BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Reading Dog Body Language: Understanding What Your Dog Is Trying to Say

Reading Dog Body Language
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Do you know what your dog is trying to say? Do you know what he or she must be feeling at all times? If not, you must start learning some of the signs so you are aware if they are ill, if a certain kind of danger is coming your way, if they need your attention or if they are just simply happy with what you are doing. This way you could make a better bond with your dog and build a more loving atmosphere for them.

As a dog owner, the welfare of your dog must be of primary importance to you. Taking care of your dog does not stop at providing food and shelter for them. It is very important that you can also communicate by learning to read your dog’s body language. Listed here are several types of messages your dog might be sending and how you can identify them through bodily signals.

When relaxed and happy

When a dog is relaxed and contented, the first thing you will notice is that their tail is wagging vigorously. This is a very clear sign that they are happy or playful. Their eyes are sparkly and ears are perked forward or relaxed. The mouth is slightly open and he or she is panting excitedly. When it comes to the body, it is also relaxed and the front end of the body could be sometimes lowered while the rear end is in the air. They could also be bouncing excitedly or jumping up and down.

Happy dog

Sometimes they could be circling around, rolling over or running backward and forward which is a clear invitation that they want to play. This type of attitude in a dog is usually very easy to approach.

When alert

When something has caught of your dog’s interest, you can observe that their eyes are wide open and ears are perked up, alert and turning to catch any sound. The mouth could be closed or slightly open. They are usually standing on all fours and the nose could be wriggling, straining to catch any smell they find interesting. The body is not stiff and not bristled and the tail could be moving from side to side.

Alerted dog

When your dog shows these types of body language, understand that he or she is very alert and closely paying attention to the surroundings so he or she can assess the situation especially if there is any imminent threat or if any action should be taken.

When dominant and aggressive

When your dog is feeling threatened or is being agitated, he or she could show signs of being socially dominant and showing that he or she can attack at any time when feeling challenged. These signs include a wrinkled nose, showing teeth and some gums, the forehead could also be wrinkled. The mouth is open and the corners are drawn back to expose a snarl. The eyes are often narrowed and ears are perked forward or forming a wide V.

Dominant dog

The tail is stiff and also bristled. The body is stiff and sometimes leaning forward, and the back could become bristled. Very commonly, you can hear a snarl, growl or loud barking.

When fearful and aggressive

There are times that your dog could be afraid but is also aggressive at the same time. This dog could attack at any time when challenged. Signals of being fearful while aggressive could manifest when the dog is directly facing the person or another animal that is posing the threat. The ears are usually pointing back and the pupils dilated.

However, the nose is wrinkled to show aggressiveness and the lips are slightly curled. The corner of the mouth are also pulled back. The body is lowered and the tail is usually tucked between the two hind legs. The hairs on the back are most commonly bristled. To stop this behavior before it becomes out of hand, you should definitely read this article on dealing with dog aggression.

When stressed and/or distressed

You can see signs of a dog being stressed and/or distressed when he or she is experiencing some social or environmental stress. Usually, this dog has his or her ears back, body lowered tail down or tucked between hind legs and pupils dilated. He or she could also be rapidly panting and the paws are sweating.

Sad face

The body is also lowered and a front paw could be curled back. The face could also look sad. These signs are generally just a manifestation of what they are feeling and is usually not directed to anyone. There are several methods you can try to calm your dog down, which you can find in this article on how to calm down a dog.

When worried and afraid

Some signs of submission can be seen when a dog is somewhat fearful or worried. These signs are given off by the dog so that the one whom he or she sees has a higher position and is potentially threatening could be calmed down. This is a dog’s way of avoiding conflict and challenges. This dog usually has his or her body lowered, ears pulled back, and tail wagging very slightly. The forehead is smooth, unlike that when aggressive.

The eye contact offered is very brief and almost always indirect. A paw can sometimes be raised like he or she is offering it to make friends. The dog could lick at the face of the dominant individual or at the air. The corner of the mouth is pulled back and he or she could sometimes leave sweaty footprints which means that they are anxious for the threat of conflict or sorry for whatever wrong they did.

When under extreme fear

When a dog is showing signs of being extremely afraid, total surrender and submission, he or she has the tail tucked in, eyes partly closed and ears flat and pulled on the back of the head. It is very common for a dog to lie on their back with front paws tucked in when afraid. The nose and the forehead are usually smooth without any wrinkles and the head is turned away so as to avoid direct eye contact. A few drops of urine may also be expelled due to extreme fear.

Scared puppy

When a dog shows these signs, he or she is telling you that he or she accepts the lower status before a higher or threatening individual. This is their way of avoiding confrontation or getting hurt physically.

When anxious

Aside from being scared, your dog could also be anxious sometimes for certain reasons. To detect this you must look for several signs. Your dog is anxious if the ears are partially back, the eyes are slightly narrowed, the mouth is closed or is slightly open in a grin, the body is tense or slightly lowered such as in a submissive mood. The tails is also partially lowered and you can hear a low whining or a moaning kind of bark from them.

Anxious dog

When you notice this it means that something is wrong with them, such as being afraid of something or feeling that there is something wrong with their bodies. If the signs continue then it might be time for you to call the vet.

