How To Read Your Dog’s Body Language

dog at vet

Being able to read your dog’s body language is an important skill. Your dog’s body language can indicate when he’s comfortable, uncomfortable, threatened, or even feeling aggressive. Dogs use their body language as a communication tool, so in learning to understand your dog’s body language, you can better understand what your dog is trying to tell you.

Let Me Hear Your Body Talk!

In order to make an accurate assessment of what a dog’s behavior is saying, you should always encompass the entire body from the tip of the tail to their nose. After all, you wouldn’t be truly listening to another human being if you simply picked out every other word or ignored their body posturing, would you? Well, a dog is much the same!

Observing your dog’s overall body posture and stance is your first clue to how a dog is feeling. Be sure to pay heed if your dog’s body is stiff and tense. A stiff or tense body indicates that your dog is uncomfortable, fearful, excited, or on high alert. This tension is indicative to an anxious dog in a ‘fight or flight mode’. On the other hand, if your dog’s body is relaxed and loose, then you can be fairly certain that he feels calm and comfortable.

Bowing without growling, aggressive barking or raised hair; is often seen in playful or happy greeting behaviors. This type of body language is frequently displayed with humans and other animals — such as when Fido wants to initiate play with the family cat.

Hair of the Dog

Most folks would not think of the dog’s hair and whiskers as part of their body language. But in fact, the position of a dog’s hair can be a clear sign of what they’re feeling. Relaxed hair and whiskers generally signal a dog at ease. However, like a wagging tail, we strongly discourage you from relying solely on this body behavior to determine whether or not a dog is approachable.

Raised hair anywhere on their bodies are one of a dog’s warning signals to back off. This includes erect and twitching whiskers. Hair that is raised or erect and twitching whiskers mark the behavior of a tense and alert dog poised for an aggressive reaction. Stay clear and afford him his space.

I’m All Ears!

A dog’s ears is probably one of the most outward means of body language they use. They can vary from relaxed, perked, flickering back and forth to lowered. When your dog is feeling relaxed, his ears will be in their normal position.

Lowering of the ears means he is either happy and appeasing or, nervous. Pay special attention to other accompanying body language to determine which he is trying to tell you. Generally speaking, if a dog is nervous or submissive, he may flatten his ears back against his head and even cowl or hauch is back.

In contrast, when he gets excited or aggressive, he will lift his ears up and forward. When he’s trying to figure something out, his ears may flicker back and forth before coming to their final resolve.

Stiff Upper Lip

Typically your dog’s mouth will be slightly open and relaxed. A dog that suddenly tightens up and closes his mouth may be directing his attention to a sight, sound or activity. Pay attention to corresponding other behaviors to determine if he is feeling uncomfortable or threatened.

Licking their lips is another sign that dogs use to indicate that they are threatened or are feeling aggressive, and if provoked, a dog may lift up his lips to expose his teeth. This is not to be confused with the ‘smiling’ behavior. A closed mouth position with a tense jaw is a strong warning to back off.

Additionally, observe his jaw for tension or relaxation. Are they growling, is there tongue curled or relaxed, or are they panting excessively?

Those Soulful Eyes…

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. There’s a lot of truth to that cliche. Your dog’s eyes can tell you a lot about what he is feeling. Take a minute to casually observe your dog’s eyes while he is relaxed. If your dog is happy, he may squint a bit as he greets you after you’ve been out.

On the contrary, if your dog’s eyes are larger than normal, this can indicate that he is uncomfortable or even aggressive. For instance; if your dog is looking out of the corners of his eyes away from what he  feels as a threat, and you can see more of the whites of his eyes than usual, then he may be very tense and potentially aggressive. A hard stare that does not advert away can be deemed either offensive or defensive.

Remember: Never face off with a dog in a ‘staring contest’, as this is considered a challenge to a dog that can quite possibly result in getting bit. 

Tail Wagging Time

It is a common misconception that because a dog is wagging his tail, he is happy. While dogs do wag their tails when they are happy, they also wag their tails when they are nervous and apprehensive. Many a bite victim has been known to say, ‘but the dog was wagging his tail’. So it’s important to understand both the position and motion of the tail, as well as to understand the other body language that is going on simultaneously before making a determination.

A dog who is trying to intimidate someone may hold his tail high and rigidly, sometimes moving it back and forth in a wagging motion. This dog isn’t wagging his tail in a happy greeting; instead he is asserting himself.

With a dog who is nervous, he will typically hold his tail in a lower position than normal. If a dog is highly nervous or feels threatened, he may tuck his tail between his legs and up against his belly.

Rub My Belly

Who can resist a good belly rub, right? Well, sometimes it might be in your best interest while other times… please, feel free to rub away! We’ve all seen it —  the stop, drop and roll while they seemingly wait for the belly rub and scratch a special spot that makes their leg go 100 mph. But what if a belly rub is not what they are asking for, and how do you know the difference?

Dogs roll onto their backs to expose their bellies to us and other animals for several reasons. Often times, it is meant to show submission to another dog or animal, during play or courtship, and if they are comfortable with someone. The casual roll onto their back exposing their belly with a happy tail wag is a belly-rub welcoming invite.

If a dog abruptly drops and rolls over when you approach them, this signals submission. However, beware if it accompanies other body behaviors like a tail tuck, licking his lips or growling. These behaviors are a clear sign you would be well advised to leave the belly well enough alone. Never intentionally roll a dog over to rub their belly as it can surely make the dog anxious and fearful.

The Bottom Line

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