Here's what your dogs body language actually means

Looks can be deceiving, but body language doesn't lie. There's just one thing: Reading dog body language isn't always easy. ūü§Ē

What should you look for? And what do those cues mean? We explore the essentials below.

Is understanding forms of canine communication even necessary?

No one's saying you need to get a degree in canine behaviour or animal psychology to have a pet. But reading dog signals is a skill worth having!

First, you'll do a better job training your pup.

Trust is an essential aspect of training. So is your demeanour as his handler! It's hard to make progress if you have no idea what your dog is communicating.

Second, you'll enjoy a better relationship.

Canine body language gives insight into a dog's mental and emotional state. That prevents misunderstandings, minimises frustrations, and averts actions that hurt doggo's feelings.

Third, it can keep you safe.

Imagine you're at a coffee shop when a cute guy and his even cuter dog sit at the table next to you. You steal furtive glances and notice his pupper's smile. Is Fido being friendly or warning you to keep your distance? Should you reach out to pat him?

Make the wrong call, and you could lose your fingers! ūüė¨

Fortunately, body language allows you to "read the room" and react appropriately in various situations, including potentially dangerous ones. (Just be mindful that dogs can go from 0 to 60 in a flash!)

So, how do you read dog body language?

Dogs use sounds‚ÄĒvocalisation‚ÄĒto send messages. But did you know that much of their communication is non-verbal? That is, they use facial expressions and posture to express themselves.

Having said that, context is important! The "where" and "when" of it all are needed to understand the "why" behind your dog's actions.

Here's what to look for.


The position‚ÄĒrelative to the ground and body‚ÄĒand its movement reveal much about a dog's mood.

  • Regular position: Relaxed, neutral (all things being equal)
  • Pulled up high: Assertive, confident, enthusiastic
  • Pointing horizontally: On alert, apprehensive, curious
  • Pulled down / tucked between the legs: Submission, insecure, afraid, worried
  • Arched over the back: Dominant, potentially aggressive

Generally speaking, the lower the tail, the lower the mood. The higher, the more assertive. Meanwhile, a wagging tail doesn't always equal happiness. It simply signals emotional arousal.

  • Quick, high-tailed wag: Excited
  • Broad wag, moderate speed, slightly upright position: Happy, friendly, approachable
  • Short, slow wag with lowered tail: Uncertain, anxious, insecure
  • Fast and shaky: Tense, hostile
  • Circular motion, increasing speed (helicopter wag): Extreme excitement (as if you didn't know that one, huh? ūüėČ)

Fun fact: Studies found that wagging to the right suggests positive feelings. To the left indicates negative emotions like stress.


Ear positioning can be more challenging to decipher in certain breeds. For example, a Beagle's floppy ears versus a Belgian Malinois' pointy ones. Nevertheless, here are a few standard cues.

  • In its natural state: Relaxed, comfortable, content
  • Pulled down and back: Submission
  • Down (but with bared teeth or other cues): Cautious, protective
  • Upright and angled forward: On alert, possibly aggressive
  • One ear twitching in different directions: Alert, curious, attentive


The eyes are windows to the soul, so note their shape, where the pup is looking, and for how long.

  • Standard shape: Relaxed, comfortable
  • Wide open and focused: Excited
  • Soft, squinty eyes: Calm, happy, submissive, stressed, afraid
  • Side-eyed look with visible whites (whale eye): Stressed, worried, frightened
  • Avoiding eye contact: Stressed, uncomfortable, intimidated
  • Dilated pupils: Surprised, anxious, afraid, uncomfortable
  • Cold, hard, direct stare: Aggressive, threatening


A dog's lips, jaw, and teeth reveal a great deal! Is the tongue visible? Is licking involved? What about panting or drooling? Also, look for facial tension.

  • Closed mouth or slightly open: Relaxed, happy
  • Closed mouth, lips pulled back at the corners, possible licking: Submissive, afraid
  • Large yawns: Anxious, stressed
  • Lips pulled up, visible front teeth: Extremely submissive
  • Lips pulled up, teeth showing, wrinkled nose: Aggressive
  • Lips pulled back, most teeth showing: Fearful

Listen for accompanying growls, howls, barks, grumbles, sighs, groans, yips, and yelps for a clearer picture.

Posture & Piloerection

Whoa, get your mind out of the gutter! ūüėú This is about a canine's stance and hair.

  • Downward dog yoga pose (play bow) / loose, wiggly body: Playful
  • Exposed belly: Relaxed or extreme submission
  • Drawing away, cowering: Scared, submissive
  • Tense, erect, weight equally distributed or leaning forward: Interested, curious, alert, aggressive
  • Raised paw: Insecure, anxious
  • Raised hackles (hair standing up): Excited, interested, stressed, on high alert

To accurately read dog cues, take a holistic approach. Observe verbal, physical, and environmental cues‚ÄĒand changes. You should also know your pup's norm.

There can always be subtle differences (breed-, age-, and background-specific) and "in-betweens" not included in this cheat sheet. Still, at least you have a general idea of what your pet is trying to tell you!


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