our dog’s behaviour and body language to a few isolated physical signals, the truth of the matter is that your dog’s entire posture is an indication of how he is feeling. It’s important to consider not only his separate parts but his overall demeanour when trying to discern your dog’s body language.

The way your dog distributes her weight is a good indicator of her general mood. A relaxed dog’s weight will be fairly evenly distributed across her four paws.

A scared dog will show you with clear scared dog body language. He will be hunched down, low to the ground, if he feels timid or threatened into submission. It’s almost as if he’s trying to make himself appear smaller, to communicate the clear message that he is not a threat to anyone.

This is common behaviour in dogs that are afraid of loud noises, like thunderstorms, fireworks and sirens. Learn more about managing this type of stress in Is Your Dog Scared of Thunder? Symptoms and How to Calm Them.

Compression vests for dogs, like the Thundershirt, are a natural and effective solution for helping soothe anxiety related to weather and other things beyond your control. 

Shop All ThunderWorks Calming Aids

If your dog is shifting his weight forward, into his front paws, this is an indication that he is alert and interested in what he sees. But if this forward-leaning stance is accompanied by a high, alert tail, focused eyes, front-leaning ears, and bared teeth, your dog is ready to attack.

You may have noticed your dog bowing to his playmates or even to humans (check out the image at the start of this article). The “play bow”—when your dog lays the front half of her body low to the ground but keeps her hindquarters elevated—is an example of playful dog behaviour, which signals that she is feeling fun and ready to engage with you or her pals.

Can Dogs be Depressed?

If your dog is more withdrawn, inactive or you’ve noticed a change in their eating or sleeping behaviour, it could mean your dog has the doggie blues. Like humans, dogs can experience periods of depression.

This could be caused by loss or major changes in your dog’s life like moving to a new city, adding a new family member like another pet or new baby, or even losing a family member.

Dogs can also easily pick up on their owner’s emotions and the feelings of those around them, too. If you are going through a stressful experience, it's likely that you may see some behavioural changes in your closest canine companion. 

The good news is dogs bounce back from these spouts of depression pretty quickly. If you notice your dog is feeling down, you can help him feel better by doing more of his favourite things.

Car rides, their favourite chew toy, an extra-long round of fetch in the yard, or even just a one-on-one snuggle sesh on the couch. Whatever gets your doggo’s tail wagging again, be sure to take extra time in the day when you sense your doggo needs it.

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Bored Dog Behaviour

It’s also important to look out for signs that your dog is suffering from boredom. Bored dog symptoms can include chewing, pacing, barking, aggression, sporadic energy levels and other behaviours we mentioned above that could indicate your dog is feeling anxious.

A consistent routine is the first step to eliminating boredom, but don't forget to mix it up a bit sometimes. A new toy or game or a different walking route can help bring back the excitement in your dog's daily activities.  

There are a ton of ways to relieve your dog’s boredom. For more tips and tricks to keep your dog entertained, check out our blog Bored Dog: Symptoms & Solutions for Dog Boredom.

Monitoring Dog Behaviour in New Situations

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Meeting new people or dogs, going to new places, or even just hearing new sounds can all create an emotional response in your dog. It's important to stay on the lookout for body language that may indicate that your dog is not having a good time. 

Your canine companion has feelings, just like you do. Your dog’s behaviour is an expression of the feelings she is having. Whenever you put your dog in a new situation, look for signs of emotional responses in your dog so that you can react appropriately and prevent dangerous situations. 

Your pup may be feeling anxious, scared, suspicious, or even aggressive—all emotions which will manifest themselves in rigid, assertive dog behaviour, intended to alert you and anyone else around that he means business.

On the other hand, if your dog feels happy, calm, curious, or playful, she will show you more relaxed behaviours, facial expressions, and dog body language. Knowing the difference is vital.

All in all, the most important step in gaining a better understanding of your dog’s behaviour is learning to read your dog’s body language and listen to his audible expressions. This will allow you to make the best decisions to keep your dog safe and comfortable in a new environment. 

Does your dog have specific body language or a tell-tale signal that they are feeling uncomfortable or nervous? Let us know in the comments below!

Dog Stress & Anxiety Solutions

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Homes Alive Pets

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