Reading Dog Body Language

Dog body language is a subject I strongly feel dog owners should be more knowledgeable about. It’s a dog’s first language; the primary way in which they communicate with us and other animals. Key signals are often misunderstood or simply unknown – and that can cause issues. I recently got a job at the local humane society as a Doggie Daycare Attendant. It gives me a great opportunity to observe a HUGE variety of signals dogs give each other. It’s fun pointing out behaviors I already understand and knowing when a dog is uncomfortable or being too bossy.

How do you know when a dog is politely telling you not to bother him? Is your dog being aggressive or just playing too roughly? Why do some dogs hump every other dog they meet? If a dog’s wagging its tail, it’s happy… right? Keep reading to find out these answers and more. You can’t just look at one signal to figure out how a dog is feeling, it’s important to pay attention to what his entire body is doing and to consider the situation.

A dog is happy if…

  • Ears are relaxed or alert.
  • Eyes are relaxed or squinty.
  • Mouth is relaxed and open.
  • Body is relaxed and soft. A wiggly or play bowing dog is a happy dog.
  • Tail is wagging in big, sweeping motions.

My dog’s relaxed ears, eyes, mouth, and posture means he’s feeling pretty calm and content.

My friend’s dog, Diaz, is feeling pretty happy and excited here.
Context (such as whether the dog is relaxing or playing) is also important to consider.

A dog is nervous or fearful if…

  • Ears are pinned back against the head and neck.
  • Eyes are wide and darting around. Fearful dogs typically display “whale eye,” which is when their eyes are wide enough to see the whites. Dogs will often exhibit whale eye during play as well, so it’s important to consider context and what the rest of the body is doing.
  • Mouth is closed, though they may lick their lips or pant heavily.
  • Body is tense and low, often cowering or trembling. They may lift one of their front paws.
  • Tail is tucked between their legs.

This shelter dog is clearly nervous and afraid. Note the whale eye, ears pulled back, body hunched and tense, and the tucked tail.

A dog is aroused (no, not that kind of aroused) if…

  • Ears are alert and pushed forward.
  • Eyes are alert and staring intently.
  • Mouth is closed.
  • Body is tense, standing tall and forward.
  • Tail is held high and  may be “flagging,” which is when it flutters in quick little motions, like a flag in a strong wind.
  • Note: This posture can have two meanings. The dog may either be feeling really confident and assertive, or it is anxious and insecure. Confident dogs usually remain calm and want to inspect whatever has their attention (they may merely want to greet and play with another dog or challenge it – it can be an intimidating posture). Anxious dogs (usually reactive ones) will often flip out and begin barking and lunging to tell whatever has their attention to stay away – this posture is the first sign they’re going over threshold.

This dog’s upright, forward posture and flagging tail means she’s feeling confident and wants to interact with the dog that has her attention. This body language can merely mean she wants to go check the other dog out and maybe play, or she may be trying to challenge it. This posturing can be intimidating to other dogs so watch dogs carefully when they posture like this.

A dog is threatening if…

  • Ears are either pinned back against the head and neck, or upright and forward.
  • Eyes are focused intently, what’s known as a “hard stare.”  The brow may be furrowed (wrinkled and tense).
  • Mouth is either closed or open slightly baring teeth, often growling, snarling, or barking. When the corners of the mouth (known as the “commisures”) are pulled forward and the teeth are bared, it’s known as an “agonistic pucker.”
  • Body is very still and tense, ready to take action. Usually the body is lowered a bit, as in the picture below, but some dogs will stand tall.
  • Tail is stiff, may be held low or upright.

This dog is clearly telling someone, “Back off, or else!” (Photo by Miguel Angel Gozaine. )

