How to read your dog’s body language

Dog body language isn’t quite as complicated as English, thank goodness! Dogs have learnt that using their bodies to communicated makes their intentions extremely clear. For humans understanding this form of body language takes some practicing but once we understand it, it makes our relationship with our 4-legged companions much easier.

Dog body language can be as subtle as lip licking or as obvious as barking and growling. We as humans need to become more aware of the more subtle forms of communication. This is similar to the way we communicate. We start with subtle communication like suggesting someone leaves you alone by ignoring them. If they persist then we end up having to shout at them.

The same thing happens with dogs. A simple tucked tail could indicate that a dog is fearful of someone, if the person ignores this subtle form of communication and still tries to approach the dog, the dog will have to be more obvious by growling or barking. The last resort is having to bite someone if they ignore all the other signs. This is why we always say a dog never bites out of the blue. There are always signals that indicate that a dog is going to bite.
We will go through a few different subtle forms of communication that dogs show and that humans are generally unaware of.

It is important to note here that, although all dog body language is similar, your individual dog may have subtle differences. You should constantly observe your dog and note how he looks when relaxed, excited, fearful, and alert.

The four main areas to note are the tail, body, ears, and face.

Let’s look firstly at what a relaxed dog generally appears like.
The tail of a relaxed dog will be soft and floppy. Normally midway between up and down. This varies with breeds. Some breeds like huskies and pugs have their tails up constantly.

The body will be in a neutral position, not obviously weighted forward or back. The hackles on the dog will be down and his general demeanour will be relaxed.

The ears of the dog are a major communication tool. They can move in a wide range and are very obvious on most dogs. For a relaxed dog the ears will be soft and in a neutral position. Not pushed forward or pulled back.

The face of a dog includes his eyes, and mouth. A relaxed dog will have a relaxed mouth, with his tongue out and lips relaxed. His eyes will be soft and not staring in any particular direction and not holding eye contact for too long.

a relaxed dog
Note how the dog looks like it is smiling.

A fearful dog
His tail will generally be tucked between his back legs.
The body will be cowering and he will try make himself look small by crouching and even lying down. He may also try to back away, generally the weight of the dog will be towards the back legs.
His ears will be pulled back and even pressed down against his head
The dog’s face will be tense, mouth with be shut, you may notice the dog licking his lips (this is a calming mechanism) you will see the whites of the dog’s eyes (called whale eye).

Fearful dog body language
Note the whale eyes.

Playful dog
The tail of a playful dog will be wagging from side to side midway between up and down. The tail shouldn’t be stiff short wags because this would mean the dog is more nervous/ stressed about the situation.
The body will be bouncy and playful, dogs often do a play bow, which is when they leave their bums in the air and put their front legs on the ground. Please note that the hackles may stand, this doesn’t mean your dog is getting aggressive, its also associated with excitement.
The ears will generally be pushed forward
The face will be less tense than a fearful dog and may even look like your dog is smiling, tongue will be out and mouth open and not tense.

Playful dog body language
Typical play bow.

Aggressive dog body language
The tail of an aggressive dog may be wagging in short stiff wags. Many people assume if a dog wags its tail its happy, which is not true.
The body will also be stiff and tense, the weight of the dog will be forward. He will be standing square on with his opponent.
The ears may be pushed forward and tense also facing the opponent. Or they maybe be tucked back.
The face of the dog is where you will find all of the aggression. The dog will be either growl and baring his teeth or barking loud and forcefully. His eyes will be tense and staring straight at the opponent.

Aggressive dog body language
Forward weight, staring, ears forward, and face is tense.

A dominant dog body language
A dominant dog is often overlooked by people and this is probably the main cause of dog fights.
The tail of a dominant dog will be standing high up and stiff, with little wagging. It may seem like its shacking.
The body will be weighted forward and stiff, there are tell tale signs that a dog is trying to dominate another. He may put is paw or head over the other dog (called T-shaping) he may even try and mount the other dog. Any resources or interesting things around the dominant dog will push in to get first access. Hackles may also be raised.

The ears will be pushed forward and tense.
The face of the dog will the tense, eyes will be wide open and mouth tense. Mostly closed. If the dog is panting you will still be able to notice that the mouth is tense.
If your dog is behaving like this, you need to monitor the situation. It is generally recommended that you removed the dog from the situation. If the other dog is also dominant, they will fight. If the other dog becomes submissive then they shouldn’t fight, and they will carry on with their walk.

Dominant dog body language
The husky is standing over the other dog, its face is tense and ears forward.

Submissive dog body language
Tails of submissive dogs generally are tucked between their legs or are hanging low. The tail may wag slightly.
The body will be low too, the dog may roll over, exposing their belly. They may even urinate a little. The hackles may stand, but again this is caused by excitement/stress. The dog may get up and run around like crazy trying to defuse the situation.
The ears will be low and soft.
The face will have whale eye, they may lick their lips and try lick the face of the other dog. The mouth will be tense.

dog body language chart.
An awesome diagram of some of the different dog body language signs.

These are just some basics of canine body language and if you are interested in learning more there are many short courses you can join to grow your knowledge.

Like I have said, as a dog owner you should be able to communicate with your dog effectively. If you have good pictures of the above body language scenarios, please post them in the comments. If you have a video of your dog and are unsure what it is trying to say you can also post that and we can discuss what we see.

For more on dog training and other dog related topics check out our blog page.