Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language
“Man has great power of speech, but the greater part thereof is empty and deceitful. The animals have little, but that little is useful and true; and better is a small and certain thing than a great falsehood.” (Leonardo Da VInci, Notebook, circa 1500)
Dogs may not be able to talk like us humans, but they can still communicate their emotions through a wide range of actions and expressions using their bodies. Humans actually only use 7% of verbal communication as a way to communicate, the rest is vocal and visual.
For dogs however, to accurately understand a dog’s body language, you need to look at different areas of their body separately to understand what they are expressing. In different situations, similar signals have different meanings, so vocal signals and the body’s position help you understand your dog’s emotional state and intent. Dog’s can’t tell us how they are feeling in words so we need to understand what they’re saying through their body language.
Through their body language your dog will tell you whether they’re happy, upset or worried. Sometimes these signs are so subtle we miss them, especially if your dog is saying they’re not happy. If we don’t listen to these signs some dogs feel they have no alternative but to be more obvious, which is when we then feel they’re being aggressive. Other dogs may just become withdrawn, aloof or depressed if they’re never listened to.
Understanding how your dog communicates with other dogs, with you; how they interpret your messages gives us a much greater ability to know what they are feeling, how they are feeling, what they are thinking but also to see what their intentions are.
The Language of Your Dog’s Face
The facial expressions of dogs, especially those involving the lower part of the face and around the mouth are similar to those of humans but they are more limited in range. Dogs don’t have and don’t use the voluntary neural control system to shape the expressions conveyed by their mouths. Humans unlike dogs have a voluntary neural control system which allows them to control their expressions. Humans can control their smile and produce a fake one using their faces to lie. Dogs can’t lie using their faces, this does not mean they can’t lie however.
The Language of Your Dog’s Mouth
Dogs do a lot more with their mouths than just eat and drink. Even though they can’t use their mouths to talk, the way they position their lips, jaws and teeth speaks volumes. A dog’s mouth gives information about anger, dominance, aggression, fear, attention, interest or relaxation.
Mouth relaxed and slightly open: tongue slightly visible or even slightly draped over lower teeth:
This is a sign of contentment and a relaxed dogs. It is the equivalent of a human smile and has been recognised for centuries by humans. The translation of this expression for dogs is :”I’m happy and relaxed,” “All is well,” or “I see no threats or problems around me”
Mouth closed, no teeth or tongue visible:
The act of closing the mouth changes the meaning of a dog’s expression. The closed mouth expression is usually associated with the dog looking in a particular direction, and the ears and head may lean slightly forward. This is a sign or attention or interest. The smile is now gone, mostly because the dog is appraising the situation, trying to determine the meaning of what they are observing and evaluating which actions that may take.
The dog is no longer passive but also not worried or annoyed. The expression translates as: “This is interesting” or “I wonder what’s going on over there?”.
Lips curled to expose some teeth, mouth still mostly closed:
This is the first sign of annoyance or threat in a dog. The dog is not worried and may be silent as they look towards the source of annoyance or alternatively make a low growling sound. This is a signal to a nearby dog that they are asking for more distance between them and less social interaction. It is not a simple request but a “Go away, you’re annoying me” or “back off, you’re bothering me!”.
Lips curled up to show major teeth, some wrinkling of the area above the nose, mouth partly open:
This is a signal with a definite meaning of “If you do something now that I feel is a threat, I will bite”. It is important to note that whilst this facial expression tells us how the dog is feeling it does not tell us the cause for giving the threat signal. It could be for a variety of reasons such as an expression of social dominance made by the more confident dog, it may also indicate fearfulness. Whichever the reason this signal can lead to an aggressive attack. Stop approaching the dog, stand still or back away.
Lips curled up to expose all the teeth and the gums above the front teeth, with visible wrinkles above the nose:
This means: “Back off or else” and is the very last warning a dog will give before attacking. This full threat display indicates that the dog is ready and willing to deliver a violent attack. If you are confronted by this display however frightened you are, you must not turn and run away. All dogs have a genetically programmed pursuit response which makes them instinctively chase and perhaps bite things that are running away from them.
