How to Read Body Language in Dogs Like a Pro

Dogs are known as “man’s best friend” for a reason. Their loyal companionship and unique ability to understand human emotions make them incredible animals. But have you ever stopped to consider how well you understand your furry friend? While dogs can’t speak our language, they communicate with us and each other using a rich and complex system of body language. Learning to read your dog’s body language is essential for building a strong bond and ensuring their well-being. In this blog post, we will explore the fascinating world of canine communication and provide valuable insights into interpreting body language in dogs.

Understanding the Basics

 Before diving into the intricacies of dog body language, it’s crucial to grasp the fundamental concepts. Dogs express their feelings and intentions primarily through their body posture, facial expressions, tail, and ears. Here is a breakdown of these key elements:

  1. Body Posture – A dog’s body posture is a significant indicator of its mood. For instance, a relaxed and neutral body stance indicates that your dog is calm and comfortable. In contrast, a tense or rigid body posture may signal anxiety or aggression.
  2. Facial Expressions – Dogs communicate a lot through their facial expressions. Raised eyebrows, open mouths, and relaxed eyes often signify a friendly disposition. Conversely, narrowed eyes, bared teeth, or a wrinkled muzzle might suggest stress or aggression.
  3. Tail – The position and movement of your pup’s tail are highly indicative of its emotional state. A wagging tail is not always a sign of happiness. The height, speed, and stiffness of the wag all provide valuable context.
  4. Ears – Ears can be another vital cue for understanding a dog’s emotions. Erect ears often indicate alertness or interest, while flattened ears suggest fear or submission.

Signs of a Happy and Relaxed Dog

 A happy and content dog exhibits certain body language cues that you can easily recognize:

  1. Relaxed body posture- When your dog is comfortable, their body will appear loose and relaxed. Their weight will be evenly distributed, and their movements will be fluid.
  2. Open mouth and soft eyes – A happy dog will have an open mouth, potentially showing a loose and lolling tongue. Their eyes will be soft, with a relaxed gaze.
  3. Tail wagging – A joyful dog often wags its tail, but as mentioned before, it’s essential to observe the tail’s position and speed. A broad, slow way typically indicates a friendly disposition, while a fast, high wag might signify excitement or alertness.
  4. Ears in a natural position – When a dog’s ears are neither erect nor flattened, it suggests they are at ease and not threatened.

Signs of Stress and Anxiety

Ms. Rosie here gets tense when we have to put her harness on (evidenced by the lowered tail and the lowered ears) but she perks back up when we head out the door! 

Recognizing stress or anxiety in your dog is crucial for their well-being. Here are some common indicators to look out for:

  1. Tense body posture – A stressed dog will appear rigid and may keep its body low to the ground. Their movements might also be jerky or hesitant.
  2. Lip licking and yawning – Dogs often lick their lips or even yawn when they’re anxious, as a way of self-soothing.
  3. Ears flattened or pinned back – If a dog’s ears are pressed tightly against its head, it’s a clear sign of fear or anxiety.
  4. Whining or excessive panting – Unusual vocalizations or heavy panting can be indicative of stress.

Signs of Aggression

 It’s essential to be able to identify signs of aggression in your pup to prevent potentially dangerous situations. Aggressive body language may include:

  1. Stiff posture – An aggressive dog may stand tall and stiff, ready to defend itself or its territory.
  2. Raised hackles – When a dog’s hair along its back stands on end (raised hackles), it is a clear sign of aggression or fear.
  3. Baring teeth and growling – These are obvious signs that a dog is ready to attack or defend itself. It’s important to give such dogs space and avoid any possible confrontations.
  4. Direct, unwavering eye contact – Sustained, unblinking eye contact can be a warning sign of aggression. Avoid staring down an aggressive dog, as it may perceive this as a threat.


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Recognizing Fear and Submission

 Fearful or submissive dogs might display distinct body language cues. Here are some examples:

  1. Cowering or trembling – A fearful dog might huddle or shake, indicating a high level of anxiety.
  2. Tail tucked between legs – A dog that tucks its tail between its legs is most likely expressing submission or fear.
  3. Averting gaze – Avoiding eye contact is a sign of submission and can indicate a pup’s reluctance to challenge authority.
  4. Rolling onto their back – When a pup rolls onto its back, exposing its vulnerable belly, it’s typically a sign of submission, though it can also be a plea for mercy.

Tail Talk

 The position and movement of a dog’s tail can convey a wide range of emotions.

  1. High tail – A tail held high is often a sign of alertness or excitement.
  2. Wagging tail – While a wagging tail is usually associated with happiness, a stiff, fast wag can signal agitation or potential aggression.
  3. Tail tucked between legs – As mentioned earlier, this most likely indicates fear or submission.
  4. Slow tail wag – A slow, gentle tail wag is typically a sign of relaxation and contentment.

Ear Signals

Ears are another key component of canine body language.

  1. Erect ears – Upright ears suggest alertness and interest.
  2. Flattened ears – Ears pressed flat against the head are a sign of fear or submission.
  3. Pinned-back ears – When a dog’s ears are pinned back but not entirely flat, it can signify uncertainty or unease.

Your pup’s overall behavior, the environment, and their history all play a role in understanding their body language. For example, a dog who has had negative experiences with other dogs may show signs of fear or aggression if you take them to a crowded dog park. Because of this, it is important that we as pet owners know the baseline for our pets, so that we are better equipped to notice when something is off. Knowing your dog’s history and individual quirks will help you interpret their body language more accurately.

Learning to read your fur baby’s body language is a skill that can deepen your bond with your pup and improve their overall well-being. By paying attention to their body posture, facial expressions, tail, and ears, you can gain valuable insight into their emotional state. Whether your dog is happy and relaxed, stressed or anxious, or displaying signs of aggression or fear, understanding their signals will help you respond appropriately and create a safe, loving environment for your four-legged companion. Remember that every dog is unique, so take the time to get to know your pet and their specific cues to become a more attentive and responsible dog owner.

Read about Backyard Pet Services’ training programs here!

Additional Resources:

AKC | How to Read Dog Body Language

PetMD | How to Read a Dog’s Body Language

Outward Hound | How to Speak Dog by Understaning Canine Body Language