Your Guide to Dog Body Language

Happy dog and girl outdoors.A dog is a man’s best friend, and it is important for friends to understand each other. This goes for pet owners everywhere. One of the key steps dog owners need to take is understanding the body language of their dog. Pets do not have the ability to communicate in the same way people do. Therefore, dogs use other ways to communicate with pets and their owners.

Types of Cues

There are two separate broad categories of cues dogs might use to communicate with their owners. These are behavioral cues and holistic cues.

Behavioral Cues

Behavioral cues are signals dogs are attempting to communicate through their behavior. Some examples of behavioral cues are specific movements animals might undertake. Think about the various changes in the posture of a dog, how the dog moves its head or eyes, and what the dog is doing with its tail.

Furthermore, a dog wagging its tail is one of the most common and recognizable behavioral cues dogs exhibit. Behavioral cues are among some of the most common body language cues dogs use.

Holistic Cues

Holistic cues are different from behavioral cues because they are approximate evaluations. Within the category of holistic cues, there are two separate categories. These are emotional cues and intentional cues. Emotional cues are used to approximate what a dog is feeling in a given situation.

Some of the emotions dogs feel include happiness, anger, and sadness. Intentional cues are a little bit different and are used to describe behavioral cues a dog may exhibit to initiate behavior in a certain way. Certain behavioral cues have been described that might signal a dog wants to initiate play.

These are the two broad categories used to describe behavioral cues dogs might exhibit. It is important for pet owners to understand how to read the body language of their dog.

How to Read Your Dog’s Body Language

Seven happy puppies.There are several body parts a dog is going to use to communicate certain emotions, intentions, and behaviors to a pet owner. These include the eyes, mouth, ears, tail, hair, and even sweat. All of these signals indicate different facets of dog behavior.

The Eyes

A dog is going to use eye contact as a way to assess the intentions of those around it while also communicating its own feelings and intentions. For example, if a dog makes prolonged eye contact, also known as staring, this might indicate a sign of aggression. If eye contact is made in combination with body stiffness, this further supports the idea of aggression. At the same time, if dogs are making an effort to avoid eye contact, or are looking down, this indicates a form of submission.

The Mouth

Dogs use their teeth and lips to express a wide range of emotions. For example, if a dog is aggressive, the lips are curled back and are used to expose clenched teeth while also expressing a form of ferocity. If the lips aren’t curled back and the mouth is open to expose wide teeth, this indicates a more relaxed or playful mood. It is important to understand the emotions and moods dogs can convey with subtle changes in the structure of their mouth.

The Ears

Dogs have a tremendous amount of control over their ears and can use them to indicate a wide range of moods and emotions. Ears upright in manner and facing forward usually indicate a dominant and aggressive behavior. If the ears are pulled back, in contrast, this indicates either fear or submission. It is important for pet owners to notice the ears of their dogs and understand some dogs might not have the capacity to use their ears in this manner. Some dogs have ears that are either drooping in nature or have been damaged in some way.

The Tail

The tail is one of the most instantly recognizable tools dogs are going to use to communicate. Tail wagging is among the most recognizable. For example, if the tail is wagging but is also held high in nature, this indicates a sign of dominance. At the same time, if the tail is stiff while wagging, this indicates a form of aggressive behavior. Some dogs who are feeling fearful or submissive will place their tail between the hind legs in a stationary manner. Most people understand tails wagging in a free and rapid nature want to play.

It can be hard to interpret tail movements in dogs with short, curled, or cropped tails. The speed of the tail can tell someone a lot about what a dog is feeling as well. A tail wagging quickly is usually a sign of social behavior. At the same time, a tail wagging slowly might indicate a form of hesitance. There has been a lot of effort to research what tail wagging in certain populations of dogs might mean. If a dog wags its tail predominantly to the right (when viewed from the rear), this often means the dog is feeling approachable and friendly.

If the dog is wagging its tail to the left, this indicates a more stressed feeling, associated with a more withdrawn response. It is important for pet owners to learn what tail wagging means with respect to their specific dog.

The Hair

Even the dog’s hair can mean a lot with respect to how a dog can feel. If the hair is raised, this often means the dog is feeling upset and might be quick to anger or attack. On the other hand, dogs might also start to shed their hair. This frequently happens if the animal is feeling either frightened or stressed in some way. It is important for pet owners to brush their dogs regularly with dog grooming products to become familiar with what the dog is doing with its hair. Lysine supplements for dogs can also improve the overall health of a dog’s coat. How a dog changes its hair in response to certain situations can be valuable information for a pet owner.

The Sweat

Pet owners also need to pay attention to how much their dog is sweating. Dogs sweat differently than people. Dogs start to pant as their primary mode of sweating. In panting, dogs will start to breathe quickly, and liquid will start to drip from the tongue. Panting is a way of dogs cooling down and is the dog’s response to situations where it might feel stressed, worked up, or overheated. Teeth cleaning products and dental chews may help overtime for dogs who excessively drool. 

