Recognizing A Dog’s Body Language

When was the last time you talked to your dog….probably quite often, right? However, just because you talk to him, doesn’t mean he can reply (at least not verbally)! Even though he doesn’t talk, your dog probably IS communicating in his own way to let you know he’s happy, scared, hungry, excited, and even angry. Dog’s messages are conveyed through their body language, so it’s important to be able to recognize what all this body language means. 

You may be able to read your own dog’s body language, but an understanding of ALL dog body language is just as important, in particular, when faced with strange dogs while out walking or at dog parks. Here’s an insight into the different dog body parts you should focus on in order to truly read and understand what a dog is trying to communicate.


Facial and Mouth Expressions

The most confusing facial expression of dogs is their smiling. Many dogs smile, and thus, show their teeth. However, they can also show their teeth as a warning sign. The more aggressive, warning sign snarl will be easy to identify, because the corner of the dog’s lips will form the shape of a C and on full display will be the dog’s front teeth. The submissive grinning dog may also show their teeth, but his body posture will be very comfortable and loose.   

Yawning is a very common facial expression for dogs. Dogs will typically yawn in tense situations as a means to calm themselves. If you see a dog yawning, he is not necessarily tired, but probably feeling stress or uneasiness in his current situation. It’s actually good to encourage your dog to yawn in stressful situations, in order to calm himself. Just as humans can “catch yawns”, so can dogs. You can yawn at your dog and see if he starts to yawn back. 

A dog with a closed, stiff mouth will usually be signs of the dog tolerating whatever situation they are currently in. This doesn’t mean they are ready to attack, however, they are obviously on alert and not completely at ease. The extreme to this would be a dog with an open and relaxed mouth. These are typically signs of a happy and content dog.

Lip-licking or tongue flicking is also common for dogs – and not just after he’s had a delicious meal! Dogs will also lick their lips if feeling discomfort in a particular situation of feeling anxious.  


Dog’s Ears

Calm and content dogs tend to relax their ears in a natural position.  A dog with perked up and tense ears may be showing signs of dominance, alertness or aggression, in particular if they are pointing their ears at something of interest to them. Depending on the scenario, they could easily go from being alert to playful, or to the extreme of being alert to aggressive. If the dog has pulled their ears flat against their head, he is likely worried, fearful or submissive.


Dog’s Eyes/Eye Contact

Just like humans, a dog’s eyes can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. Dog’s can either have “soft” or “hard” eyes. A content dog will have relaxed lids and a relaxed expression, thus showing soft eyes. This indicates that the dog is calm and happy. The extreme to this is having hard eyes, where the eyes are directly staring and cold. This indicates the dog might feel threatened or want to assert dominance. 

If a dog is averting their gaze, they are showing submission and are worried about interacting with you and they’re trying to calm a situation. If a dog is feeling stressed, he may look away to avoid eye contact. Lastly, large eyes with a direct stare or when a dog is looking at you from the corner of their eyes is usually a sign of aggression or fear. This dog may be readying himself for combat.   


Dog Posture

When a dog is trying to make himself look smaller by hunching toward the ground, this is typically a sign of fear or stress. By making himself appear smaller, he’s trying to convey that he means no harm to whatever the situation is. Another sign of fear or stress is when a dog rolls onto their back exposing their belly. Yes, they could just be asking for a belly rub, but if he’s faced with an uncomfortable situation, it will more than likely mean he’s being submissive. 

On the opposite spectrum is when a dog shifts their weight forward trying to appear larger. This could simply mean the dog is interested in the situation and wants to be closer to it, however, it could also indicate an offensive intent. If you notice the dog trying to appear larger by standing very stiff and tall, it is typically a posture used to ready himself for a potential fight.

A dog leaning into the “downward dog” yoga position is trying to tell you he’s ready for play. He may show this posture not only to his human family but also to other dogs. 


Position of Tail

Tail posture and tail movement are definitely things to watch for. Alert dogs will hold their tails very tall and erect, while fearful dogs will tuck their tail between their legs. A content dog will have a very relaxed tail and wag it in a natural position for them. If your dog is excited, he will hold his tail high and wag it very quickly from side to side. Also wagging their tail will be the cautious or nervous dog, however, his wagging will be straight out with a slower wag. 


Deciphering All Body Language

To access a particular situation with a dog, you will need to look at all of his body language, not just one area. It’s important to notice his eyes, ears, mouth, tail and overall body posture when making an assessment. Obviously, a dog’s body language may vary with different breeds as well. Your overall goal should be to observe the entire dog as well as the situation they are in, and do your best to accurately determine what the dog is trying to tell you. 

Ultimately, you’ll have a better understanding of your dog’s emotional state so you can predict their behavior and hopefully prevent problems before they occur. Even though dogs can’t verbally communicate with us, they are always trying to tell us how they feel! 



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