A dog is uncomfortable if…

  • He/she is demonstrating displacement behaviorsThese are external indicators of internal stress. Examples include yawning, lip licking, scratching, urinating/defecating, jumping up on a person or object, sniffing, sneezing, stretching, and sitting or laying down. These are normal behaviors performed by dogs all the time, BUT, if they seem out of place (especially during a stressful event), then chances are it’s actually displacement behavior. We frequently see dogs stop and scratch during training. This just means their brain is working hard and they’re feeling a little frustrated, much like a person does when doing homework. Chewing on your pencil while working a difficult math problem is a similar behavior.
  • He/she is using cut off signals or other avoidant behaviors (such as hiding). A cut off signal is simply when the dog turns or walks away from the other dog or person in an attempt to end the interaction.
  • He/she is reprimanding. There are two kinds of reprimands: passive and active. Examples of passive reprimands would be when a dog whips its head (simply called a “head whip”) in the direction of the annoyance or is giving hard glances. Examples of active reprimands include a sharp bark, snap, snarl, or nip.
  • He/she is exhibiting appeasing behaviorsDogs display these pacifying behaviors in an attempt to resolve conflict. It’s the doggy equivalent of, “It’s cool, I’m not a threat, I don’t want any trouble, man.” Appeasing behaviors include lip licking, serpentine walking (their bodies curve as they walk), exposing their belly, licking ears or faces, lowered posture and tail, sitting or lying down, or averting their eyes. When my dog is feeling affectionate he comes up to me and licks his lips a lot as a way of getting into my good books for some petting.
  • He/she shakes off as if they are wet. Like the displacement behaviors, this one is pretty subtle. In some stressful situations dogs will shake off even though they are not wet. This usually indicates that the dog is becoming more responsive than reactive, and is an attempt to decrease stress.

Body Language Myths & Misconceptions

  • If a dog raises its hackles it’s aggressive.

False! Piloerection, or a dog raising its hackles (the fur on its back), is merely an indicator of arousal. The dog may either just be very excited about something (such as the presence of another dog) or the dog may be uncomfortable. Watch your dog carefully if you see any piloerection.

  • If a dog’s tail is wagging, he’s happy!

True and false! It really depends on how the tail is wagging and what the rest of his body is doing. If the dog is relaxed and “smiling” with the tail wagging in big, sweeping motions then yes, he’s probably feeling pretty happy. But if he’s tense, staring intently with his mouth closed, and the tail is held high and flagging in a quick, fluttering motion then he’s likely telling you to keep your distance. The latter dog would prefer to check you out on his own terms and doesn’t want you rushing up to him.

  • If a dog mounts another dog, it’s asserting its dominance.

False! Dominance theory has been debunked repeatedly by certified behaviorists. When dogs mount other dogs for reasons other than reproduction, they’re really just… well, socially inept. They may have never learned how to appropriately interact with other dogs and think that mounting is a perfectly fine way to initiate play or greetings. Some dogs don’t respond very well to being mounted so it’s best to keep your pooch from doing it to strange dogs. However, if the dog being mounted doesn’t seem to care, it’s not harmful to let them go for it. For many dogs it’s just a normal part of play; I see it at work all the time. Here is an article by veterinary-behaviorist Sophia Yin on the matter:

  • If a dog rolls over on its back, it’s being submissive.

False! This behavior can mean one of two things. He could be nervous and is using it as an appeasing behavior to let the other dog/person/whatever know that he is not a threat and he doesn’t want any trouble. This is usually accompanied by a closed mouth with some lip licking and averting their eyes. Or… your dog just wants a belly rub. Belly rubs feel good, man. It also means the dog is comfortable and trusts you. If your dog flops over with a “smile” and wagging tail, then I highly recommend you rub that belly.

What to Watch for When Dogs Play

Healthy Play

  • Loose, floppy, bouncy bodies.
  • Play bows.
  • “Smiles” and soft eyes.
  • Pauses.
  • Role reversals, meaning they both trade off positions and actions (like chasing or pinning).
  • Note: Mounting is not an issue if the dog being mounted isn’t bothered by it. Also, some dogs will growl when playing, so don’t be alarmed unless you see some concerning body language from either dog accompanying it.

Unhealthy Play

  • Tense, still bodies.
  • Closed mouths and wide, staring eyes.
  • No role reversals. Only one of the dogs is ever being chased, etc.
  • Avoidant behavior, such as one of the dogs facing or walking away from the other.
  • Head whips.
  • Agonistic puckers (baring the teeth with the lips pulled forward tightly).

This was a pretty basic overview of body language, and if you pay close attention to dogs around you you’ll notice that not all dogs display or read body language appropriately. Body language, just as speech to a human baby, has to be taught. If a dog was not properly socialized with other dogs as a young puppy, it may not know how to display and read body signals correctly. There is a Boxer mix in my daycare who, bless his sweet heart, is AWFUL at reading the other dogs’ body language. He plays pretty rough and mounts a lot, so they often give him cut off signals, but he just follows after them and keeps trying to play, which has resulted in him being reprimanded quite a bit (some dogs are a bit… well, thick-headed, and don’t get the hint very easily).

I will probably follow up this post later with another one showing some great examples of body language later. If anything seemed unclear or you have questions I didn’t address, please let me know in the comments!