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The Ultimate Guide to Dog Body Language

by Alex




Two dogs running through a river with the words 'The Ultimate Guide To Dog Parks' overlayed

Recently our dogs have started making the most heart-wrenching yips and wails as we are leaving the house for work. It's almost as if you can hear their souls shattering into a thousand tiny pieces as they are "abandoned", yet again, by their cruel masters.

Oftentimes I wish I could assure them that everything is going to be alright and that I will be back soon.

You may occasionally feel frustrated that you are not able to fully meet your dog's needs because you feel you lack the ability to accurately read their body language.

If you want to have a better understanding of what they are telling you (and they are always telling you something!), then read on!


Below is a shortcut menu organizing this post into four broad sections - dog anatomy, dog posture, dog vocalizations, and more complex actions performed by dogs:


Dog Anatomy

Tail

You can glean two pieces of information from watching a dog's tail: their level of arousal and their primary emotion. In most cases a still or slow-moving tail indicates low arousal. The exception is if it's still but is stiff and raised which usually means they are feeling aggressive.

In some breeds the tail can become more bushy and voluminous when they're feeling assertive. If the tail is wagging quickly and erratically it usually signals excitement. Generally, the lower a tail is positioned the more submissive the dog is feeling and the higher, the more assertive they want to be.

A dog that is cowering in fear will have their tail very low, sometimes curled up under them in extreme cases, whereas a dog that is alert will have their tail raised. In reality it's not quite so black and white as you need to take into account their entire body to accurately gauge their current emotion.

For example, if I handed you a picture of someone's raised eyebrows would you be able to guess their emotion? Most-likely not - their mouth might be raised in a smile of happiness or agape in shock. This is because we use eyebrows in conjunction with other facial expressions to communicate a feeling.

The same idea applies to dogs. Dog's use their tails to communicate among one another - it's precisely because of this that I personally advocate against tail docking as it impedes their ability to signal effectively. Misunderstandings are more likely to arise with others dogs and the chances of altercation increase.

Tongue

A dog uses his tongue to communicate their intent to others. Next time you see two dogs in play watch their tongues, you'll notice that they are near the front of, or hanging over, their teeth. This tells the other dog that they're only play fighting and have no intent of truly attacking.

On the other hand, a dog that's exhibiting aggression or is about to attack will very clearly expose his front teeth by pulling her tongue back. A dog with his tongue hanging out is saying "I'm not a threat, it's OK to approach".

Gums

A dog uses his gums to control the extent to which he displays his teeth. When dogs play their gums cover their teeth; this is in contrast to a dog that is ready to attack who pulls his gums back in a "C" shape. It is an oversimplification but the more exposed the teeth, the less friendly the dog is feeling.

Fur

Raised hackles do not automatically signal aggression - just like goosebumps (also known as horripilation or piloerection) can come about from a variety of stimuli in humans, a dog's fur can also bristle for different reasons.

A human's arm hair can stand on end if the ambient temperature is particularly cold or as a result of an emotional state such as euphoria in the case of hearing a song that resonates with them. Certain hunting dogs raise their hackles right before they're let loose to hunt due to their excitement.

Some breeds, when afraid, will also exhibit piloerection when they are feeling extremely afraid. Of course the majority of cases are based in aggression, but it's important to emphasize that this is not always the case.

Whiskers

A dog's whiskers can give subtle clues about their mood. When facing forward it usually signals aggression and when facing back or twitching it usually indicates fear or anxiety. This is relative to the breed's whisker position at rest; "forward" for one dog may be "neutral" for another.

Paws

If it's dry outside and you notice that your dog's paws are leaving imprints on the concrete it likely means she is feeling anxious. When a dog is nervous or is experiencing anxiety they may sweat but, unlike humans, dogs sweat primarily through their tongue and paws.


Dog Posture

Neutral Stance

An upright stance, not stiff and not leaning forward or backwards is indicative of a neutral state. This is the stance used when showing happiness such as when you come home from work.

Forward Stance

A forward-leaning dog means they are alert. If their ears are forward it could mean they saw something of interest and are scanning their environment. If their their teeth are bared and their tail is puffed out they are most-likely feeling aggressive due to some perceived threat.

Low to the Ground

If a dog is low to the ground he is communicating submission - this is independent of his actual standing within the pack. For example, during play dogs oftentimes alternate between roles of submission and dominance regardless of what their real life position is.

A submissive signal during play usually manifests as a play-bow - a small, quick 'bow' used to signal intent to play with another dog. Separate of play, if a dog is feeling threatened and doesn't want a fight they will attempt to make themselves smaller by lowering themselves to the ground.

On Back

A happy dog lying on his back on some grass being petted by his owner

To show complete submission a dog will lie down on its back. This can be during play or in the presence of a threat if they want to communicate that they are not issuing any sort of challenge.


