Dogs use their whole body to communicate what they are thinking and feeling. While humans use both verbal communication and body language to get their message across, dogs rely primarily on body language—the postures, movements, and facial expressions that signal intentions and emotional state. Dogs are usually able to express themselves very clearly using their bodies.
Although much of their language comes naturally, dogs do have to practice communicating with other dogs and people. That’s why socialization is so important; it lets your dog practice giving and receiving body language messages.
Dogs make it easy for us to know when they are happy—those soft eyes and that high wagging tail say it all!—but if you know the right signs to look for, they also tell us when they are scared or in pain. As pet parents, learning dog body language is one of the most effective ways to make sure your dog lives his best life.
What Is My Dog Trying to Tell Me?
Learning to interpret your dog’s efforts to convey emotion can go a long way toward creating lasting trust and a strong family bond. Dog body language charts can help translate the various postures and positions your dog may adopt and make them easier to understand.
Accurately reading dog body language is part of being a responsible dog parent because it helps you give your dog what he needs and keeps him and the whole family safe. Even from the very beginning, learning to read your puppy’s signs of needing to go to the bathroom speeds up the training process and makes for a happier family.
Dogs will repeat and often exaggerate the body language that gets them what they want. Think of how good your dog is at using his sad eyes when you are eating a meal or snack. If you pay attention, you may even notice he gives others in your family slightly different versions of that look, each one tailored for the highest likelihood of a delicious reward.
Problematic behaviors, including biting and other forms of aggression, could be the result of fear, anxiety or pain (1). Fear is a common reason humans get bitten by dogs (2), so learning basic canine body language is important for the whole family’s safety.
Dog body language includes both a dog’s overall body posture as well as details about the position and movement of different body parts. Taking all of these features into account helps you to decode what your dog is saying.
Overall Body Posture
Noticing overall body posture is just the first step in interpreting your dog’s body language, because it can convey many different meanings, depending on context.
A stiff posture indicates that a dog is alert. This could be a hunting dog who has located prey or a territorial dog who is showing aggression. A scared dog may have a stiff body posture while also trying to make himself look small. A stiff body posture can also be a sign of pain.
A relaxed posture, on the other hand, always indicates a relaxed dog. However, that doesn’t always mean the dog is laying down. He could still be up and excited, like when a Golden Retriever does his characteristic full-body wiggle when seeing his owner come home. But the movement is free-form and loose. Relaxed posture is easier to interpret because it can only mean one thing: that a dog feels comfortable.
Limping and abnormal postures, such as an arched back and low-held head, are important to watch out for as these changes are often linked to pain and discomfort. A dog may hold up a leg or not want to walk or sit. Dogs are driven by instinct to hide pain from their pack to protect their social standing. So when you notice even a slight limp, stiff movements, or crouched posture, think of it as a signal that your dog could be in pain and in need of help.
After overall posture, body position is the next important building block in basic dog language. Some positions are characteristic, like the play bow. A play bow is a relaxed posture where a dog has his front half lower than his back end, with his tail up and relaxed or wagging. It is truly an invitation to play. If a dog appears tense or stiff while in a “praying” or downward dog position, however, this can be a sign of abdominal pain.
An aggressive body position is one where the dog is standing with their neck extended. He may have his front legs wider than his back legs, as if standing his ground. Until a dog shows other aggressive body language cues, it can be difficult to distinguish aggression from alertness. The hair on an aggressive dog’s back may stand up (raised hackles). An alert dog may point at prey or intently watch while you get ready to throw a ball. Therefore, context—where the dog is and what the dog is doing—is a very important consideration.
The posture of a fearful dog can be difficult to interpret because it can take a variety of forms. This is why a fearful dog often poses the most danger to others; he may give signals that are mixed or easily misinterpreted. Fear may prompt a dog to adopt either an aggressive posture or a submissive one (i.e., ready to yield to others), where he brings his body close to the ground. In the latter case, the dog will often have a crouched or hunched posture, as if trying to make himself appear smaller.
