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How well can you read your dog’s body language?
Dogs communicate with us in all sorts of ways — through body posture, facial expressions, vocalizations, and more — that can help us understand what they’re feeling in a certain situation. The more we learn to identify happiness, fear, or signs of aggression, the more we can give our pets what they need. That makes us better owners and our dogs better companions in the long run.
Here’s everything you need to know to understand your dog’s body language communication: why it’s important, what common emotions look like, and how to handle situations that arise. (The above body language chart can be a great place to start.)
Why is it important to understand dog body language?
Understanding a dog’s body language is a key part of communicating with them. Since our dogs can’t verbally tell us how they’re feeling (the way we expect our human friends and family members to) it’s important for us to be able to read their cues in other ways.
This is especially important when bringing our dogs out in public or introducing them to new people or other dogs. We need to be able to tell if our dog is having a good time… or if they might be feeling nervous or even threatened. When we quickly, accurately, and reliably pick up on these signals, we’re able to step in to keep everyone comfortable and safe.
In short: Reading your dog’s body language can help prevent extreme problems like dog fights and bites to humans — and it can also simply make your pet feel more listened to. Remember, your relationship goes both ways!
Happy or excited dog body language
Most of us instinctively know what a happy dog looks like, even if we can’t quite put our fingers on the exact indicators. It’s important to realize, though, that not all classic signs of joy — like a wagging tail or panting mouth — indicate a positive state of mind in every situation! (If only dog body language were so simple.)
Here are some signs that your dog really is having a good time.
- Ears in a neutral or slightly focused, alert position. Many excited dogs also pin them gently against their heads during greetings.
- Relaxed mouth slightly open with a gently hanging or resting tongue. Pay attention to the corners of your dog’s lips. A happy dog shouldn’t be pulling them far back or pushing them far forward. (The exception is a dog who is warm, who might be in a perfectly happy state of mind after a game of fetch with a wider pant simply due to the heat.)
- Slightly squinty, soft eyes. It’s not uncommon for an excited dog’s pupils to dilate. A happy dog’s eyes might be alert and focused but shouldn’t be hard.
- Head held in a neutral or high position. This will vary depending on the circumstance, of course — a happy dog who is eagerly sniffing a scent trail on a neighborhood walk will have their nose to the ground, while one watching birds or squirrels in a tree will turn it to the sky. This is an important example of why we need to look at the whole picture of our dogs’ body language signals instead of focusing on just one body part.
- Loose, wiggly movements. Happy and excited dogs can move quickly, but won’t be rigid. Instead, look for minimal body tension. Think of a classic, bouncy puppy.
- A loose tail wagging in sweeping or helicopter motions. Tails can be hard to read! Many of us assume that a dog with a wagging tail is happy — but it’s more accurate to say that a wagging tail just means arousal. That arousal could be positive (like excitement to play or greet a new friend) or could be negative (like nervous uncertainty or even a sign of aggression). A good way to think of it is that a happy dog usually wags their entire body along with their tail — the wag comes from the shoulders back, not just from the tail itself.
- A play bow! This is one of the clearest signs that your dog is happy, excited, and wants to have a fun game (though it’s important not to confuse it with a prey bow, which can have a different meaning especially around small animals). Your dog will lower the front half of their body while sticking their butt up in the air, often with a quickly wagging tail.
What should you do if your dog clearly shows happy or excited body language?
Exactly what you’ve been doing! These are the exact joyful emotions we tend to love most about our dogs. Maybe embrace their invitation for a game of fetch, or just keep supervising as they play with their dog friends.
If you aren’t quite sure if your dog is happy or not, stick to the side of caution. You can read more about other body language signals below that will help you properly identify your dog’s feelings.
And remember: If you’re out and about and see an unknown dog, don’t approach or touch them without the owner’s permission — no matter how happy they may look. Some dogs love to play with their own family members out and about but struggle with strangers. Others might show slightly different body language signals than your own pup does. It’s best practice to listen to instructions from the human handler (and don’t take it personally if they reply “no thanks” to your invitation to say hi).
Relaxed dog body language
Relaxed dogs are also usually easy to identify. But sometimes? A calm dog might look “sad” to us (even though they’re just comfortably resting) or we might interpret a nervous dog as relaxed (just because your pet is still doesn’t mean they’re feeling calm).
Here are some signs your dog is in a positive state of mind even if they’re tired or low energy!
- Ears in a neutral position. They might gently move around to hear different sounds, but they won’t be swiveling frantically or fixated on anything in particular.
- Mouth slightly open with a relaxed tongue or gently closed. While tightly “pursed” lips can indicate stress, many relaxed dogs also close their mouths to sleep or just watch the world go by.
