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How to Read Your Dog’s Body Language

Written by FOTP Team

Last updated

Dog on grass wagging tail

How to Read Your Dog’s Body Language

You know your dog’s happy when his tail makes big, generous wags (more on this wag later) – but can you read the rest of your dog’s body language? For example, do you know what a high tail means? What is your dog doing when they stick their rear in the air? This is going to be fun. Let’s learn to talk canine!

Can You Read Your Dog’s Signals?

Even if you’ve never read a scrap of canine literature, you probably “read” a lot of your dog’s signals – without consciously knowing it. 

When you arrive home and your dog comes towards you with a wide wag in their tail, you know the dog’s pleased to see you. Or when you come into the room and the bin’s been overturned, you’ll see your dog looking at the floor and know they’re ashamed. OK, so the jury’s still out on whether a dog can feel ashamed, by you know they know they’re behaved in a way that’s not acceptable. 

You can probably pick up signs of stress in your dog, too. For example, you probably know who your dog doesn’t like – and if they’re worried by thunder. Automatically, you’re likely to give your dog more attention and speak in a calming voice. 

Dogs emit hundreds of tiny signals using their bodies and faces, and we can learn to understand many of them. If you’ve noticed your dog doing something odd lately, read on for smaller cues that are sometimes missed by humans.

What Does A Dog’s Yawn Mean?

Human and dog body languages are different in many ways. For instance, a human’s yawn can indicate tiredness or boredom. But a dog’s yawn probably represents a heightened emotional response. 

We once believed that yawns deliver extra oxygen to the brain. But this hasn’t been scientifically proven – and psychologists now believe there’s more meaning in the humble yawn.

They think that yawning is primarily (though not always) a form of communication. When dogs yawn, it is believed to be a sign of stress or discomfort. Your dog may yawn a lot when they have an underlying health issue. Or they might start yawning when they meet an aggressive dog. This could be through anxiety, or intended as a submissive gesture. 

By the way: if reading this made you yawn, you’re not alone! Yawns are highly contagious – not just human-to-human, but also human-to-dog (and, of course, vice versa). So there may be no reason at all for your dog’s last yawn - other than showing empathy for yours. 

What Does A Happy Dog’s Body Language Look Like?

Your dog is happy when they:

  • Have bright, alert eyes. You will soon be able to recognize your dog’s best frame of mind. Their eyes will be relaxed and bright, attentive but blinking, and not fixed on any one thing. 
  • Have a partly-closed mouth. It will be firmly closed when they are challenged, unsure, or curious. But when they’re relaxed, your dog’s mouth will probably be open a little bit.
  • Have a relaxed and changeable expression. Their faces will be open and friendly, with a soft gaze; they will look around without inhibition. 
  • Have a soft stance. Happy dogs move around, their bodies upright but relaxed. Tense or frightened dogs freeze with their ears upright (or pressed down).
  • Roll over on the floor. If you’re nearby, your dog is probably inviting you to rub their belly. But this is also a sign that they’re completely relaxed in your company! When they’re out with other dogs, rolling over is a sign of submission intended to stop a confrontation.
  • Jump up to greet you. While it’s not a behavior that should be encouraged, jumping up is not considered to be a quest for dominance. Your dog is actually just jumping up to greet you properly, face-to-face!
  • Wag their tail generously. A nervous dog wags their tail fast, and a frightened dog lowers their tail between their legs. A relaxed dog wags their tail in a wide motion at medium height (unless they are a breed with an upright tail). They might also wiggle their rear! 
  • Wag their tail to the right.... Well, we’re not sure about this one. But a 2013 study showed that dogs wag their tails to the right when they’re relaxed, greeting someone they love, and more to the left when they are nervous or anxious. Why not monitor your dog’s tail wagging and let us know what you think?

When your dog plays, it can be difficult to know whether it’s becoming aggressive or not. Don’t worry. Biting, barking and jumping are all part of your dog’s body language during normal play. Here are some of the signs that your dog is enjoying play-time:

  • Barking. This can be misinterpreted as aggression, but barking is often heard during play. It is used as an attention-getter. 
  • Fluid movements. Dogs stand tall and rigid when they are in aggressive mode, demonstrating their full height to a perceived threat. In play dogs are fluid; they tumble on the ground one minute, then back up on their hind legs the next.
  • Gentle, measured nips. Provided they’ve been socialized with other dogs, your dog will know how to “play-bite” and it will be gentle and playful. The other dog (or you) won’t object!
  • Brief freezing. Even in play, dogs might freeze – especially when they’re doing a play bow – in anticipation of their mate’s next move. It’s not necessarily a fighting stance.

Dogs’ Behavior With One Another

When your dog greets another dog, do they follow the same pattern? This ritual tells you a lot about your dog’s personality, because they are communicating with one another to establish a relationship. Here’s what your dog is really saying:

>Cautious circling. Your dog may walk around a new dog, watching them. They want to observe the other dog’s body language to see whether they can greet them or not. 

> Turning the face aside. This is a peaceful and friendly gesture, showing the other dog that they are happy to be greeted.

> Sniffing one another. Sniffing is often initiated by the dominant dog. If permitted, dogs will sniff each other – sometimes on the muzzle and often around the rear. It’s just like making introductions: from sniffing the secretions of the renal gland, dogs can learn the sex, health and familiarity of each other! They’ll remember the other’s scent, possibly even for years in the future. If your dog doesn’t like being sniffed, they might growl or just plop their bottom onto the ground.

> The play bow. Front paws stretched out, head forwards and bottom in the air – this is the classic “want to play?” move. It’s an invite to a friendly dog to start charging around!

> Appeasement. If one dog receives aggressive signals from another, they might show signs of submission like lip-licking, lowering their body, lowering their head, or even yawning. 

>Rolling over. This is extremely non-threatening and dogs use it to defuse a tense situation, showing that they have no intent to have an aggressive interaction. A socialized dog will recognize this behavior and walk away.

> Tail position. A high tail may indicate that your dog is in defense mode, trying to make themselves look large and threatening. A low tail can also indicate that your dog feels threatened. A happy tail is relaxed, in the natural position. 

> Standing rigid. This is a sign that your dog is on guard, or in protective mode. They may have seen someone or a dog they don’t trust. They may also maintain hard eye contact with the other party.

>Greeting other animals in the home... Dogs will usually greet new arrivals – like kittens, gerbils, or even ducklings – with curiosity. This is shown in a cocked head or lifted paw. They might approach with caution, so be ready with a few treats to reward gentle behavior.

Body Language Tells Us When Dogs Are Stressed...

Learning to talk “dog” helps you to notice when your dog is stressed or feeling unwell. Look out for these warning signals in their body language:

  • “Whale eye”. You might see this when you’re trying to persuade your dog to come to the vet or take an unpleasant tablet. They will turn their head away from the “threat” and look at you sideways, showing the whites of their eyes.
  • Shaking. If your dog trembles during a storm or when confronted, it’s probably caused by the release of adrenalin – the chemical response to a “fight or flight” reaction. 
  • Hiding behind you or leaning on you. When they need comfort, dogs may be conditioned to make contact with you. 
  • Rigid body or jaw. This indicates stress and might be held for seconds or even longer. It’s usually caused by a specific situation, rather than general anxiety. 
  • Pacing, circling, excess shaking-off or nose-licking. These are all signs of a nervous dog – which could be caused by a perceived threat or by external circumstances (like fireworks). 

If your dog is constantly stressed and you can’t identify the trigger, they could be suffering with a silent health condition – always call your vet for advice.