Even if the threatened aggression is based upon the dog’s fear rather than an angry, confrontational dominance, the level of arousal is so high that running or even moving quickly can provoke pursuit and attack responses.
Your Dog’s Head Position
This is directly linked to what your dog’s mouth is doing. A dog’s teeth is their only weapon so the position of their head, whether turned to you or not, and what their mouth is doing is sending a very clear message. A dominant or threatening dog will point their muzzle directly at someone as a threat. Alternatively, a dominant dog may calm the fear of a more submissive one by slightly turning their head to one side, pointing the mouth away to show that it has no intention of attacking.
Often when a less dominant dog approaches one that is of higher status, the approaching dog may have their head down, with only a occasional and quick pointing of the muzzle towards the dominant dog. This essentially is sending the message: “I have holstered my weapon, I am not pointing it at you, there will be no fight, I am not a threat.”
This is often a completely misunderstood action. Licking behaviours in dogs can mean many, many different things and depends greatly on the context of the situation. A dog licking your hand for instance can’t simply be interpreted as a sign of affection. This is not always the case.
Licking is different from a human kissing in a variety of ways. For a start in humans kissing involves lips meeting. This is not the case with dogs as they are not making any contact with their lips, they are licking. Often kissing is applied to the face and sometimes to the hands whereas dogs will lick faces, they will also lick hands, feet, knees and so on. Dogs do this to identify themselves to each other as a way of greeting.
Kissing in humans is often part of a greeting ritual and has no romantic connotation whatsoever. For dogs who are familiar with each other, licking may take place on their faces. They will also sniff each other especially in areas where odours are the strongest such as the mouth, nose and bottom.
There is such a social significance to the dog’s lick. Licking can communicate information about dominance, intentions and state of mind and in a similar way to the yawn is mainly a pacifying behaviour.
From the moment puppies are born they are kept clean by the mothers through licking, as they get older and learn to clean themselves in the same way, often litters of puppies will be seen to lick each other which helps strengthen the social bond. This act sends a clear message of “I am friendly” and as they get older turns into “I’m no threat”.
As dogs get older their licking behaviours develop. Face licking in adult dogs can be a sign of respect or defense to a more dominant dog. The dog doing the licking usually lowers it’s body to make themselves smaller and looks up. The dog being licked will often stand tall to accept the gesture but does not lick the other dog in return.
When you dog licks your face he may be communicating submission and pacification or respect and defense to you as the more dominant in the pack.
Stressed and fearful dogs also lick and when there is no other person or dog nearby they may lick their own lips, or other parts of their body.
Often when people see dogs yawning they assume the dog is tired or bored, this is absolutely not the case. Yes, a dog’s yawn has the same characteristics of a human yawn and it does supply additional oxygen to the brain which helps to keep you them awake but in dogs yawning can mean so many different things.
A stressed dog will often yawn (take note in a dog training class if the tone of the trainer is too harsh for some dog you will notice them yawning). A dog will also yawn to signal they are of absolutely no threat whatsoever. The dog is sending a pacifying message. A dominant dog can also be seen to yawn too to send a message of friendliness to a submissive or fearful dog.
The Language of Your Dog’s Ears
Dog’s ears are very expressive, and despite their size, they express a lot of emotion. Calm and content dogs tend to have relaxed ears. When a dog is alert, feeling dominant or aggressive, they will raise their ears high and point them in the direction of interest. If a dog’s ears are flat against the head, it shows that they are worried, fearful, or being submissive.
Dog’s ears give very significant signals but should be read in the context of the whole body and the activity of the dog.
Pricked ears are the most expressive of dogs. These stand up and are visible from a distance. The position of a dog’s ears can tell you a lot about your dog, here are some examples of non aggressive ear positions:
Ears erect or slightly forward:
The dog is studying the environment for information is a sign of attention when alerted to a new sound of sight, “What’s that?”. The message sent by a dog whose ears are pricked with a slightly tilted head and a relaxed or slightly open mouth. This can be interpreted as: “This is really interesting”. Often this signal is sent when a dog is observing a new or unexpected event.
