And what they give us is a visual language through their bodies. Body language involves the movement and physical orientation of various body parts. In this article, I’m going to give you seven tips for reading the canine body, from head to toe, so you’ll understand how to interpret what you are seeing. This can help you make better decisions about what you are doing, where you are, who you’re with, and more – to keep your dog safe and happy, and to protect the safety of those around you.
1. Head and Ears
The head and ears are one of the first things to look at in any animal, really, but especially dogs. The way that they’ve got their head held and the way their ears are positioned can tell you a lot about what they are feeling before they take any action. For example:
- A head that is held high and is looking straight ahead is simply a dog’s relaxed, alert position. It means they are interested and happy.
- Ears that are held upright but not pushed forward are generally a sign that your dog is just paying attention. He’s interested in what’s going on, but he’s not alarmed.
- If the ears flick forward over the forehead, your dog is concentrating hard on what is happening. This may be the very first sign of a dog that is getting a little concerned about something.
- If your dog’s head starts to get wrinkles in the forehead (assuming your dog doesn’t have wrinkles there, like a Shar Pei), it could be a sign that they are about to assert their dominance in a situation.
- If a dog’s head is bowed or tucked in to their neck, and their ears are laid back on their neck, they are likely afraid – but this type of body language can signal a fear that will lead to aggression, not a fear that will lead to running away.
- If your dog’s ears are back but their head is still upright, they are likely stressed, but not quite at the aggressive fear stage yet.
- If your dog keeps their head turned to avoid eye contact – and continues to move their head to avoid eye contact when you try to catch their eye – it means they are definitely afraid. They are showing you a submissive behavior.
A dog’s eyes are another area that you need to pay attention to when reading body language. Here are some examples:
- Dogs eyes get wider when they are very alert. They are trying to check something out and by widening the eyes, they can see more. This is why we often describe dogs that have naturally wide, round eyes as looking very curious and inquisitive.
- The pupils of a dog’s eyes will dilate when they are afraid. However, their pupils will also dilate when they are playing. Be sure to consider the rest of their body language to determine which is which.
- Eye contact will be briefer and more indirect when a dog is worried or anxious. And they will avoid eye contact entirely when they are scared enough to be totally submissive.
3. Mouth and Tongue
Did you know that there’s a secret language in the way dogs position their tongues as well? For example:
- If the mouth is just slightly open with the tongue flopping out all willy-nilly, your dog is probably relaxed and happy.
- If your dog seems relaxed with their tongue out, and then suddenly closes their mouth and puts their tongue away, it’s likely a sign that they have been alerted by something and are trying to check it out.
- If a dog curls his lips to show his teeth, he is showing aggressive behavior. This is a warning that they may bite.
- If a dog has his head down to the ground and shows just a bit of teeth, he is scared, but may choose to bite out of fear rather than back down.
- If a dog is rapidly panting, and has their mouth pulled into what looks like a smile, this could be a sign that they are stressed. However, your dog may have a natural resting smile that could just be a sign he’s hot and needs some water. Be sure to know your dog before making a judgment on their body language.
- If your dog is licking the air or licking a dominant dog that they are showing submissive behavior towards, it’s simply another sign of being afraid and submissive.
Yes, your dog’s feet also give you a clue as to their feelings. Here are some examples:
- Dogs that are relaxed and happy will stand in a loose stance with their feet flat on the ground.
- If your dog’s body weight is leaning forward, and they appear to be on their toes more than the flat of their foot, they are likely alert and checking something out.
- If your dog is leaning forward but their legs appear to be very stiff or poised lower to the ground, they could be showing a sign of aggression.
- If your dog’s paws are sweaty, and it’s not a hot day, this is a sign of stress or fear. If your dog is a very anxious dog who does this often, you may want to carry a travel towel. Some dogs can actually start leaving sweaty footprints behind due to fear or anxiety.
