What Is My Dog Saying? Reading Dog Body Language

Bradley Phifer

Our dogs will never speak to us with the same verbal language as a human, but they do tell us everything we need to know about how they are feeling through body postures and vocalizations. Using their ears, eyes, mouth, teeth, tongue, and tail our dogs speak loud and clear. It is our job to learn to speak their language so we can interpret what they are saying, and respond in an appropriate manner.

My Dog is Happy and Friendly

What is my dog saying?Is your dog trying to tell you something?

When your dog is happy and friendly it should be quite clear. He will walk with his head high, ears up, and have an alert expression on his face. His eyes will be bright with excitement, and his tail may wag softly in-line with his back. He will approach new situations with a soft, wiggly body, and may curve around to sniff or investigate. When our dogs are happy and friendly they will initiate social interaction by nudging our hand, bringing us a toy, or bowing with their front legs on the floor and their rear-end high in the air.

Most people believe a wagging tail is a sign of friendliness. When the wagging tail is accompanied by a dog who exhibits soft, relaxed, neutral body postures it certainly may be a sign of friendliness. However, this is not always the case. Dogs that are fearful or conflicted about how to proceed in a new situation may also wag their tail.

When family and friends want to engage with your dog, encourage them to call him over versus invading his personal space. Some attempts to show our dogs affection are unnatural for them, such as hovering over them, talking in a high-pitched voice, hugging them, and kissing their faces. Many dogs learn to tolerate these gestures, maybe even enjoy them, others will become fearful, or defensive during these social greetings because they require more personal space.

My Dog is Excited

Our dogs will display a variety of behaviors and body postures when they are aroused or excited by something they notice in their environment. In some instances they will begin barking, jumping, and pulling in an attempt to move towards the thing that has grabbed their attention.

When your dog is aroused he will raise his tail above his back, exposing his rectum. The hair on the tail may be bristled, while the tail itself will be stiff with a slow tick-tick wag at the tip. This may not be as noticeable in breeds that have short tails due to docking.

When our dogs are aroused, their ears will be up and forward. In breeds with long ears you will notice the ear position rise to the top of the dog’s skull. Their eyes will be large and may appear “glassy”, and he will be staring directly at the item of interest. They will be standing tall and stiff with much of their weight shifted to their front legs. Their mouths may be slightly open with their lips tense and their teeth slightly exposed.

Excited or aroused dogs will often have raised hackles (the hair over their shoulder and along their back). A common myth amongst dog owners is that a dog with raised Hackles is aggressive. Any dog who is aroused or excited will raise their hackles; even dogs who want to play with another dog. We must look at the entire picture the dog offers through his body language in order to interpret what he is saying.

When your dog is aroused you will want to use verbal cues such as “Leave it”, his name, or a jolly tone of voice to redirect his focus to you. Once you have his attention you can lead him away from the situation to regain control of his behavior. Harsh tones of voice and tugging on his leash or collar may cause frustration, which could trigger an aggressive or reactive response.

My Dog is Fearful

Dogs can be confident, outgoing, and gregarious at home, and then be fearful or unsure when they are taken out of their comfort zone and placed into new situations. Many owners who adopt rescue dogs wonder if the fearful dog has been abused, but in most cases their fearful response is due to a lack of socialization.

When your dog is fearful he will attempt to move away or increase space between him and whatever is causing his fear. His tail will be tight around his rectum. It may even be tucked up into his stomach. His ears will be flat against his skull and his head will be lowered while his body is cowered. He will avoid eye contact and look away. He is likely to freeze, be unwilling to walk forward, and may display decreased activity. Depending on the level of fear your dog is experiencing he may also bark, growl, or snap. His behavior is an attempt to avoid further conflict and increase personal space.

If your dog eats well at home but refuses to eat, take a treat, or respond to simple cues when visiting the kennel or greeted by a child, he may be afraid.

When your dog displays fearful behavior it is best to remove the item evoking the fear. Let him know you understood what he was saying and advocate for him so his behavior does not progress. If the item cannot be removed, you should remove your dog from the situation. Fearful dogs can be taught to be unafraid of these situations. They need time to adjust on their own. A professional dog trainer can assist you in modifying your dog's response during these situations.

Flooding your dog by over-exposing him to the fearful situation and/or correcting him when he barks, growls, or snaps is likely to increase his stress level and make the situation worse. You will not make your dog more fearful by telling him he is okay or removing him from the situation until you can obtain further help from a professional dog trainer.

My Dog is Stressed

Dogs are excellent at communicating how they feel. When they are feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, they will communicate their discomfort and need for personal space in a number of ways. Any social event your dog is involved in, whether it is a training session, a visit to the dog park, going to the veterinarian's office, or having a guest visit your home can trigger stress.

Signals your dog is stressed:

  • He pants when it is not hot out or at times when there hasn’t been physical activity. The panting will be accompanied by lips pulled back exposing the molar, and the tongue hanging out of the dog's mouth
  • He leaves foot prints as he walks across the hard floor on a dry day or his pads are moist and sweaty to the touch
  • He begins to shed more heavily or develops dandruff in social situations
  • He is unable to settle down or relax in social situations
  • He shows a lack of movement or is inhibited or stationary in social situations
  • He has a tense, rigid body and is mouth his closed or tense
  • His pupils are dilated, and I can see the whites of his eyes
  • He drools when there is no anticipation of food or other reward
  • He is unwilling to eat food, take treats, or chew on bones
  • He will not respond to well-known cues
  • He paces, whimpers and whines
  • He licks his feet or chews on his paws. In extreme cases the fur may change color or the dog could cause open wounds.

Some signs of stress may be subtle. It is important to interpret not only your dog’s body postures, but also to be aware of changes in his behavior that may reflect his mental state. Your dog is likely to display more than one of the above signals during times of stress. When you see a number of stress signals you will want to adjust the situation so your dog’s behavior does not progress.

It is common for us to label our dogs as hyper, stubborn, or easily distracted when they are in new situations and not listening to us. In most cases these descriptions clearly identify a stressed dog. A professional dog trainer can help you increase your dog's comfort level in specific situations.

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