- Soft eyes. They’ll often be squinty or partially closed.
- Head, body, and limbs held in a neutral position or stance. A relaxed dog might gently wag their tail, but they’re also likely to just let it hang naturally. (Remember, different dogs have different natural tail positions. Pay attention to what’s typical for your individual companion!)
- Loose movements, though slower than an incredibly happy or excited dog will show.
- Lying down, especially on their side. Lying down isn’t always a sign of relaxation — some dogs try to “make themselves small” when they’re stressed, or freeze up in moments of uncertainty — but many calm dogs will decide to plop down for a rest. Pay attention to the position your dog lies down in to help you figure out what’s going on. If one hip is splayed out to the side, or they are all the way on their side with legs resting naturally, chances are they’re feeling pretty comfortable.
What should you do if your dog shows relaxed body language?
No need for intervention here. A calm dog is usually fulfilled and pleased to be hanging out with their people!
Nervous, stressed, or fearful dog body language
Our modern human world can be tough for our dogs. Cities are full of loud noises and intense smells. The suburbs might be calmer but are still home to strange machinery (at least to our dogs — after all, they don’t automatically understand what a lawn mower or vacuum is), people wearing all sorts of clothes, and other dogs (who often greet on leash, a stressful situation that can make timid pets feel trapped).
It’s not uncommon to occasionally notice some nervous body language in your dog. Many canine’s have a natural fear response to unfamiliar stimuli — so don’t panic if you see a moment or two of uncertainty and your dog quickly bounces back. If your pet keeps giving off stress signals, though? It’s your job as their owner to step in and help out.
Be on the lookout for these indicators that your dog is nervous, stressed, or fearful.
- Lip licking or flicking of the tongue. In a stressed dog, these will be quick movements (kind of like the classic image many of us have of a lizard or snake). A dog licking their lips after a tasty meal, on the other hand, will likely move their tongue more slowly — context plays a big role here, too!
- Yawning, especially when not showing other signs of tiredness. Yawning is often referred to as a “calming signal” which means dogs use it to decrease their overall arousal. A yawn could be nothing more than a sign that your dog is sleepy (or even that they’re starting to relax after an intense play session with you) but it can also be a sign of stress or feeling overwhelmed. It’s good to err on the side of caution here.
- Frozen body or stiff movements. If your dog seems rigid, pay close attention and be ready to call them away from the situation or otherwise make space for them.
- Crouched body posture. This is a tell-tale sign of fear — nervous dogs often make themselves look small and low to the ground.
- Whale eye. Named after whales who show the whites of their eyes. This occurs when your dog turns their head away from something (often a sign of appeasement or avoidance) but keeps their eyes trained on it (not unlike a human who goes to see a horror movie and wants to look away but can’t quite avoid the screen). This is often a request for space, especially when paired with other stress or fear signals.
- Ears pulled back. This can be tough to determine depending on your dog’s natural ear position, but take the situation into account. A dog’s ears in their natural resting position indicate that the dog is happy and relaxed, and many social dogs gently pull their ears back in greetings, too. However, the further back a dog’s ears go? The more fear they might be indicating.
- Mouth tension. Remember when we talked about paying attention to the corners of your dog’s mouth? A nervous dog will often have them pulled back tightly.
- Furrowed brow. This is especially clear to see on dog breeds who have colored “eyebrows” about their eyes. Much like how a person tenses their forehead when stressed, dogs often do too. This can be accompanied by wide, round eyes that indicate fear.
- Low or tucked tail. Sometimes it wags nervously — especially fearful dogs might tuck their tail all the way under their body but still wag the end of it in a sign of uncertainty or appeasement.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Raised hackles or piloerection — this is when your dog’s shoulder or back fur stands on end.
How to help your nervous, stressed, or fearful dog
If you see your dog becoming stressed or nervous, pause and assess the situation. In many cases, you’ll want to immediately stop what you’re doing (or leave the environment if possible) to avoid escalating your pup’s uncomfortable emotions further.
In the moment:
- Remember this is not a time to try and force things. It’s time to take a step back!
- If you’re reaching toward your dog, calmly draw your hand back. If someone else is interacting with them, instruct that person to stop by saying something like “she seems uncomfortable, can you take a break” or simply calling your dog over to you.
- It’s especially important to pay attention to canine body language when your dog is meeting another dog. If your pet begins displaying any of the behaviors above, calmly and politely end the meeting as quickly as you can. You may have to be direct with other dog handlers: for example, you might say something like “my dog seems nervous, so we’re going to keep walking,” or “please don’t let your dog approach mine”.
