Deciphering dog body language

As pet owners, it would be beneficial to understand what our dogs are trying to communicate. Most of the time, dogs use their body language rather than barking or whining to express their feelings. This article will provide a comprehensive guide to understanding your dog’s body language — from the positioning of their tail and ears to the animation in their eyes.

The Role of Dog Body Language in Communication

Before delving into the individual signals, it is crucial to understand the role of body language in dog communication. Dogs are naturally non-verbal creatures and rely heavily on their body postures, tail movements, and facial expressions to convey information and feelings to both their fellow dogs and human companions.

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The way your dog positions their body can be a clear sign of their current emotional state, whether they’re relaxed, happy, fearful, or interested in play. By observing and interpreting these signs correctly, you’ll be able to respond appropriately and enhance your relationship with your canine companion.

Understanding the Tail Signals

One of the most expressive parts of a dog’s body is their tail. Whether it’s wagging, tucked, stiff, or relaxed, each position and movement provides an insight into a dog’s emotional state.

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A relaxed dog will typically have its tail in a neutral position, neither raised high nor tucked between the legs. A wagging tail, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t necessarily mean a happy dog. It can also indicate arousal, tension, or anticipation of something exciting or frightening. A tail that’s raised high often signals dominance or aggression, while a tucked tail usually denotes fear or anxiety. Being aware of these tail signals will help you interpret your dog’s feelings and intentions accurately.

The Ears Have It

Like the tail, a dog’s ears are highly expressive and can give you a wealth of information about your pet’s emotional state.

Ears that are perked up and forward indicate alertness or interest in something happening in the environment. On the contrary, ears that are laid back or flat against the head often signal fear, anxiousness, or submission. Relaxation or contentment is usually communicated by ears that are in their natural position, neither perked up nor flattened.

The Eyes as Windows to the Soul

When deciphering your dog’s body language, don’t overlook the eyes. They are as telling as the tail or ears. Direct, prolonged eye contact from your dog often signals a challenge or assertion of dominance. Averted eyes, on the other hand, suggest submission or deference.

Whites of the eyes showing, often referred to as ‘whale eye’, can indicate stress or fear, especially if accompanied by other signs of anxiety. Soft, relaxed eyes generally mean your dog is feeling calm and comfortable.

Mouth and Facial Expressions

Your dog’s mouth and facial expressions can also convey a variety of emotions. When a dog is relaxed or happy, they will typically have a slightly open mouth with relaxed, floppy lips. A closed mouth can suggest that your dog is tense or anxious.

Panting can be a sign of stress or overheating, especially if it is heavy and continuous. A dog showing its teeth without growling or with raised lips can be a warning sign of aggression.

Barring any medical issues, excessive drooling can be an indication of stress or anxiety. Yawning, on the other hand, can be a sign of nervousness, but it can also mean your dog is tired.

Putting It All Together

Understanding a dog’s body language is not about just looking at one part of their body. Instead, it’s about considering the bigger picture by looking at all their signals together.

For instance, a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog. You need to pay attention to other signals — are their ears perked up or flat against the head? Are their eyes soft or hard? Is their mouth relaxed or tight? By considering all these elements together, you will be more accurate in interpreting your dog’s body language.

Remember, understanding body language takes time and practice. Each dog is unique and may have individual ways of expressing their feelings. The key is to be patient and observant. With time, you’ll find it easier to understand and communicate with your furry friend.

Canine Calming Signals: Signs of De-escalation

When deciphering dog body language, it’s essential not just to focus on signals of excitement or discomfort but also to understand calming signals. Dogs will often use these subtle cues to communicate peace and to de-escalate potentially stressful situations.

One of the primary calming signals is yawning. While a yawn may signify your dog is tired, it often indicates an attempt to calm down a tense situation. Lip licking is another common signal dogs use to show peace intentions or to self-soothe during stressful moments. Turning their head away is a dog’s way of saying they mean no harm and wish for no conflict.

Canine body posture plays a significant role in conveying calming signals. For instance, a dog may approach another dog or a person in a curved path rather than a straight line to show they’re not a threat. Another calming signal is play bowing, where a dog will lower their front end while keeping their rear end up in the air, indicating they want to play and not fight.

It’s worth noting that these calming signals often come in clusters and not in isolation. For example, a dog may yawn, lick their lips, and turn their head away all at the same time. Recognising these signals will help you understand when your dog is trying to calm down a situation or when they’re uncomfortable and trying to alleviate their stress.

Not Just Tail Wagging: The Subtleties of Dog Body Language

Understanding dog body language is not always straightforward. It can be akin to learning a new language. The wagging tail, long associated with a happy dog, can also indicate a range of emotions from excitement to aggression. Similarly, a dog showing its teeth may not necessarily be an aggressive dog but could be panting from heat or exertion.

Dogs communicate through a complex mix of signals using their entire body. It’s crucial to observe your dog’s entire body and context to interpret their emotional state accurately. Each dog is unique, and what may be a sign of excitement in one dog could be a sign of stress in another.

Consider your dog’s overall behaviour patterns, including their environment and interactions with both humans and other animals. Understanding the subtleties of their body language will help you respond appropriately to their needs and emotions, leading to a stronger and more fulfilling relationship.


Understanding your dog’s body language can significantly enhance the bond between you and your furry friend. It allows you to respond appropriately to their emotions and needs, creating a more comfortable environment for them and a more fulfilling relationship for both of you.

Remember, understanding a dog’s body language takes time, patience, and observance. Your dog is unique and may communicate differently than other dogs. Keep an open mind and adapt as you learn more about your dog’s individual communication style.

Just like human relationships, understanding and communication are key in your relationship with your dog. By learning your dog’s body language, you’re effectively learning their language, showing them respect and love. Remember, a happy dog is a dog that is understood, and a dog that is understood will be a loyal and loving companion.

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