Canine Body Language

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Though dogs can’t speak English, French, Japanese or any other language used by humans, they communicate with us all the time. Nonverbal communication used by dogs can help people understand the mood of a dog: they can express happiness, fear, anger, confidence and so on. In order to decode dogs’ language, canine body language is used.
Canine body language sums up dogs’ facial expressions and body postures to interpret their emotions and intentions.
Understanding your dog is important because you need to know when it is worried, insecure, fearful, aggressive or upset. Recognizing signs your dog shows you will help you to interact with your dog and to adjust your behavior if you know it feels angry or aggressive. Understanding dogs’ language is a superpower you can get without any magic and miracles.
The information below will teach you how to understand dogs’ body language, analyze your dog’s facial expressions and body postures to let you know what your dog feels and what it is thinking about.
To start your learning of canine body language it is important to understand that dogs express their emotions using different body parts, such as eyes, mouth, ears and tail. To interpret the language your dog uses, you will have to look carefully at every body part and the sum of signals you will get will tell you about its mood.


Dogs EyesThe same as your eyes are the window to your soul, your dog’s eyes can tell you a lot. The way your dog looks at you can say something about how it feels.
The normal shape of your dog’s eyes tells you that it feels happy and relaxed. If eyes of are wider or more rounded than usual, it can indicate that it feels threatened, stressed or fearful. Squinted eyes can signalize of pain or sickness. Nevertheless, sometimes your dog can squint eyes when it is tired. If your dog stares at you for some period of time and the facial expression differs from the relaxed and happy one, it is better to look away as intense staring can signalize of a threat. If a dog looks away, usually it shows you its politeness. Nevertheless, in some cases, it means it feels fearful or nervous. If you see that your dog is watching you, though not staring directly at you, showing you what is known as ‘whale eyes’ – you better stop whatever you are doing as such eyes usually seen right before the aggressive behavior.


Dogs MouthThe way your dog controls its mouth and lips says a lot about what it feels. If the mouth is closed or slightly opened when it is hot, your dog feels relaxed and happy. When it gets aggressive, usually you will see teeth as it will pull its top lip up and bottom lip down. Wrinkling muzzle is also an indicator of aggressive mood. If you see that your dog shows only front teeth, it tells you about a submissive, but not aggressive mood. When a dog feels stressed and unsure of itself, quite often it will lick its lips.
The same to humans, dogs yawn when tired. The same to humans, they react to yawns. It is a fun fact you can test with your dog. Also, in some cases yawing can indicate that your dog is slightly stressed or confused.


Dogs EarsUnlike most of the humans, dogs can move their ears quite freely. Unlike humans, dogs can speak to you with the help of its ears. Generally, the more forward ears are, the more confident your dog feels. When your dog feels happy and calm, ears are usually held naturally. Nevertheless, if something alerts your dog, it will hold ears higher to catch the sound. Though the high position of ears usually tells that your dog tries to catch the sound, sometimes it can also signalize of aggressive behavior, so it is always better to sum up signals from different body parts to make sure about its mood. If ears are slightly pulled back, your dog is in a friendly mood. In contrast, completely flattened ears signalize of frightened or submissive mood.


Dogs TailThough quite often people believe that wagging a tail means a happy dog, it is a mistake. Wagging a tail can signalize of dog’s aggressiveness as well. Actually, a tail is an indicator that can tell you about different emotions your dog feels.
When a dog is relaxed, its tail is usually held in a natural position. Slowly winging tail held in a natural position tells that a dog feels happy. It a tail moves fast and the process of wagging includes even rear end and hips – your dog is very, VERY happy. Note that if a dog wags a tail and holds it very high, it shows you confidence and dominance. Furthermore, in some cases, such wagging can signalize of aggressive behavior. Also, some dogs wag a tail when they feel threatened.
If you see that a dog holds its tail very low or it is tucked down between legs, it signalizes of fear for the current situation. In other words, low tail says that a dog is scared. Do not get confused if a dog still wags its tail – that does not mean it feels happy. Instead, it is a submissive sign that shows you that a dog feels nervous.

Body Postures

Dogs Body PostureTo get closer to the understanding of canine body language, it is also important to consider overall body posture. Generally, dogs change their postures to show three main things:
1. To show you that it is relaxed and happy;
2. To show submissive or threatening mood, a dog will try to look smaller;
3. To show dominance and confidence, a dog will try to look larger.
If you combine the facial expression of your dog, the way it holds its tail and its body posture, you will be able to interpret its body language to know about its feelings and emotions.
Here is the list of most common emotions with short characteristics.