Dog Vocalizations

Growl

Dogs use growls to determine the size of another dog, this can inform their resultant behavior (submissive, neutral, or dominant). A dog can determine another dog's size based on its growl alone (ie. even if they don't see said dog).

A recent study showed that size information is encoded in a dog's growl. Just like if you were played back a recording of a person with a low-pitched voice you would assume (almost always accurately) that they were an older male, so too can dogs determine another dog's characteristics based purely on their growl.

A growling dog is one that is communicating its size to those nearby. Interestingly enough, dogs are also able to distinguish a play bark from a non-play bark - again, based on the sound alone.

Bark

A bark can mean many different things. A high-pitched bark emitted during play is a sign of enjoyment - this is because a high-pitched bark is not as assertive as a low-pitched one and is less prone to being misinterpreted for a challenge by their play partner.

There's of course the bark we are all familiar with - the 'get away from my house' bark - usually louder and deeper. If a dog wants to get their owner's attention, say they want a treat, their bark will tend to be shorter and louder.

Whine

Most-commonly a dog will whine when he is experiencing a stressor such as separation from his owner, frustration at having to endure a 20 minute drive before arriving at the park, or having to wait as their owner prepares their dinner.

Whines are emitted with the mouth closed and thus have a nasal, high-pitched quality.

Yelp

A yelp indicates pain and is meant to elicit feelings of compassion from surrounding dogs and humans. It is lower in pitch compared to a whine and is quite short.

Howl

While less common than other vocalizations, the howl is still intentionally used by dogs to

communicate various messages - most of these stem from hunting instincts inherited from their ancestors. If you've ever heard a dog howl in response to an emergency vehicle such as a police siren you might have been confused as to why she felt motivated to do it.

One theory is that ancient wolves would howl when they wanted to locate another member who would howl back ("I'm over here!"). Dogs may also howl as a bonding exercise - if you've ever howled at your dog and they howled back it could be their way of getting closer to you.

Finally wolves, and dogs, will sometimes howl when they are sick so as to draw attention and receive help from their pack.

Huff

Certain dogs will emit short huffs during play. In this context it is a way of dispelling tension and keeping things light - a way of saying "Just playing!". It tends to be an empty, nasal vocalization.

Baying

A shorter, deeper version of the howl. Certain breeds such as the Plott Hound, Rhodesian Ridgeback, and Mountain Cur have been bred to bay upon cornering an animal they are hunting - this is meant to alert their owner so that he can approach and make the shot.

Sigh

A sigh can mean one of two things: contentment or displeasure. If the dog's eyes are mostly-closed it means they are at peace and feel comfortable around you. If they are open it likely indicates they are not satisfied with something such as when they are in time out.


Dog Actions

Play Bow

Dogs initiate play in many different ways - one of them is the play bow. Performed by rapidly dropping the front portion of their torso to the ground, rear up in the air, and paws spread wide it's used to say "Let's play!".

Submissive Smile

Not to be confused with bared teeth, the submissive smile is used to show submission. The key differentiator is that the dog keeps his mouth closed while curling their lips back to expose their front teeth. This may be paired with snorting and air-licking.

Not all dogs do this. Case in point our two Blue Heelers (brother and sister) - the girl regularly displays this smile when given attention but the boy never does.

Whale Eyes

Have you ever seen a dog exhibiting whale eyes? If you have then they were most-likely not in a jovial mood at the time. Whale eyes are a dog's way of showing apprehension; this can occur if they have a tendency to be resource-guarding.

This behavior is a result of the biological differences between a canine's eye and a humans. Dogs have a wider field of vision (approximately 50 to 60 degrees more than that of a human) and, excluding some breeds such as Pugs, have more freedom of movement in their neck.

They are also much more sensitive to motion than we are due to their increased rod count and likely rely more on motion and scent, as opposed to acute visual details, to identify others. As a result, they have less need to move and pivot their eyes.

The majority of the time dogs will exhibit whale eyes as they look at you from the side. A dog can identify you perfectly fine without having to move their pupils so if you get a sideways look it means they feel compelled to watch you while protecting the more sensitive parts of their face by turning the head away. It's their way of saying "Back off, you're making me uncomfortable!".

Nose Wrinkles

A dog's skin above her nose may wrinkle when she is becoming aggressive - typically this is immediately before they snap or bite.

Dog Kisses

In modern times when dogs lick another dog's, or human's, face it indicates either respect or food solicitation. In the wild, wolf puppies will indicate they are hungry by licking their mother's face.

Separate of that, the lower status wolf will reinforce their relationship with the alpha by licking his face. These instincts have been passed down to modern dogs. You might sometimes see dogs performing "air kisses" - licking the air around another dog's face - if they are too short to reach them.

