Tips & Training

Speak Dog: How To Read Dog Body Language

The key to becoming a dog whisperer? Becoming a dog listener.

Want to know how to ‘speak dog’? As a pet parent, learning how to read dog body language is key to understanding how your dog is feeling.

Dogs communicate with their facial expressions, postures, tail movement and vocalising. Once you know how to interpret these physical signs, each behaviour offers a valuable insight into your dog’s state of mind.

By understanding your dog’s body positioning correctly, you’ll be able to best meet their emotional and physical needs, while creating more positive interactions and ultimately, a stronger bond with your dog.

Here you’ll find a simple breakdown of how to read dog body language accurately, based on different parts of your dog’s body.

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dog posing on a bed - read dog body language

Watch & Learn: How to Read Your Dog’s Body Language

Stress in dogs can manifest physically in various ways, such as lip licking, yawning, or tucked tails.

On the other hand, a relaxed body posture and tail, and bright, alert eyes, indicate your dog is happy and content.

Having worked with dogs over the last 13 years as a veterinary nurse, practice manager and dog behaviourist, my eyes have been opened to the complexities of understanding a dog simply by observing their behaviour.

Often I would record my observations of dogs with their humans, so I could play them back slowly to ensure I didn’t misunderstand any interactions.

The key message? Understanding your dog’s body language comes down to paying close attention to their behaviour.

So, I encourage you to put on your trainer’s hat, and get ready to watch and learn!

dog looking away with sad eyes

Eyes 

In the human world, maintaining eye contact signifies attention and respect when listening and speaking.

However in the dog world, a dog that holds its gaze without breaking eye contact may be a sign of aggression, and it could see you as a potential threat.

Calm: Gently focused eyes typically indicates a relaxed state of mind. Your dog may look directly into your eyes, hold it’s gaze, then look away. This is their way of showing respect.

Anxious: Dilated pupils can indicate fear or excitement. Both emotional states are considered to be extreme, and therefore undesirable.

Fear: ‘Whale eye’ is a classic expression of insecure dog body language. This is when a dogs eyes widen to show the white part of their eyes indicating fear, stress or anxiety.

Ears

Did you know dogs have 18 muscles that control their ears, and they can rotate them 180 degrees?

All of these muscles lends to many dog ear positions and meanings behind them.

Alert: When a dog’s ears are pricked or facing forward, this indicates attentiveness and interest in what they see or hear.

Stressed: Dog’s ears pinned back or flattened against the top of the head are typically signs of fear, unease or aggressive dog body language.

Confused: Ears switching positions indicates a dog is unsure how to react to something.

If your dog has floppy ears they might be a little harder to read, but every dog can still move the part of their ears that’s closest to their heads. So pay close attention!

dogs tail - how to read dog tail language

Tail Wagging

Most people think a dog wagging their tail is a happy dog! But this isn’t necessarily true. Interpreting your dog’s tail wags correctly often requires a closer look.

That’s because dogs move their tails in many different ways, with each movement a response to a particular feeling.

Submission or uncertainty: A low, relaxed and slow ‘s’ shape tail wag

Excitement: A higher and faster ‘s’ shape tail wag indicates interest and curiosity

Hyper arousal: A stiff, high tail that moves like a rudder or rattlesnake, usually indicates extreme alertness

Fear: A tightly tucked tail hiding between hind legs indicates fear, anxiety, or being cold.

dog bearing their teeth

Mouth

Observing your dog’s mouth and facial expressions can provide telltale signs as to how they are feeling. This includes all parts of your dog’s mouth – their lips, jaw, teeth, and tongue.

Content: A relaxed jaw tone with a slightly opened mouth (especially if their tongue hangs out forward or sideways)

Aggressive: Lips pulled back to bare teeth when resource guarding or feeling threatened (unless your dog has been taught to smile!)

Discomfort: While yawning might indicate tiredness, it often suggests that your dog is feeling uncomfortable, and demonstrating appeasing behaviour out of a desire to avoid confrontation.

Anxiety: If your dog is panting they may simply be hot and thirsty. Excessive panting however usually suggests heightened excitement or distress.

Uneasy: Lip smacking might indicate hunger, but often it actually signals distress and discomfort caused either by physical pain in their mouth, or a response to their environment (like a thunderstorm or loud noise).

dog in crouching position

Posture

When trying to translate your dog’s body language, understanding the meaning behind different dog positions and postures can go a long way.

Confident: A dog that stands tall and relaxed is a sign of feeling happy and secure in their environment.

Fearful: Dogs who hunch over or crouch low are likely feeling unsettled or frightened, or even in pain. Dogs will usually cower to appear less threatening.

Alert: If your dog appears stiff and tense, this stance is a sign of cautiousness, potential aggression and preparedness to act.

For visual illustrations you might find helpful, see how dogs use their body to communicate.

Samoyed vocalising with eyes closed

Vocalising

All dogs bark. But do all dog barks mean the same thing?

Some dog breeds are naturally more vocal than others, and their barks have different characteristics (but if your dog barks at everything you may need a few training tips!)

For example, siberian huskies and Australian dingos howl, whereas Basenji’s yodel – and little chihuahua’s yap!

A schnoodle might let out short and sharp barks when someone’s at the door, whereas a cavador might let out deep, consecutive barks when someone walks past the house.

For the most part however, the pitch, duration and frequency of a dog’s bark indicates what they’re trying to say.

Playful: A high-pitched and repeated bark

Alert: Rapid barks with pauses can indicate something is wrong

Fear: Continuous barks at lower pitch signify a sense of danger or suspected threat.

By taking the time to observe your dog’s barking, you’ll soon be able to recognize and interpret the way they vocalise – along with what else their body is doing in each situation.

Fur

Yes, even your dog’s fur can provide insight into how they are feeling!

When a dog has raised hackles, this means the hair along their spine is fluffed up. The technical term for this is piloerection and is a sign a dog is aroused.

Usually this can suggest fear, aggression or it could simply just be excitement.

Last word on dog positions & their meanings

There is not a single part of a dog’s body that can give you an accurate reading simply by focusing on that one part.

Reading dog body language correctly is all about learning to read your dog’s entire body.

It’s also crucial to take into account the context in which you’re reading your dog’s body positions, and their individual personality.

These multiple cues will come easier over time, if you spend more time watching your dog, and the dogs around you.

Happy observing!

how to read dog body language

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