The meaning changes slightly when the mouth is closed and the eyes are wider. The message then changes to:”I don’t understand that” or “What does that mean”. Additionally if this expression is also accompanied by bared teeth and a wrinkled nose, it is an offensive threat by a confident dog and means: “I am ready to fight you”.
Ears pulled back flat against the head:
This can have very different meanings depending on the rest of the dogs’s face:
If the dog also displays bared teeth this is a dog saying: “I’m frightened and I will protect myself if I think you are a threat”. Often this ear position is displayed by less dominant dogs who are worried by the challenge in front of them.
If the dog’s ears are flat, the mouth drawn back but the teeth are not visible and the forehead is smooth, this is a submissive signal meaning: “I like you because you are good to me”. This same ear display accompanied by a relaxed open mouth, blinking eyes and a reasonably high tail is a sign of friendliness.
Ears pulled slightly back and spread slightly sideways:
This is more of an ambivalent ear sign and can be interpreted as either: “I don’t like this” or “I’m ready to fight or run”. The position of the dog’s ears may quickly turn from uneasy to aggressive, or to fear or wanting to escape.
Ears flickering, forward, then back or downward:
This is a sign of indecision but with a fearful or submissive aspect. It can be interpreted as: “I am just assessing this situation” and it is a dog’s way of working out whether what is happening they are comfortable with or not.
The look of long floppy ears in dogs is appealing to many, maybe as this type of ear retains some of the puppylike features in an adult dog. This type of ear is down to people breeding for function and little attention was paid to the ear shape. But when it comes to dog communication, lop ears provide far less visible signals than pricked ears. As explained previously changes in ear shape of pricked eared dogs are easily seen for a distance and less ambiguous.
This said we can still read ear positions of dogs with floppy ears but the signals are definitely more subtle both for other dogs and people.
In the picture below of Nero’s ear position is one of a relaxed and attentive dog.
If on the other hand the ears are slightly out to the side with teeth exposed and wrinkles above the nose, the dog is displaying a more dominant expression and possibly aggression.
In the picture below of Tegan, his ear position pulled back against the side of the head shows a more submissive and passive expression. This is the lop-eared equivalent of pointed ears pulled back along the head.
From these pictures you can see that although the signals are far less pronounced than in pricked eared dogs, there are still variations in positions which allow lop-eared dogs to communicate their feelings and intentions. You do have to observe more for the lesser obvious signals.
The Language of Your Dog’s Eyes
A wise man once said, eyes are the windows to the soul. For most species the general pattern of the face is the same but there are some difference to the eyes. Animals that are preyed upon and whom need an early warning sign have eyes at the side. Dogs however are predators and their eyes face forward like headlights. This gives them binocular vision which sharpens their ability to read the distance of things.
Eyes however have much more than a visual function. Eyes are expressive, they can communicate so many different messages and this is applicable not just unique to humans and applies to dogs as well.
Your dog’s eyes can tell you how they feel. When your dog is feeling relaxed, they will have relaxed eyes or soft eyes. A direct stare indicates that your dog is feeling threatened or wants to assert dominance. If your dog averts their eyes, they either are worried about interacting with you or want to show submission. A dog with large pupils or one that is looking at you from the corner of their eyes is displaying fear or aggression.
A Dog’s Pupils
Generally speaking, excitement, interest or any intense emotion will expand the pupils. A particularly interesting aspect however is that large pupils are viewed as more attractive. Specific breeds such as Cavalier King Charles spaniel or the Pekingese have large pupils and often appeal to humans.
Just as in people, the size of a dog’s pupil also reflect its emotional state. The difficulty is for dogs, pupil size is sometimes harder to read, since some breeds have very dark irises and the pupil may blend into the dark surround.
As large pupils indicate an intense emotion, smaller pupils will often indicate boredom, tiredness and relaxation. It is important to note that changes in the size of a dog’s pupils only reflect changes in the intensity of an emotion, not necessarily whether that emotion is positive or negative. Joy and excitement can result in large pupils but so can extreme fear or anger.