Many people think that a wagging tail means a happy dog. But that is just not the case. A wagging tail can mean a variety of things depending on the speed, how wide the wag, and even the direction of the wag (5). Generally, slower wags are a sign of comfort, while a full helicopter spin of the tail (fast and relaxed) is reserved for greeting friends. A fast, stiff wag, on the other hand, can be a warning sign of aggression.
Because the risk of misinterpreting a tag wag is so high, it is much more straightforward to decode the position of the tail. A tail that is held low indicates uncertainty or fear, so if your dog’s tail is tucked well between his legs, he’s telling you just how frightened he is feeling. A tail straight up is a sign of arousal which can mean excitement or aggression. A dog with a tail held horizontally has spotted prey or something else of interest. There are breed differences in tail posture, as well. It’s important to get to know your own dog and how he responds to certain events first, and then you can start making comparisons with other dogs.
Just as with people, facial expression is important in canine body language. The head position follows the same pattern as previously discussed for body position—low is a submissive or fearful sign, while a head held high can be confident, aggressive, or alert.
Full eye contact is interpreted as aggressive when it comes from someone a dog doesn’t know well. Maintaining eye contact while turning their body away is a sign of fear or mistrust and a request from the dog for more personal space.
Dogs smile with their mouths open, top lip covering their teeth and tongue visible. Sometimes dogs do this to beg, too. Some dogs also “smile” with their mouths shut by lifting their top lip. This is easily confused with a grimace, which is a sign of fear. A grimace escalates to a growl when the top lip is strongly curled and the nose flares. A grimace can also be a sign of pain when accompanied by a vacant stare, glazed, wide-eyed or sleepy appearance, and flattened ears (6).
Many dogs have very expressive ears. Some always stand up, while others are floppy. However, they all follow the same set of “grammar rules”: Ears that are forward are alert and, if stiff, potentially signal aggression. Loose-but-forward ears indicate playfulness. Ears that are pulled back or flat indicate fear and submission.
Dog Body Language: Tips & Advice
Dogs speak “dog.” They instinctively know how to express themselves with their own body language and how to read the body language of other dogs, but there is still a risk of misinterpretation and mixed signals. The most effective thing you can do to strengthen your dog’s body language fluency and help him use it to express his needs, is to make sure he is well socialized from an early age. This means socializing both with other dogs and people. Make sure he knows you are listening to him and respect his needs.
Recognizing body language is especially important if your dog is trying to tell you he is uncomfortable with a situation or in physical distress. A change from the way your dog usually uses body language may be a sign that he is in pain and needs to see the veterinarian.
If you are ever unsure about what an unfamiliar dog is telling you, always give him extra space. It is best not to approach or touch a dog if the owner is not around. If the owner is present, ask whether it’s OK to greet the dog. Once he or she gives you the OK, squat or bend a little so you are down closer to the dog’s level. Avoid direct eye contact with the dog and do not loom or reach over his head. While looking out of your peripheral vision, allow the dog to come to you and sniff you before you do anything. This body language tells the dog you are friendly. If the dog appears tense or fearful, then simply admire him and do not touch him. If the dog is giving off friendly signs, that is a signal that you can touch him. Once he has initiated a greeting, give him a calm, gentle stroke on the neck or shoulder and tell him he’s a good dog.
- Frank D. Aggressive dogs: What questions do we need to ask?. Can Vet J. 2013;54(6):554-556.
- Westgarth C, Watkins F. A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of female dog-bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites. J Vet Behav. 2015;10(6):479-488. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.035
- Siniscalchi M, d’Ingeo S, Minunno M, Quaranta A. Communication in Dogs. Animals (Basel). 2018;8(8):131. doi:10.3390/ani8080131
- Hasegawa M, Ohtani N, Ohta M. Dogs’ Body Language Relevant to Learning Achievement. Animals (Basel). 2014;4(1):45-58. doi:10.3390/ani4010045
- Quaranta A, Siniscalchi M, Vallortigara G. Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli. Curr Biol. 2007;17(6):R199-R201. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.02.008
- How to Tell if Your Dog is in Pain. American Animal Hospital Association. 2007. Retrieved from: https://www.aaha.org/globalassets/02-guidelines/pain-management/painmanagement_dogs_web.pdf
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