When about to chase

When your dog is being agitated or is angry or interested at something or someone, especially without a leash on, you must look for signs that it is about to chase. The ears are perked up and forward pointing and the eyes are wide open and very alert. The mouth is slightly open and could be showing a snarl or could be excitedly panting. The body is tense and is crouched in a low position, the legs are bent and ready to start running at any time. The tail is extended straight outward from the body. The hairs on the back could also be bristled.

When guarding

When guarding or being possessive, your dog’s ears could be perked up and forward. The eyes are wide and very alert. The mouth is slightly opened with the teeth bared. The dog could also snap or gnash its teeth at the individual whom the attitude is directed to. The dog’s body is rigid and tense. He or she is also standing very tall as if in the aggressive or dominant manner.

Guard dog

The tail is rigid, pointed straight out from the body and could be bristled. A very loud bark could be heard or sometimes just a growl or a snarl.

When predatory/about to bite

When about to attack or bite, a dog is very, very alert. Its ears are alert, held forward or backward to strain for any sounds or movement. The eyes are wide open and focused and staring at a target. The mouth is snarling or could also be barking. The body is rigid, low to the ground and ready to spring forward any time. When stalking a prey, they could be quiet, careful not to alert their prey and quietly sniffing the air. When about to bite, the dog freezes and becomes suddenly stiff. It stands with splayed front legs and the lips are curled.

When aroused

When a dog is very interested in something or trying to decide on the appropriate action to take, the dog might not be responsive to any interaction or attention. When petting it, the dog may not respond as if you did not do anything. The signs include, ears forward, mouth closed, intense eyes, body leaning forward and tense, high tail which may or may not be wagging.

An example of this is when a dog is about to chase a smaller animal such as a squirrel. The dog is very much ready for action. Adults and children alike must learn to not disturb a dog in this state since it might agitate them and cause them to attack you.

Doggie language

As a dog owner, you must know that those listed here are not the only reactions and expressions that a dog can do. There are thousands of other expressions and attitudes which could be manifested by a lot of different combinations as well. As a dedicated and loving dog owner, you must master the reactions and moods of your dog so that you and your dog will be more at ease with each other. This is true especially if you are a first time dog owner.

Among those of the expressions not included in the list are the tilting of the head. That very cute head tilting is a sign that your dog is curious or is wanting to understand something. Another example is when your dog is walking in circles accompanied by small whimpers, especially in a confined place such as a cage or a room. This means that your dog is about to urinate or poop. When this happens, you must immediately find a way to release your dog to the place where they are allowed to do it or to the open.

Another is when dogs yawn. When people yawn it is usually a sign that we are sleepy. But in dogs it is not only a sign of sleepiness but is also a way for them to relieve the stress that they are feeling.

There is really a lot of meaning to all the actions a dog does. It ranges from the meaning of different vocal signs such as barking, growling, and whining. But it doesn’t stop there, even the loudness and the frequency of which they do this have different meanings. For example, if your dog is looking at you and is barking at a moderate volume and slightly high pitched manner, it means they want you to pay attention to them. If they are whining in a low volume but high pitched tone, it is a sign of distress and means that the dog may need help.

Understaning dog body language

Confused? You do not have to worry at all. Understanding your dog’s body language is very simple. You just have to spend more time with them and pay more attention. Learning how to read a dog’s body language is the key for you to be more adept to their needs and become the best dog owner there is.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Florence Riley

    Wow! Very detailed and interesting read. I agree that the head tilting is just one of many cute antics of our pets. When my daughter strums her guitar gently, our Golden immediately tilts his head to the left that’s so precious! Clearly, our dogs have different ways of communicating. We must stay sensitive to their needs.

    • John Walton

      Thank you very much, Florence. Golden Retrievers are great therapy dogs and this is where they truly shine – therapy and companionship. They learn from us, and definitely we can still learn a lot from them.

  • Margaret Aniston

    We used to have a boxer that makes this grunting noises with his head doing a little wob – when he’s extremely happy. It scared the crap in a lot of people.
    My neighbor has a new puppy that’s just learning to chase and run. He does this shuffling of his feet like he’s wiping on a doormat to get the attention of another dog. He then runs away and wonder why no one is even following him!
    I wonder if there are still some dog nuances and behavior that we haven’t known yet?

    • John Walton

      Dogs, despite them being with us for quite a very long time, is still considered as a mysterious animal. Recent research and development enables us to understand them deeper and in a broader perspective, and who knows one day we will be able to understand them completely.

  • Lucy Wilde

    It’s easy to understand how dogs and humans evolves side by side when considering the body language of dogs and how we take to them naturally. While some dogs are individually predisposed to be more aggressive or friendly (mostly due to psychological factors), it’s their body language that gets this across of us. Our dog makes this specific ‘happy whine’ that I have no idea where he got, but it means he’s really happy and grateful. So many little things in the small gestures!

    • John Walton

      I definitely agree with you, Lucy. Their development and evolution are cohesive in how we developed as humans as well. The body language and how they make their way to our attention (and hearts) is something that is truly remarkable.

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