5. Body and Fur
What your dog does with his whole body, and the way his fur is laying, can also help you understand how he feels. Here are a few examples:
- Dogs that want to play will lean their fronts forward, with their back end raised up into the air. This is a pretty common sign of playfulness, and most people recognize this body language as friendly and fun. It can get a bit rowdy though, especially if your dog likes to take a big jump from this position to play. So be on guard for rougher behavior when your dog starts acting this way.
- If your dog rolls over and exposes his belly while showing other signs of fear, this is an extreme sign of submission.
- If a dog lowers his body towards the ground in the presence of a person or another animal, especially when showing other signs of fear, this is a sign of fear, anxiety, or submission.
- If your dog’s hackles (the fur at the shoulders, tail, and possibly along the spine) raise, it is a sign of fear and aggression. It may look like your dog suddenly has a Mohawk. This is a good sign that you need to get your dog out of a certain situation.
We’ve already talked in depth about how to read the body language of your dog’s tail, but just as a refresher, here are some examples of tail behavior that you should watch for:
- A tail that is relaxed and hanging down (provided your dog’s tail naturally hangs) is a sign of a happy dog. Some dogs have tails that naturally curl or lay on their backs, while others have short tails that just can’t lay down. Know your dog’s natural stance to understand what signs to watch for.
- If your dog’s normally relaxed tail suddenly becomes horizontal (but it’s not stiff or bristled – think of a wagging tail without the wag), it’s likely that your dog is alert and checking something out.
- A tail that is stiff and bristled is a sign of aggression.
- A tail that is tucked between the legs is a sign of fear or anxiety.
7. Other Signs to Watch
There are a few other things that you can watch for if you aren’t sure how to tell the difference between certain behaviors. For example, your dog may show some very similar signs between anxiety and aggression at times. While the best response for either of these feelings is to remove your dog to a safe space, which one they are feeling could change how you go about doing that. So here are some other things to watch for to help you narrow down your actions:
- If a dog is showing signs that could be either fear or aggression, and you notice that they are urinating (either a full stream or a few drops), they are feeling fear.
- If your dog has wrinkles in their nose (again, assuming they don’t typically, like a Shar Pei), they are showing signs of aggression.
- If your dog shows signs that you think may be aggressive, but then begins to show signs of playfulness, like raising their rear end, wagging their tail in broad waves, and exposing their tongue, this is usually a sign that their previous actions were supposed to be playful, not threatening.
The Importance of Knowing Your Dog
All of these tips are very good rules of thumb to follow for reading the body language of your dog, and strange dogs that you don’t know.
However, when it comes to your dog, you have both an advantage and a responsibility. All dogs are unique individuals just like people. And all breeds have slightly different features that can act differently when communicating. I mentioned a few times above that a Shar Pei, for example, is too wrinkly to really count on wrinkles as a good indicator of feelings. And a dog like a Cocker Spaniel won’t be able to communicate through ear movement, because their ears typically stay put. A dog with a short or curly tail, like a Bulldog, won’t be able to show you with a bristled tail that they are feeling aggressive.
That is why it is very important as a dog owner that you get to know your dog. You’ll know that your Bulldog’s all over body wiggling indicates happiness, or that her widening stance and extra slobber mean anxiety. By watching how your dog behaves in all situations, you’ll be able to build your own dictionary, of sorts, of their behavior. This is very important for keeping your dog safe and knowing how to respond in all situations.
Remember to keep context in mind as well. If you come across a strange dog who is panting a lot, your first thought may be that they are afraid – but where are you? If you are at or near a dog park where they could have been running and playing a lot, they could just be tired and hot. Common sense is very important in reading body language.
That being said, you can keep these seven tips in mind the next time you meet a dog, or need to understand your own dog in a jiffy. They’ll give you a good starting point and you’ll know what to watch if nothing else. Catalogue your dog’s behavior in these seven areas to get a good feeling for what they are trying to tell you.