Happy and Relaxed

Happy and RelaxedA happy and relaxed dog will not try to look bigger or smaller. it looks ‘natural’, standing on all four legs with tail and ears held naturally. Its mouth can be closed or opened in order to cool down.

Fearful, Scared or Frightened

Fearful, Scared or FrightenedIt is very easy to identify a fearful, scared and frightened dog. It will try to look as small as possible. Both ears and tail will be held lower than usual, eyes will be rounded and, most of the time, a dog will try not to look at what frightens it. If there is something overwhelmingly frightening, a dog may shake and tremble with the fear.

On High Alert

on high alertIf you see that your dog is highly concentrated on something, it stands upright with weight centered on all fours, its head, neck, ears and tail raised up – it is on high alert. Generally, its mouth is closed but there are some cases when a dog can bark.


SubmissiveIn the most cases, when a dog feels submissive, it looks quite similar to a frightened one. Nevertheless, you can notice that it wags its tail and tries to lick you.
Also, if you see that a dog lies down and rolls over its back, it is also a sign of submissiveness. There are also some cases when a dog can urinate when it feels submissive. Generally, it concerns puppies.

Angry and Aggressive

Angry and Aggressive

A dog that feels angry and aggressive will try to look bigger than it is. It will try to show its dominance by aggressive and threatening body signals. It is not hard to interpret such body language, it looks really scary! Of course, the whole point!

Fearfully Aggressive

Fearfully AgressiveA fearfully aggressive dog will look quite the same to the angry one. Nevertheless, it will show some signs of fear. Its tail and ears will get lower, as well as it will try to bear teeth. Nevertheless, you can hear its barking and growling. If you see such signals, it is always better to step away as there is a very real risk that the next move is to bite.


English bulldog trying to reach cookie

If a dog feels excited and wants to play, its body is tense and ready for action, quite often it takes a playful looking posture. Ears and tail are up, usually as much as it is possible. Eyes are fully opened to look at the source of excitement. A dog will look super energetic and bouncy, leaping and spinning and barking and pawing. Mouth is usually opened, but teeth are covered.
Quite often, when a dog wants to play, its front legs are forward and close to the ground but rear legs are straight, so the back is high in the air. You will probably hear some excited barking aimed to catch your attention and see the joy in dog’s eyes.
As you can see, canine body language is easy to understand if you know how to interpret this or that signal. For sure, there are many more things you can learn about canine body language. So if you are interested in becoming professional dog translator, there are numerous books that can help you to succeed in this field.

Best Canine Body Language Books

1. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog

Canine Body LanguageThough the book is considered to be a great tool for the dog professionals, it is also a mandatory reading material for virtually every dog owner. It is well documented, contains reasonable comments on canine communications and a lot of excellent images. The “Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog” helps reading dog body language, so if you ever wished you could talk to your dog, this book is a must-have. The book is the Winner of the DWAA Maxwell Award for 2006, Best General Reference Book.

2. How to Listen to Your Dog: The Complete Guide to Communicating With Man’s Best Friend

How to Listen to Your DogIf you noticed that your dog has some behavioral problems, it is important to understand why it behaves in this or that way. Understanding each other is a key element of establishing happy, life-long relationships. That is why the importance of communication is crucial in relations with your furry friend.
The book “How to Listen to Your Dog: The Complete Guide to Communicating With Man’s Best Friend” is considered to be a complete guide to communicating with your dog. It will teach you to understand canine body language, help to eliminate confusion and find a common language with men’s best friend.

3. How To Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication

How To Speak DogHow to Speak Dog is not just a training guide. It is a language manual for people who want to understand their furry friends. The guide to canine body language includes chapters about a movement of tails, ears, and bodies, allowing you to get easy access to the understanding of canine behavior. Also, the book opens the door to dogs’ world: it shows that men’s best friends are far smarter than we usually think about them. The book allows you to read the signs your dog gives you, providing you with a positive effect on the relationship between you and your ‘best friend’. It is a great guide both for carrying dog owners and professionals in the field of animal care.

About the author

Dr. Madison Finch

My name is Madison and I'm a veterinarian. One of my strengths is taking a dull, dry topic and crafting it into something sparkly and bright to engage readers; and I specialize in creating animal health content, written for pet owners in an entertaining style.
I have extensive experience in the pet health niche, ranging from ghost-writing for top-ranking blogs to working as a developmental editor for veterinary textbooks.