We all wish our dogs could tell us what they’re thinking. But if you watch closely and know what to look for, your dog is telling you how he’s feeling. He’s doing it all the time—through his body language.
Understanding canine body language is an important part of pet parenthood. Learn to decode your pup’s visual cues, and you’ll instantly recognize when he’s happy, scared, curious, or angry. Here’s how to know exactly what your dog is telling you, no words necessary.
Canine Communication: How Dogs Communicate
While dogs have some vocal ability, the range of sounds they can produce is relatively limited. A few sounds are specific, like a growl, but “most are more generalized,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinary behaviorist and professor at Texas A&M University. As a result, a dog’s body language and body positioning are crucial and instinctual signals in the canine world.
“They use the communication tools that are available to them,” says certified dog behavior consultant Michelle Mullins, noting that while body language tends to come second for humans, “with dogs, what they’re feeling and what their body is saying is exactly the same thing.”
According to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Melissa Bain, a professor of clinical animal behavior service at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, visual communication is especially important for dogs because it can be switched on or off instantly based on the outcome of an interaction. Imagine one dog standing still and stiff, tail held high, intently staring at another dog. If that second dog looks away, lowers its body posture, and even leaves the area, the first dog will quickly halt its signaling. Each dog has “spoken,” and now their conversation is over.
Now, let’s learn to decode what our dog’s body language looks like and means.
Happy Dog Body Language
Mullins says a happy dog is generally loose all over. He’s not holding tension in his muscles or his mouth and his eyes will be relaxed and a bit squinty.
Look for the following signs to indicate a dog is happy and relaxed:
- Mouth is slightly open
- Eyes are soft, with no hard staring
- Ears are in a neutral position
- Sometimes a dog’s tail is loosely wagging with a light back and forth motion
This looseness in a dog’s body likely echoes the relaxed, loose feeling your dog has about the interaction that is happening.
You may also see a slight lowering of the head and ears, and your dog may even lay down and roll over. According to Beaver, these visuals mirror the same signs of submission that some dogs and puppies give to more dominant ones.
Frightened Dog Body Language
When they’re scared, dogs may cower, lean away, or even try to hide under or behind things—all signs that they are trying to avoid a person or dog who is approaching, according to Mullins.
Pet parents should also pay close attention to a dog’s eyes to look for signs of fear. Mullins explains that dog parents may also notice “whale” or “half-moon” eyes on their frightened dog, in which a large portion of the eye white is visible. “What that usually indicates is that he has his head slightly turned away from the thing that he’s afraid of, but his eyes are still looking at it,” Mullins explains.
Other signs of fear or anxiety in dogs, according to Bain, Beaver, and Mullins include:
- Lip licking
- Averting eye contact
- Lifting a front paw
- Yawning when not tired
- Holding perfectly still
Many of these body signs correlate with submissive behaviors.
Bain says it’s crucial to know the signals of fear in dogs, since most dog aggression is rooted in fear. Dogs will often show signs of being frightened before they move on to becoming aggressive due to their fear.
“This is the category that most people do not understand, and often put themselves at risk,” adds Beaver. “It is best to think of a fearful dog as aggressive and avoid interactions, rather than to continue an approach that escalates the fear.”
Aggressive Dog Body Language
Sometimes a fearful dog may escalate into an aggressive one. This transition often begins with a direct stare, eyes fully opened. Bain says that a dog’s stare in these situations is a confrontation behavior, seen not only in dogs, but across species. Beaver adds that it’s a crucial sign that things are amiss. “The stare is the first and most important threat a dog uses, and other signs follow as the likelihood of aggression increases,” she notes.
Unlike the loose body language of a happy dog, an aggressive dog is stiff: stiffened legs to help him appear taller and a stiff body in general.
Other aggressive canine body language signs include:
- A lip lifted into a snarl
- Bared teeth
- Barking or growling
- Snapping or biting
- A stiff and upright tail, which may wag slightly
Beaver says that for dogs, a vertical tail indicates a high position in social order. They may also experience piloerection—an involuntary bristling of hair on the back of their necks or down their backs. “That reaction is tied into their nervous system,” Mullins says. “It happens when they’re super-aroused, and we often see it when they’re feeling aggressive or extra-fearful.”
If you see any signs of aggression in your dog, consult a trainer or veterinary behaviorist for advice on how to de-escalate or stop aggressive behavior. This may include removing triggers of fear or aggression, behavior modification that includes positive reinforcement training, and helping dogs learn how to better socialize with humans and other dogs.
Dog Play: Body Language That Signals Fun
“I love the body signs for play,” Mullins says. That’s because, like play itself, much of dogs’ play body language is fun and silly.
“I’m looking for movements that seem really inefficient,” Mullins says, noting that a dog may be bouncy, with his feet even lifting off the ground. She also notes that much of the body language of a happy dog looks the same as a playful one.
Dogs that want to play, often indicate it with the following sings:
- Wiggly movements and body
- Open, relaxed mouth
- Fast and free movement
- Playful barks and growls (different in tone than aggressive barking/growling)
Bain adds that dogs that want to interact and have fun with other dogs or their pet parents often incorporate “play bows” into their behavior. This is when dogs push their front paws and legs down and stick their behinds up in the air. According to Mullins, that bow is a dog’s way of saying, “Hey, what I’m getting ready to do is just for fun. It’s just a joke. I don’t mean it.”
Why You Should Learn Dog Body Language
Beaver compares learning canine body language to learning sign language: “It allows us to better communicate and understand [each other],” she says.
While we may think our dogs know what we’re saying to them, “they truly understand very little—perhaps a few key words or tone of voice,” Beaver notes. Reading dog body language unlocks a deeper connection between dog and pet parent, and “there is greater pleasure when there is two-way understanding,” she says.
Learning your dog’s body language means you can identify how your dog is feeling in any situation—and respond appropriately. You’ll know when your pup is scared, when you need to defuse a possible confrontation, and when your dog is eager to play. The result is both a stronger dog-parent relationship and a generally better life for your pup.
But there is one caveat to mastering the art of dog body language. Each of our experts cautioned that any canine body language must be considered in context. Only you know your dog’s history and his individual quirks. “Anytime you talk about body language, you have to look at what else is going on around you,” Mullins says.
A dog licking his lips after treat time is probably not anxious, but rather trying to catch every morsel of peanut butter. A dog yawning before bedtime is probably sleepy, not scared. But a dog who’s staring intently at an unfamiliar dog, standing stiffly and baring his teeth? You’ll want to be ready for that one.