Subscribe
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
We’re reader-supported. When you click on our chosen products, we may receive a commission. Learn more.
dog parent must-knows
Two dogs at a dog park

Do you understand what your dog is trying to tell you? Dogs sometimes bark, growl, or whine to send messages, but nonverbal communication is more common in canines . Since dogs depend so much on their pet parents, it’s essential for owners to understand their methods of communication. Even common dog body language, like a wagging tail, can mean different things in different circumstances. Pet parents can keep their pups calm, safe, and happy by learning how to read and decipher a dog’s body language.

How dogs use body language to communicate

Dogs use a variety of movements with different parts of their bodies and faces to convey messages. Even a dog’s body position itself helps to display a certain attitude or emotional state. Keep an eye out for these common communication methods when trying to understand your dog:

Body position and posture. Dogs stand differently when relaxed versus excited, aroused, or scared. Even weight distribution on all four paws often indicates a relaxed or happy dog. Stiff front legs with the weight shifted forward and hackles raise, hair standing up on your dog’s neck, can show arousal or excitement. Conversely, dogs cowering or hunched over are often displaying signs of fear and/or submission.

Body movement. Like body posture, dog body movements can communicate a lot. Pacing can often signal a stressed or nervous dog. On the other hand, a jumping or bouncy dog is usually happy and excited. One common example of dogs greeting each other is the “play bow,” with the front legs down and their butt in the air. As the name implies, this signal is used between dogs as an invitation to play.

Dog play bow

Dog in a “play bow” 📷 by crusey at Flickr

Tail. There’s one common misconception about a dog’s tail: the idea that a wagging tail automatically equals a happy dog. Yes, dogs often wag their tails loosely when relaxed or happy. But, a raised or stiffly wagging tail may suggest arousal, excitement, confidence, or even aggression. On the flip side, a lowered tail, especially one tucked between the legs, is often a sign of fear, stress, or submission.

Ears. Dogs communicate with their ears in a variety of ways. Upright, forward-facing ears “at attention” often show interest or arousal, while pinned back ears may mean a dog is afraid. As with other body language, ear movements can have conflicting meanings. So, it’s important to consider the situation and the dog’s other movements when deciphering ear position. In general, dogs with erect ears, like German shepherds, display a wider variety of ear movements than a floppy-eared breed, like Labrador retrievers.

Eyes. Eye contact is an important sign for dogs and the intensity of a dog’s eyes matters. A soft or squinty stare often suggests happiness or relaxation. A hard, direct stare, can often mean an aggressive dog. A dog averting their eyes or looking away can be a common sign of stress or fear. They’ll often display the whites of their eyes, a gesture known as “whale eye”, in response to stress or anxiety.

Dog whale eye

Dalmatian with “whale eyes” 📷 by Angeleses at Pixabay

Mouth. Dogs display facial expressions and mouth movements to communicate in several ways. Many of us recognize relaxed dogs by their slightly open mouths and panting tongues. But, several mouth movements can often suggest signs of stress or even nausea. Yawning and/or licking the lips are often displacement behaviors. This means the dog is anxious and suppressing the urge to do something else, such as bark or bite. A more concerning sign is when dogs display their teeth in a snarl or “smile.” While it may look funny to us, this often signifies aggressive behavior.

Common canine communication signals

Dog body language can sometimes be difficult to decipher. Below, we address nine common states of canine behavior and the body language often seen in each. Learning to recognize these signs can help keep you, your dog, and others around you safe.

covered in this guide

Aggression

Aggression is common in all types of animals, and dogs are no exception. Dogs may display aggression for a wide variety of reasons. These include social, territorial, protective,  possessive, or predatory aggression, among other factors. Recognizing aggression in dogs is essential to prevent dog fights or bites. Common signs of aggressive body language in dogs include:

  • Stiff posture with weight shifted forward
  • Raised hackles
  • Tail raised and stiff
  • Whale eyes
  • Ears pinned back
  • Snarling with lips curled back and teeth showing
  • Growling, barking, and/or snapping, and in extreme cases, lunging or biting

Alertness

Alert dog

Dogs are naturally curious creatures, and they’re often on high alert for new sights, sounds, and smells. Dogs may appear alert or aroused when experiencing new things or when they’re uncertain how to react to a stimulus. Arousal signals can often also accompany those of aggression or anxiety, so it’s important to note the dog’s entire body language in any given situation. Some common signs of alertness in dogs include:

  • Weight shifted forward
  • Tail raised and stiffly wagging
  • Eyes wide and hard-staring
  • Ears erect and facing forward
  • Muzzle tensed

Anxiousness

Anxious dog

Anxiety can be tricky to pinpoint, as signs can mirror those of other emotions, like excitement or fear. Anxiousness in dogs is often situational and may vary in the presence of certain other people, dogs, or new environments. Some common canine body language that suggests an anxious dog includes:

  • Pacing or walking back and forth or in circles
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Excessive panting
  • Yawning
  • Licking lips
  • Avoiding direct eye contact

Frustration

Frustrated dog

Like humans, dogs experience frustration in the face of unwanted outcomes. In pups, frustration often occurs either from being denied something they want or being unable to escape an uncomfortable situation. Signs to look for that suggest frustration include:

  • Tense posture (E.g., pulling or straining at a leash)
  • Stiff legs and weight shifted forward
  • Tail raised
  • Eyes wide
  • Ears pinned back

Fear

Fearful dog

Confidence is a great thing, but most dogs aren’t confident in every situation. Dogs experience fear for a wide variety of reasons and seeing a scared dog can be heartbreaking. Naturally, pet parents should try to keep their dogs away from fearful situations, though this isn’t always possible. Fear can also be a precursor to aggression if the dog senses an immediate threat. While there are some telltale signs of a fearful dog, some other behaviors can be trickier to recognize. Common fear-based body language in dogs includes:

  • Cowered/crouched posture with weight shifted back
  • Tucked tail between rear legs
  • Ears pinned back
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Lip-licking
  • Exposing their belly (as a sign of submission)

Happiness

Happy submissive dog

A happy or excited dog is a beautiful sight. Dogs display happiness for all sorts of reasons, and they often have a hard time containing it. While a wagging tail is a classic sign of a happy dog, it doesn’t always mean that. There’s also plenty of non-tail-based body language that suggests happiness in dogs. These include:

  • Loose and wiggly body posture
  • Tail wagging softly
  • Relaxed expression with mouth slightly open
  • Eyes softened or squinty
  • Ears slightly back
  • Leaning towards or on you
  • Rolling over for belly rubs

Playfulness

Playful dog

Recognizing playfulness in your pet is important, especially if you’re socializing them with other dogs. Playtime between seemingly friendly dogs can turn aggressive in an instant, so it’s important to keep an eye on body language and signs. Some common behaviors of playfulness in dogs include:

  • “Play bow” with front legs lowered ready to leap and rump/tail raised.
  • Tail wagging softly
  • Mouth open with tongue out
  • Eyes soft and relaxed
  • Ears up

Relaxation

Most pet parents love relaxing next to their calm pup. Dogs often relax when they’re in the comfort of their own homes, or accompanied by their favorite friends (and owners). If a dog feels comfortable enough to display these behaviors around you, they’re likely showing you how relaxed they are:

  • Laying down (sometimes in “frog-leg” position with the rear splayed out)
  • Loose, wriggly body
  • Tail wagging softly
  • Head and ears in a neutral position
  • Soft eyes
  • Open mouth with “smiling” expression

Stress

Stressed dog

Dogs respond to stress in many different ways. Commonly, they’ll exhibit “displacement behaviors,” or body language that seems out of context, and can provide hints at stress. Look for signs across the body of the whole dog to help differentiate stressful behaviors from those suggesting things like excitement or arousal. Some common signals of stress in dogs include:

  • Stiff body
  • Tail tucked
  • Excessive scratching
  • “Shaking off”
  • Hair raised
  • Lip-licking
  • Yawning
  • Whale eye
  • Avoiding eye contact

When to seek professional help for your dog’s behavior

There’s a lot that goes into responsible dog ownership, and deciphering your dog’s body language plays a big part. Understanding what your dog is trying to tell you can go a long way toward building your bond together. It’s up to us as pet parents to give our dogs the best lives we can, and communication is a key part of that dog-to-parent relationship.

If you notice changes in your dog’s behavior that suggest fear, anxiety, or aggression, it’s important to understand what’s causing it. In these cases, consider seeking help from a professional dog trainer or dog behaviorist . There’s certainly no shame in admitting you need help deciphering what your dog is trying to tell you. In the long run, there’s so much to gain and little to lose from deepening your understanding of the ways in which your dog communicates with you.