The Direction of A Dog’s Gaze
Virtually all animals view staring as a threat. Dogs are no exception and use staring as a controlling gesture.
A Direct eye-to-eye stare
A wide eyed stare is often a threat, an expression of dominance, or even announcement that an attack is about to take place. A dominant dog will approach a less dominant one and just stare. The lesser dominant dog normally will break off eye contact, turn away or even lie down in a submissive gesture.
Dogs have an interesting way of using the direct stare towards humans. Often this can be seen during meal times if a dog stares at you eating and then stares at the food itself. This is an obvious attempt to get some food. When you respond by giving your dog food, your dog is seeing this as a submissive gesture from you. This is a clear indication to your dog that in this situation they are the dominant one, not you.
Humans should always be careful at staring directly at a dominant dog as the dog may see this as aggression, whilst staring at a fearful dog may result in panic from them.
Eyes turned away to avoid direct eye contact
Turning away the eyes is a dog’s way of either being submissive or showing fear. A dog will avert their eyes when confronted by a dominant dog. Typically the dog will look down and away in movement.
For dogs blinking breaks the dominance stare and shows submission. Whilst it does represent a giving up of dominance, it is not as submissive a gesture as full scale aversion of the eyes. The blink is more a way of saying: “We are almost equals but I will accept your leadership”.
Blinking can also be a sign of friendliness or even attraction. For dogs blinking can be a part of greeting. If a submissive dog approaches a dominant on e, it will lower it’s body and may lick the other dog. It this approach is accepted, the dominant dog will often blink in rapid succession. The submissive dog will then blink in return which in effect is a friendly exchange of acceptance.
The shape of a dog’s eye is easy to make out as most dogs have contrasting colours at the rim of their eyes. The language of a dog’s eye is simple: the larger and rounder the visible eye, the more angry and threatening the dog. Wide eyes are part of the pattern of dominance staring, the muscles beneath the eyes pull in and this puts pressure on the eye to force it slightly into the socket. As a result, more of the eye is exposed making it appear larger.
The opposite action makes the eye smaller, less visible and narrower. These changes are associated with fear, submission and pacification. A dog who is really trying to put off a threat and to show submission may even close their eyes.
There is one situation where signals may be mixed and this is when fear and aggression are combined. In these circumstances the eye may appear like a teardrop or triangular in shape.
Examples of Confident, Comfortable and Happy Dog Faces
Ears Up, Slightly to the Side
Eyes Are Soft And Open
Mouth is Relaxed and Slightly Open
Ears Up and Forward
The Language of Your Dog’s Tail
A dog’s tail gives out three different channels of information: position, shape and movement. Movement is a very important aspect of the signal since dog’s eyes are much more sensitive to movement than they are to details or colours. This makes a waving or wagging tail very visible to other dogs.
Tail wagging is often a misinterpreted body language in dogs. Most people assume that a dog wagging its tail is happy, which is often true, but dogs also wag their tails when they are frustrated, aroused, and overstimulated.
Different dog breeds hold their tails at different heights, therefore interpreting what your dog is communicating from their tail should take into account the normal positioning of it’s tail.
Horizontal Tail, pointing away from the dog but not stiff:
This is a sign of attention and shows that the dog is anticipating the occurrence of something interesting. For example a person approaching or a scent picked up. This is not a threatening position however if the tail becomes stiffer it does demonstrate that your dog is paying close attention to a potential change in situation.
Horizontal Tail, straight out, stiff and pointing away from the dog:
Stiff tails usually contain an element of aggression and is often displayed during an initial meeting between two dogs who don’t know each other well. This tail positioning is also seen when there is a bit of a competition between two dogs. These type of exchanges rarely lead to physical aggression. The two dogs will size each up the situation, size each other up and may simply back away from any conflict.
Tail Up between the horizontal and the vertical position:
This is a sign of a dominant dog, the stiffness of the tail indicates the dog’s intention to assert their dominance over anybody nearby. Even if the tail isn’t stiff but still at the high position whilst moving the tip of the tail forward slightly, the attitude of the dog still remains assertive and confident.
