Do you ever find yourself wishing your dog could talk? Perhaps they would tell you about their emotions, fears, desires, and needs, or maybe they would point out the squirrels on your walk or tell you how obsessed they are with balls. Research studies and brain imaging have helped us open a window into the canine mind, but we’ll probably never know exactly what dogs are thinking. We’re getting closer to understanding how dogs might use human language by training them on assistive soundboards. Still, until we know more, we have another powerful tool: dog body language.
They may not speak, but dogs use expressions, body postures, and movement to communicate non-verbal cues that well-meaning dog parents can easily miss. You can reduce human-canine misunderstandings when you take the time to listen to your dog and learn what they’re saying.
The Power of Communication
Your dog is always watching you and studying your facial expressions, voice tone, and movements. Have you noticed your dog sits near and allows you to pet them when you’re sad but may steer clear when you’re angry? Reading your dog’s body language can help you understand how they’re feeling and the “why” behind their behaviors. Recognizing your dog’s emotions can also help you better provide for their physical, emotional, and mental health, which leads to happier dogs and stronger relationships. When you and your pet understand each other, your bond deepens, and you have the power to improve their quality of life and prevent misunderstandings that lead to bites.
Dogs are domesticated and have lived with us for thousands of years, but even the sweetest animal will bite to defend themselves. Nearly all dogs will give a series of warnings before resorting to aggression, but humans often miss them. Biting is the last resort, but attempts to ward off threats can occur in quick succession or be subtle, so watching your dog closely is critical. Remember that dogs don’t “snap” for no reason or bite “out of the blue.” They tell us when they are uncomfortable, and we need to listen.
Dog body language can be complex and must be interpreted with situational context. You should look at the dog as a whole to determine what they are saying and pay attention to a few key body regions (eyes, ears, mouth, tail, and overall posture) to get the most information.
Dog Body Language: Facial Expressions
Dogs use their eyes, ears, brow, and mouth to form expressions and convey information about their emotional state. Watch for the following to give you clues:
- Eyes — Relaxed dogs typically squint or have an almond-shaped eye with little or no white showing. Focused gazing indicates interest, but a hard stare can be a precursor to aggression. An anxious dog may avoid eye contact or turn its head away while watching the threat from the side, commonly called “whale eye.”
- Ears — Ears held in a neutral position or slightly back indicate a relaxed dog, but ears pricked straight up and forward show interest, aggression, or confidence. A fearful dog may pin their ears back.
- Mouth — Happy dogs hold their mouths closed with relaxed corners or slightly open with their tongues lolled out. Panting with tense, pulled-back lips, lip licking, lip smacking, or yawning indicate stress or anxiety. Showing teeth must be interpreted carefully along with other body signals. The upper lip pulled up with a wrinkled muzzle and tense body posture indicate aggression—fearful or offensive—while a loose, wiggly dog exposing their teeth is showing a “submissive grin,” which is a peaceful gesture.
Dog Body Language: Tail and Body Position
Most people understand a wagging tail as a happy dog, but tail movements are far more nuanced. Happy dogs wag their tails, typically holding them straight out or slightly above their spine, but a quickly wagging tail high over the back can indicate impending aggression. Holding the tail straight down shows concern or stress, and holding it all the way against their belly indicates severe anxiety. Quicker movements generally indicate higher arousal levels, which can mean interest, excitement, or aggression, and slow or circular movements occur in relaxed dogs.
Body posture and movements are easy signs to give you a good idea of your dog’s feelings, even if you don’t pick up on the more subtle signals. Relaxed dogs are loose and wiggly and move smoothly without apprehension. Dogs experiencing stress usually try to move away from the stressor, shifting their weight or choosing to leave. If they can’t go—such as during a vet visit—they may crouch down or cower. Confident or aggressive dogs stand tall and tense and may freeze before lashing out.
When dogs are overly aroused, their neck and back hair can stand up. This is called “raised hackles” and indicates your dog is feeling strongly about something. You should pay close attention to their next moves to determine their intentions.
Dog Body Language: Common Problems
Until you’re more comfortable reading your dog’s body language, be aware of these common situations in which you may misinterpret their cues:
- Dog-children interactions — Some dogs are naturally comfortable around children, but most need time to adjust. Dogs who bite children are often harshly criticized, but they have usually clearly displayed discomfort and have been forced to stay near the child anyway. Dogs who show “whale eye,” pant excessively, avoid eye contact, or hide from children are at risk of being pushed over the edge and should be separated until the child is older.
- Dog-shaming — Dogs who look away, squint, grin, or roll onto their backs after being caught doing something naughty are not feeling guilt. They’re reacting to their owner’s mood and using appeasement (i.e., peacemaking) behaviors to calm their parent down.
- Dominance behaviors — Contrary to popular belief, dominance theory was disproved years ago. Domestic dogs behave nothing like wolves, and their body language does not indicate a desire to dominate you. Most aggressive behaviors occur in response to fear, anxiety, or stress (i.e., defensive aggression) and require you to find and address the stressor. Attempting to “dominate” an aggressive dog is dangerous and will only make them more fearful.
To truly understand your dog, you must observe their body language and consider the environmental context. If you feel your dog’s body language is inappropriate in certain situations or have any reason to feel concerned about their behavior, contact a qualified veterinary behaviorist to help you resolve the problem. Eventually, after enough practice, canine body language will become second nature, and you’ll be able to recognize better what makes your dog happy, what they dislike, and what causes them stress.