Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Dogs may not speak the same language that we do, but they’re still master communicators.

Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the different ways that dogs use their bodies to communicate their thoughts and feelings to those around them.

This often leads to situations where someone may make an assumption about how their dog is feeling in a particular situation, but they could be way off.

german shepherd head tilt

These wrong assumptions could be potentially dangerous, especially when a larger dog is showing dominant or aggressive body language towards a weaker dog or, worse, a child.

By learning what your dog’s body language means, you can stop guessing and properly understand what your dog is trying to tell you. 

Eyes

Most people – whether they’re able to understand a dog’s body language or not – would agree that dogs have wonderfully soulful eyes.

Dogs also use their eyes to send clear signals about how they’re feeling in different situations.

When it comes to eye contact, dogs will generally avoid making prolonged eye contact in everyday situations.  So if you see them staring intently or maintaining an unbroken, direct line of sight, you’ll know that this is intentional.

Your dog may be feeling dominant, aggressive, or excited: you have to choose which one by considering the context and other body signals your dog is giving at the time.

Relaxed Eyes - Calm, Neutral

When a dog is feeling relaxed and calm, their eyes will be soft, and no additional wrinkles will be visible around their eyes.

Eyes Wide - Ready for Action

When the eyes are opened wider than usual, this could be a sign that your dog is feeling confident and sure of themselves.

If you’ve ever watched a nature documentary, watch the eyes of predator stalking it’s prey. Their eyes stay wide open, their eyes dilate, and they give all their focus to their target.

They may react the same way when you present a tasty treat, or their favorite toy.

Eyes focused on something they want

Dog’s with high prey drive will exhibit similar behavior, especially when they spot a rodent or something that peaks their interest. It may be difficult to break their concentration, and their high prey drive may make them difficult to train in outside areas.

Squinting - Affection

When a human squints their eyes, this usually means that they’re feeling either suspicious or unsure. 

It’s a different story with dogs, though, as squinted eyes usually accompany a friendly greeting and are a clear sign that the dog wants to please, and is happy to see you.

Avoiding Eye Contact - Sad or Afraid

Similarly, if a dog avoids making eye contact, they could be afraid, or they could be trying to signify that they’re feeling happy and comfortable and don’t want any trouble.  To make this distinction, you will need to look at other body clues as well as the individual situation.

Ears

Some dogs have ears that stick out, others have long floppy ears, and some have an adorable combination of both.

Rather than looking at the whole of the ear, take notice of the position of the base of the year. All dogs, regardless of their ear type and shape, can move the base of their ears to show different emotions.

A relaxed dog’s ears will be held in a soft or neutral position. 

As a dog becomes scared or worried, the base of the ears will move backward.

Some dogs express pure joy by moving their ears back as well (like being excited to see their owners), and this is usually paired with a wagging tail.

Conversely, when a dog moves the base of the ears forwards, they are showing arousal, curiosity, or excitement.

Mouth

Everything from barking, growling, panting, and yawning can all be signs of body language.

Aggressive and Playful Growling

A verbal growl will usually be accompanied by a wrinkled muscle, as the lips are pulled vertically upward displaying the front teeth. 

Look carefully at a dog growling in an aggressive way and you’ll see that the corners of the mouth form a curve, similar to the shape of the letter C.

Growling can also be a part of play. If you’ve ever played a game of “tug” with your dog, they commonly make noise while excited.

Some breeds tend to “talk” or non-aggressively growl as an everyday form of communication. This is a common trait among Huskies, Malamutes, and Shibi Inus. People may mistake this type of growling as aggressive behavior.

Again, look at other cues to determine the difference between aggressive and playful body language.

Grinning

There’s another time that dogs may display their front teeth, and this will be a much more welcome gesture.

If you’ve ever watched videos of guilty dogs online, you’ll be familiar with the goofy smile or grin some dogs make when they’re being submissive.

This front teeth display will be accompanied by squinting or otherwise soft eyes, a lowered head, and often a gently wagging tail.

Panting

While panting is usually attributed to exertion or the need to cool off, the sudden need to breath faster may be a response to stress.

When a dog is feeling afraid, they may pant rapidly as if they’ve just exerted themselves, or the mouth might be closed with the lips appearing long and pulled back at the sides.  Some dogs will produce excess saliva during times of extreme stress.

Yawning

When your dog yawns they might be showing you that it’s time for a rest, or they could be displaying early signs stress or excitement.

This stress-related yawn may be accompanied by rapid lip licking. When you notice this, look to see what is causing your dog to feel stressed or confused.  Perhaps you can remove them from a potentially worrying situation.

Some may yawn just based on pure excitement (like coming home after being away for a while), and is usually accommodated with a wagging tail.

Tail

All dogs move their tail to display different feelings and emotions, but dogs with docked or very short tails, or tales that are permanently curled, may not be as easy to read as other dog breeds.

When a dog is relaxed, the tail will extend in a neutral position either directly out from the spine, or slightly below the level of the spine.

The more excited or confident a dog becomes, the higher the base of the tail will rise.

Conversely, when a dog is feeling scared or submissive, the base of the tail will drop, causing the tail to tuck under –  sometimes completely between the legs.

Also, take notice of the movement of the length of the tail.  A soft yet unmoving tail, or one wagging gently from side to side, indicates a relaxed and happy dog.  The faster the tail movements, the more excited or aroused the dog is becoming.

Dogs Study Our Body Language

While we learn more about how our canines communicates with us, our dogs are already experts in reading human emotions. In a recent study at the University of Lincoln, UK, and University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, they found dogs will study the face and pick up on our subtle human body language and respond accordingly.
James Woller

James Woller

James Woller is a long-time dog enthusiast, and co-owner of Jet Pet Resort and Release the Hounds, professional dog service companies based in Vancouver, Canada. James is also the executive director of Thrive For Good (previously Organics for Orphans), a non-profit movement to secure organic food and natural medicine in impoverished countries.

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