Tail Up and slightly curved over the back:
This signals: “I am top dog and everyone knows it”. Definitely a sign of confidence and dominance in a dog. The dog expects no challenges and is in full control.
Tail Held Lower than the horizontal but still some distance off the legs:
This is a signal from an unconcerned dog with no particular concerns at that moment. The tail position means the dog is relaxed and all is well.
Tail down near hind legs:
The meaning of this tail position varies depending on the body language of the dog. If the legs are still straight and the tail swings back and forth slowly this can mean the dog is not well. This signal can also mean mentally unwell not just physical.
With a change in body position the meaning of this tail position changes. If the body is lowered giving the appearance of a downward slope in the dog’s back, the meaning then changes to slight apprehension in the dog or being slightly timid.
Tail tucked between the legs:
This positioning of the tail has a very clear meaning of I am scared, please don’t hurt me. Fear is the main message here but sometimes dogs use this as a pacifying gesture to fend off any aggression.
It is not just the position of the tail that gives signals. When combined with the shape of the tail this can have a different meaning.
Bristling hair down the tail:
The easiest way for a dog to change the shape of the tail is by causing the fur to rise up instead of lying flat as it usually does. The area of the brain which causes the hair on the dog’s hackles to rise also causes the hair on the tail to rise. Like the hair standing on the dog’s shoulders, the bristle in the dog’s tail is a sign of aggression.
Bristling hair on a dog’s tail can add a threat message when incorporated into the position of the tail. For instance A straight out tail with bristling hair changes it’s meaning from: “Let’s establish who is boss around here”, to “I am ready to fight to determine who is boss”.
Bristling hair on an upright tail or a tail that is held over the head adds a meaning of being the leader. Lowering the tail slightly but with bristling hair added means: “You are making me nervous and anxious, if you push me, I may be forced to fight”.
Bristling hair at the tip of the tail:
A tail that only bristles at the tip expresses either fear, anxiety or despondency rather than aggression.
A crick or sharp bend in the tail when the tail is held high:
This shape often gives the tail a bent or broken look. It is a definite sign that immediate aggression is being contemplated. Faced with this signal especially if signs of dominance or aggression it is time to remove yourself from the situation.
A crick near the tip of the tail:
This adds a moderately aggressive threat to any other signal. Tail cricks have to be looked for and are often subtle.
In addition to the tail position and the tail shape, the movements of a dog’s tail can add additional meaning to other messages.
This can signify excitement or tension. The speed of the wagging indicates the level of excitement. The size of each tail sweep tells us whether the dog’s emotional state is positive or negative rather than the dog’s level of excitement.
Slight tail-wagging, small size swings:
This tail wag is seen during greetings and it’s basic meaning is to say hello. With this tail wag, the dog is seeking social comfort and friendly support.
Broad tail wag:
This is a friendly gesture showing no threat, it can also mean the dog is pleased and this is the closest to the preconceived idea of a dog’s wagging tail meaning happiness.
Broad tail wag with wide swings and movement in the hips:
This can sometimes be seen in greetings especially after a long absence. This is exactly the behaviour lower ranking dogs show to the pack leader. The message is one of respect, low threat and compliance.
Slow tail wag with tail at half mast:
This is the least social of the tail signals. Generally speaking when the tail movement is slow and in neither a high or low position, the dog is feeling insecure or unsure of what to do next.
The Language Of Your Dog’s Body
In general terms the expression of social dominance, aggression, fear, and submission in body language is that the more aggressive and dominant the dog, the larger and taller they will try and make themselves appear. Submissive, frightened ones tend to make themselves small. Charles Darwin noticed this in his book dating back to 1872 “The Expression of the Emotions in Animals and Man”.
Stiff legged, upright posture or slow, stiff legged movement forward:
This is the body language of a dominant and confident dog. For a long time it was thought this was the sign of an aggressive dog who was getting ready to fight. This is not true as rarely dominant dogs actually fight because they don’t need to do so and in this case the signs are important but the actual actions don’t normally follow. Through evolution dogs have learnt to accept the dominance signal and submit to it.