- If your dog isn’t directly interacting with anyone but seems nervous standing near a particular object or person, calmly move away with them. Avert your gaze (direct eye contact can be intimidating, especially to a dog that’s already unsure) and speak in a happy tone of voice to communicate that neither you nor the environment is a threat.
- Never punish your dog for displaying anxiety or fear. That will only make the negative emotions worse! We know it can be confusing (and yes, even frustrating) when our dogs can’t just verbally tell us what’s going on — but your pup needs you to have their back and be supportive.
- Once you’ve defused the situation, try to figure out what caused the stress. From there you can develop a long-term training plan if necessary.
In some circumstances, it might be obvious what the cause of your dog’s stress is. Perhaps your pet is reactive to other animals and he sees another dog across the street while you’re out on a walk. Maybe a new guest came in a little too hot for a greeting and accidentally overwhelmed your shy companion. Was there a sudden loud noise outside your home? Did you reach in to grab a bone before your pup felt like they were done with it? It’s pretty easy to trace the sources of that anxiety.
Other times, though, it won’t always be clear what stimulus is making your dog feel fearful or stressed. In these situations it’s time to put on your detective cap (and reach out to a professional force free trainer if you need help). Just a few common situations that can cause fear or stress in our pets:
- Feeling uncertain of something or someone in the environment but being unable to move away from it. (When you think about the “fight or flight” response, not having the option to flee can push some dogs to show aggressive behaviors. More on that in the following section.)
- Sudden environmental changes. Our dogs have sensitive ears and noses. They might perceive things that we can’t ourselves!
Ultimately: Advocate for your dog by speaking up for the needs she’s communicating to you with her body, and never force your dog to meet a dog, person, or other animal that they don’t seem comfortable meeting. (The same goes for being petted by another person — or being petted by you, for that matter!)
Aggressive dog body language
If a dog feels threatened or protective of resources, they might become aggressive. The vast majority of “aggressive” dogs are actually fearful dogs — canine communication naturally involves their growls, snarls, barks, and eventually bites if the situation escalates. If we ignore their early signals, they might feel pushed into defending themselves.
Here are some signs of aggression to look for:
- Raised hackles or piloerection as mentioned above in the fearful body language section.
- Tail tucked between their legs (this can indicate fear that might lead to an aggressive display if pushed) or held high and stiff (this can suggest fixation).
- Furrowed brow or intense stare. Many trainers describe aggressive dogs as having “hard” eyes. It can be tough to describe, but professionals like Patricia McConnell say you’ll know it when you see it. Think about a happy dog’s soft squint and imagine the exact opposite: wide eyes incredibly focused on one particular thing.
- Corner of the mouth curled back, possibly showing teeth.
- Rigid, stiff body tension.
In addition, a dog may bark or growl if feeling threatened. Remember that growling is not necessarily a bad thing — and should not be punished. Growls are a natural warning that a dog is feeling uncomfortable or defensive. If you stop the offending behavior, the dog is unlikely to act aggressively. If pressed further, however, there’s a chance they might lunge or snap.
How to help your dog if they’re showing aggressive body language
In the moment:
Just like when you notice your dog feeling stressed, do your best to defuse the situation as quickly and calmly as possible. This is especially important if your dog displays any of the above body language, as it indicates that active aggression against others (humans or animals) may come next.
To the best of your ability, get your dog out of the situation. If a dog is walking toward you, cross the street. If your cat is getting too close to your dog’s food, move the cat (or the food), and so forth.
Your goal is to end the fear-inducing situation as quickly and safely as possible.
We always recommend working with a professional dog trainer if you have any concerns about your dog showing aggressive behavior. It’s nothing to be ashamed of — many absolutely delightful pets sometimes struggle in certain situations! — and an experienced coach can help you know exactly what to look for. Make sure you choose someone who uses humane positive reinforcement methods to avoid making your dog’s fear or aggression even worse.
Body language isn’t always clear cut, but it’s always important
A dog’s body language is an important way they communicate with us (as well as with other dogs). Learning to read your dog’s body language is key to training your dog, bonding with them, and making sure they thrive!
While canine body language isn’t always clear cut — sometimes dogs show mixed signals or have certain physical characteristics that mean they display signals in slightly different ways — it’s incredibly worth it to learn your pet’s cues. Keep an eye on your canine companion’s emotions in all situations to help ensure they (and you!) are able to enjoy a safe, happy life.
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
These is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner - Ahimsa Dog Training, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Co-host, “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” on KIRO 97.3 FM
and Brittany L. Fulton, CTC
Founder and Trainer, Dances with Dogs, Silver Spring, MD, www.dancesdogs.com
Certified in Training and Counseling (CTC), The Academy for Dog Trainers