Paw Lift

A dog, facing away from the camera, lifting his paw in uncertainty

When standing, a paw lift indicates indecision - the dog is unsure of how they should react. If performed while sitting or lying down it is an act of submission, they see you as in charge and want to show that they do not challenge your authority.

Mounting

Mounting is, of course, a mating behavior but it serves a purpose in play as well. A dog will mount another dog, regardless of the genders involved, to show playful dominance. In such cases the motivation is not mating-related but rather to assert dominance in a playful manner.

It's both a friendly challenge and a way to indicate that play is still ongoing. It's one of the many signals dogs use to reassure one another that their interactions are still in the realm of play and are not transitioning to violence or aggression.

Having said all that, as a matter of good dog park etiquette, if your dog is in heat you shouldn't take her to the dog park as she may provoke other males to mount her.

Lip Lick

Lip licking is usually done when the dog is nervous or is afraid. You've likely seen humorous videos where an owner catches their dog in the act of destroying some furniture or accessory - notice that many of them will lick their lips upon being chastised.

Sneeze

When in play, dogs use sneezing to say "I'm still playing and am not trying to pick a fight!". If this message is not regularly reinforced throughout play, it might accidentally escalate into a real fight.

Tongue Flicks

If you've ever seen your dog slowly flick or dart their tongue in and out while being chastised it likely means they are trying to appease you in order to put an end to the uncomfortable situation. In general it indicates discomfort.

Sniffing the Ground

If a dog wants to de-escalate a situation with another dog, they might sniff at the ground. This is used as a calming signal - one theory is that it's meant to divert the aggressor's attention onto something other than them.

Grass Eating

Eating grass may be a sign of frustration - if a dog is feeling extremely hyper and has no outlet they will sometimes eat grass as a way to calm themselves down. If they are calm and are eating grass it may be because they have an upset stomach. Finally they may simply do it out of boredom.

Head Drape

Everyone has seen the play bow and knows that it's an invitation to play. A lesser known action is the head drape. While in close range, the more assertive dog will drape their head slightly over the other dog's neck and shoulders.

This is usually done with the two dogs adjacent rather than parallel to one another. It's a safe way to mimic an attack and says "Let's play!".

Panting

If a dog is panting and the environment is not hot it could mean one of two things: excitement or anxiety. To differentiate you'll need to look for additional body language clues. If they are stiff and exhibit avoidance behavior it could mean that they are experiencing a stressor.

If instead their ears are perked up and the tail is wagging then they are probably excited about something. As an aside, I'm sure many of you have noticed that it's not uncommon for dogs in commercials to be panting. I like to try and guess if they are feeling excited or stressed by analyzing the rest of their body language.

Looking Away

If a dog wants to diffuse a situation it might look away. It is both a calming signal and a sign of respect. When a dog is several feet away from you and looks away it usually means they are comfortable around you and do not fear aggression if they leave themselves exposed.

Yawning

You've probably seen this one many times: you're getting ready to go to the dog park, your pup is racing around frantically, and all of a sudden she'll come to a stop and inexplicably yawn. This is another way they calm themselves down - one theory is that a yawn slows down their breathing which helps them to relax.

It can also be used as a pacifying signal with another dog. Of course a dog may yawn if it is just feeling tired as well.

Sitting

When a dog is bouncing around and comes to an abrupt sit it usually indicates it wants to pacify another dog. It may be used to show that it's uncomfortable with the other canine's approach. If she casually sits and allows the other dog to smell them it could indicate trust.

Backing Away

This one is pretty intuitive, a dog will back away from something it wants to distance itself from. This could be for any myriad of reasons ranging from fear, to anxiety, to uncertainty.

Nibbling

Gentle biting usually indicates affection - this is more common in "soft-mouthed" breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Labradors. Such breeds will often nibble on hands, feet, and ears.

It may be a an optimistic theory but this behavior may explain why it's not uncommon to come home and find your favorite pair of shoes destroyed by your pooch - he missed you and since you weren't around he went for the next closest thing that had your scent.

Kicking Up Grass

It may look comical but it has a real purpose! Dogs will do this either to clean up by covering their mess or to mark territory. Each dog has a unique scent and by kicking up grass that scent is released from their paws and left to linger in the area.



Dog body language relies greatly on context - an individual body part or action is usually not enough to accurately read a dog's disposition - but knowing how those body parts contribute to a specific signal is the starting point to finding a common language with your pup.

Once you are able to decode what they are saying you will be able to more fully meet their needs - something that both of you are sure to benefit from.

Did we miss any signals or aspects of dog body language? Do you disagree with any of the above? Leave a comment below!



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Betty

I would never have thought about the tongue being used as a signalling device. Great point!