Dogs also have sweat glands in the pads of their paws and will start to leave wet footprints when they walk. It is important for pet owners to take note of this because it indicates dogs are overheated, stressed, and need to cool down.

Overall Body Posture and Movement

Side view of five dogs.There are also key aspects of body posture and movement pet owners need to understand.

Relaxed and Approachable

Dogs both relaxed and approachable are going to exhibit a few movements and postures. Dogs will often lay down and roll over, exposing their belly in this situation. Their eyes are going to look very relaxed in nature. They will also have their mouth open, and their tongue might also be exposed. These are common signals a dog is feeling happy and trusting around the current crowd.

Alert and Checking Things Out

Dogs who are alert and checking things out are going to exhibit a few signs. Their ears are going to be up and perked at the top of the head. They are going to have their eyes wide open as they assess the situation. The dog is going to have a horizontal tail pointing straight back, which might be wagging at a slow speed. Dogs will keep their mouths closed and will be leaning forward to check out the situation. Pet owners should be wary of a dog in this position.

Dominant and Aggressive

Dominant and aggressive dogs are going to be far from approachable. Some of the body posture and movements people will want to watch for in this situation include a stiff tail pointed up. The dog’s ears are going to be alert and perked in nature. Dogs will often wrinkle their nose and purse their lips. They will show their teeth and raise their hair as well.

Fearful and Aggressive

Not all aggressive dogs are going to be feeling dominant. Sometimes, dogs are aggressive because they are scared. An aggressive dog is still going to pull back its lips to reveal its teeth. At the same time, the tail might be pointed to the ground instead and the dog might be looking away from the situation out of fear.

Pet owners should think about this form of body language as a cross between the common signs of dominance and the common signs of fear. Pets in this situation are going to be feeling a complicated range of emotions, which might be difficult to process.

Stressed and Distressed

Dogs feeling a high amount of stress and distress are going to behave in a certain way. First, the whites around their eyes are going to show. Their pupils will also be dilated and wide, focused on the situation. Dogs feeling stressed will also purse their lips while keeping their mouths closed. Their ears are going to lay flat on their head and their hair might even start to shed. The dog will also start to move back out of fear. These are signs the dog is feeling stressed about the current situation.

Fearful and Worried

Dogs both fearful and worried are going to show a few common signs. Dogs will often raise a single paw, indicating they are a bit worried about the situation and ready to leave. Dogs will also look away from the situation. They will often pull back the corner of their mouth. Their body is going to be lowered and their tail is going to be pointed down. Dogs will also point their ears back, showing fear. Pet owners should watch for a dog feeling fearful and worried, and may even want to invest in calming treats for dogs with anxiety

Extreme Fear and Total Submission

Some extremely fearful dogs are going to exhibit total submission in nature and will want to be left alone. First, dogs in this situation are going to tuck their tail between their legs. They will also flatten their ears against their head. Dogs feeling fearful will also turn their head away from the other people or animals involved. Dogs will also close their eyes to avoid the stressful situation and will close their mouth as well. These are common signs a dog is feeling extreme fear regarding the current situation, and pet owners should respond accordingly.

Playful in Nature

On the other hand, dogs will also give off signals they want to play. Some of the signs pet owners should look for include a tail that is up and inquisitive. Dogs will also have dilated pupils, indicating they are ready to go. Sometimes, their mouth will be open and they might even be panting due to a rise in heart rate. Dogs will also lower their front end and raise their hind legs, as though they are getting ready to take off running, jumping, or pouncing. These are signs the dog is ready to gear up and play.

Potential Consequences of Humans Ignoring the Body Language of Dogs

Sad dog behind fence in shelter.Humans need to make sure they can accurately assess the body language of dogs. This allows humans to interact accurately and respond appropriately to the needs of their pets. This means it can be used to improve someone’s relationship and companionship with their dog. At the same time, if humans fail to do this, it can lead to serious consequences.

First, humans might not be able to tell when the dog is going to reach out and bite or even scratch them. Often, bites are shallow in nature and involve children who simply do not know better. These bites can be taken as warning signals. At the same time, if the human’s behavior does not change accordingly, the bites will become more severe and might move from relatively minor areas (such as hands or arms) to severe areas (such as the torso, chest, or neck). Also, be sure to keep your dog’s nails short with dog nail clippers or dog nail grinders to avoid further injury. 

This action also has severe complications for the animal as well. Often, when dogs behave poorly and bite someone, the result is euthanasia. No pet owner wants to see their loved one get put down.

Therefore, it is important for pet owners to keep an eye on their dog’s body language, assess it, and react accordingly. This will go a long way toward not only reducing the frequency of dog attacks, but also improving the companionship between dogs and people.