Body sloped forward, feet braced:
This is the position which is most likely to provoke a follow through attack. The dog in this body position has seen a dominant dog’s statement saying they are boss but is not accepting it. The dog in this position is challenging the other dogs dominance.
Hair bristles on back and shoulders:
This can be a possible sign of aggression. It can also, under certain circumstances, indicate fear and uncertainty.
When bristles are raised it is important to look at where they are raised. A dominant dog is likely to only display in the neck and shoulder region and remains fairly confident in the situation they are in. If bristles are displayed all along the back the signal changes and is a sign of imminent attack.
Lowering the body while looking up:
A very clear submissive gesture, this is the absolute opposite of expressing dominance.
Lowered body position which is accompanied by a muzzle nudge often occurs when a submissive dog approached a more dominant dog and gently pushes the dog’s muzzle with their own nose. This signal as well as the lowered body signals that the lower status dog accepts the higher status of the other dog.
Dog sits when approached by anther and allows to be sniffed:
Even when two fairly confident dogs meet, normally one who is slightly lower in ranking may sit when they are finding it difficult to position themselves into a slightly lower position. This could happen when two dogs meet on a walk and are on leads. By sitting, the dog is taking away all of the signals that could be associated with threat and challenge. By allowing the other dog to sniff and approach, the sitting dog is accepting the dominance of the other one.
Dog rolls on one side or exposes tummy:
If the lowered body position is the equivalent of a human bowing, then this is the equivalent of human groveling. This is the most extreme form of pacifying or submissive signal that a dog can give. It is a sign of true social fear. With this very passive signal, most dominant dogs will sniff the bottom of the dog lying on the ground.
Dogs who sit with one paw slightly raised:
This is a sign of stress and combines social fear with a fair amount of insecurity. The dog is saying they are anxious, uneasy and concerned. It is thought this raised paw signed evolved from the act of submission of a dog rolling on their back. When the dog begins the roll they will first raise one paw and then roll. Raising a paw is a fragment of this action suggesting perhaps they are not quite as fearful as a dog rolling onto their back.
The Language of A Dog’s Scent
The average person has around 5 million scent receptors in their nose compared to the average dog who has around 220 million receptors in their nose. A dog’s sense of smell is forty four times more sensitive than a human’s.
Dog’s start off their lives functioning almost solely by smell and touch. Puppies are born blind so must use their sense of smell to find their mother’s teats for milk. Within a few days they can distinguish their mother’s smell from all others. The mother’s smell is one of safety and comfort.
Although dogs have an acute sense of smell not all dogs are created equal in their scenting ability. Male dogs seem to have a better sense of smell than females and dogs with pushed in faces such as pugs or pekingese don’t do as well with their sense of smell.
Dogs perceive the world differently to us humans. Scent to dogs could be described as the dog equivalent to a newspaper. Dogs, and other animals, produce scent known as pheromones for the purpose of communication. Originally it was thought the sole purpose of the scent was for females to leave a trail for males when they were in season. Nowadays it has been established that the messages left within a scent reveal much more, including anger, fear and confidence.
For males the higher they can urinate on a tree for example, the higher they are proving their dominance. In addition the higher the marking, the more difficult it is to mark over it and cover the message left.
Females sometimes lift their leg to urinate too. This can be linked to the self esteem of a female and their confidence. More dominant females are far more likely to lift a leg to urinate than shyer ones. Equally a female who has not been sterilised are more likely to lift a leg to leave their scent compared to a sterilised female.
Examples of Confident, Comfortable and Happy Dog Bodies
Body is Loose and Bouncy
Waggy Tail with Balanced Weight
Affection Seeking, Social and Emotional
Jumping To Greet
Examples of Scared, Distressed and Insecure Dog Bodies
When dogs are stressed or nervous, they tend to adopt body language that helps them relieve the stress or pacify the threat. Dogs do not yawn when they are tired; they do so when they feel nervous. Lip licking is a sign of hunger but also a sign of stress when your dog is experiencing fear or is feeling nervous.