Understanding Dog Body Language

Understanding Dog Body Language

Learning how to understand dog body language can be a difficult task. Especially if you don’t currently have a dog. While many become naturally attuned to their dogs’ emotions over time, new owners (and those looking to become dog owners) can sometimes struggle with how to read dog body language. Of course, if you’re worrying about something specific, it’s always worth making a call to the vet, first.

Below is our complete guide to typical dog body language. With a complete breakdown for each part of the body. We’ll also give you some examples of how these are used in your dogs’ day-to-day communication with their owner. All in order to give you a well-rounded idea of what your dog is trying to tell you.

Body Language of a Dog

This guide gives you a general overview of how each part of the body can indicate something different about how your dog is feeling. It’s important to remember, however, that a combination of these is more telling about your dog’s overall mood and emotions. Rather than taking each of these taken at face value, on their own. 

The Tail

The tail is one of the most easily spotted signs of a dog’s feelings and thoughts. It’s generally well-known that wagging their tail means that they are happy. But even the way their tail wags can show different emotions. For example, a slow wag can be a sign of intrigue, while a fast, high wag means that they want to play.

Where their tail is currently placed is also important. A raised tail is a sign of a happy dog that wants to have some fun. Or, perhaps, that they are happy to greet new people or finds something particularly interesting. The latter of which is especially true if the tail is curled over their back. 

what does an upright tail mean - dog body language

A low tail is a sign of uncertainty, so don’t approach a dog with a low tail too fast. If it is low and bristled, it’s a sign of them checking something out that has caught their attention. However, a low tail with a gentle flick outwards at the end is a sign that they are cautious but generally relaxed. 

A tucked tail, on the other hand, is a sign of fear, anxiety or distress. In these cases, it is important to figure out the cause of the concern, and deal with this promptly, while putting your dog at ease. 

The Ears

The ears are another great indicator of whether your dog is happy. Upright ears are usually indicators of being alert but happy, and these will often have a slight dip on one or both sides. If both ears are facing forward in a stiff manner, it is a sign that they are looking for something. Or that something has caught their attention, such as a toy or unusual sound. 

Ears that are back can be a sign of submission. And you’ll notice this if they come over for a stroke or are facing a new threat.  All the way back, flat against their skull, is a surefire sign of anxiety or fear. So it’s important to take a look at the rest of the body language to decipher which emotions they’re currently going through. 

The Eyes

Dogs are keen eye-contact animals, especially if you’re with a herding breed such as a border collie, so reading the eyes can be hugely beneficial to working out their overall emotions. Most dogs will see sustained eye contact as a challenge. So don’t be surprised if your dog looks away while you’re trying to read their eyes. 

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

Relaxed eyes, for example, are usually scanning around the room, checking out different directions and generally fairly normal. However, wide eyes are a sign that something has caught their attention. Particularly if you’re holding a ball and they don’t want to miss your throw. 

If you notice that their pupils are dilated, however, this is a sign that they are under distress. And they may be feeling fearful, anxious or aggressive. If your dog’s pupils are wide but they are avoiding eye contact, this is a sign of submission. Often, if they are scared by something, they may turn their head away – but keep their eyes locked on to the threat. You can tell if this is the case, by checking to see if you can spot the whites of their eye. 

The Hackles

The main body has one sure-fire sign of stress levels being raised and that’s through the hackles. These become raised through piloerection when something concerns them. And is designed to make your dog look bigger than mating competitors or dangers in general. If you spot this, it’s best to take your dog away from the stressful situation, without handling them directly. 

The Paws

Dogs sweat through their paws. So if you notice paw prints on the floor through this sweat, you can be sure that your dog is scared, threatened or anxious about something. If this happens frequently, you may wish to look into ways to make your dog feel more relaxed. Examples of which include CBD oil or building on your bond through effective training. 

Another obvious sign of submissiveness is through a raised paw. While this can also be taught as a trick, your pup will often raise their paw of their own volition if they are concerned. Particularly if they want to show that you, or another dog/person, is more dominant to them. 

The Mouth

It’s relatively well-known that a snarl is aggressive, and you should never approach a dog that is snarling. In these cases, the majority of their teeth will be showing and there will be clear, defined wrinkles around their nose. They can, however, also do this when playing with other dogs. In these cases, rather than it be a sign of aggression, it’s simply a way for your dogs to have a little fun together. You can check which is which, by looking at their body language as a whole. Before deciding on whether there are any other indicators, such as raised hackles or low body movement. 

Panting is another indication of stress, alongside lots of yawning. Most panting is a result of healthy exercise. However, if your dog is panting without this, you can be sure that something about their current situation is causing them to become worried. 

The Walk

Dog trainers will often look at the gait of your dog to determine whether or not they are generally happy with the situation that they’re in. For example, long strides often mean that your dog is happy, relaxed and having a great time. A good example of this will be when you’re out playing. Here, you’ll spot your dog has lots of room to stretch their legs, as they follow you over fields or run to fetch the ball. 

Meanwhile, short strides are often accompanied by low, slow movements which show signs of stress and anxiety. For example, if your dog is in a stressful environment with new people, you might notice that they hold themselves lower to the ground. Before coming over shorter steps. They will also stretch their neck out farther than usual in order to smell that new person.

Typical Dog Body Language

As mentioned above, none of the indicators should be taken on their own merit, in order to determine your dog’s overall mood. Instead, you should combine the different areas to best read the dog body language. All of which will help you decipher what they are feeling.

The overall stance of dogs is a good indicator to combine with the above. Especially when checking whether your dog is simply over-stimulated, or very anxious about something. For example, a loose, relaxed stance whereby your dog is upright – but ears are relaxed – shows that your dog is generally calm. As they know that they are in a pleasant situation with people that they know and trust. 

However, a low stance, with ears pulled back while they are panting, shows that they are extremely worried about something. In these cases, you should therefore take steps to help negate the object of their stress. A good way to do this, if you can’t take your dog away from the situation, is to use a toy to distract them. All while reminding them know that there’s nothing to be concerned about, with an upbeat, relaxed tone of voice. 

Another typical movement that is recognized by most dog owners is the submissive pose.

This is where your dog is laying on their back, with their legs in the air, their tail tucked between their legs and refusing eye contact. This is usually the last port of call from your dog. Which they use to show you that they respect you completely as the dominant member of the pack. 

Generally, there are a lot of indicators before this point, which this article should help you to recognize. Such as the low body movements, short stride, ears being pinned back and so on. However, it’s not unusual for your dog to quickly move to this position if something has startled and scared them. If your dog is in this pose, don’t approach and stroke their stomachs. Instead, use a calm voice and let them know that they have been good. 



Editor-in-chief, lover of UX/UI and copywriter by trade. Wendy can usually be found ranting to herself over on Twitter, educating herself about health and wellness, parenting or gaming. Luckily, she doesn't do all of these things at the same time - though you'd be surprised how often they cross over.

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