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How to Read Your Dog’s Body Language

Understanding your dog’s body language can help you better meet your pet’s needs through unspoken communication.

March 10, 2023 4 min read
How to Read Your Dog’s Body Language

Fido may not be able to speak words but that doesn’t mean he can’t communicate. As a dog owner, it’s important to understand your dog’s body language and what different signals could indicate.

Dogs communicate in a variety of ways, including with their head and body. They also use certain verbal signals to show how they’re feeling, such as panting, whining, growling, and barking. Recognizing what your dog’s body language could mean can help you better understand your pet’s unique needs and offer hints on how to discourage behavioral issues.

Here’s a look at some of the most common types of dog body language and what they mean:

Your Dog is Happy

Pet owners often want to know if their dog is truly happy. There are several signs that could indicate your pet is happy and content. First, a happy dog will typically have a relaxed body posture. His mouth may be open and relaxed, his hair smooth, and his ears in a natural position. Your dog may even be wagging his tail. Happy dogs will also have soft or squinty eyes, which is your pet’s way of expressing adoration and trust.

Your Dog is Stressed

If your dog is stressed or uncomfortable, he may sit with his head low to the ground and his tail tucked under. Your dog’s ears may be back, and he may try to avoid eye contact or turn away from you. Sometimes dogs yawn when they are bored or tired, but more commonly yawn when they are stressed. A stressful dog yawn is often more intense and prolonged compared to a sleepy dog yawn. Your stressed pet may also drool or lick excessively when nervous.

Your Dog is Scared

Dogs that are scared generally exhibit some clear signs of fear or anxiety. Whale eyes are a classic indicator of nervousness or fear in dogs. This signal is also referred to as “moon eyes” as the eye whites tend to take on a crescent shape. Your scared dog may also have dilated pupils, which can sometimes make your pet’s eyes appear ‘glassy.’

Other signs that your dog may be frightened include a tucked tail, a tightly closed mouth, or the showing of teeth with the lips pulled back slightly. A scared dog may also shift back on his weight in an attempt to get further away from the offending stimuli, lift one leg as a sign of stress, or lean away from you if you attempt to get closer.

Flattened ears and a tense face are also common signs of fear in dogs, although it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish how your dog is feeling depending on his breed and specific ear type. Finally, raised hackles (the hair that runs along a dog’s spine) may indicate that your dog is afraid.

Your Dog is Playful

Dogs love to play, especially when they’re young. Your playful dog may exhibit obvious signs that he’s in the mood for fun and games, such as leaning forward while putting his butt in the air. However, sometimes dogs will communicate that they want to play in an unconventional way, such as by barking or growling.

Dogs playing together will usually take turns, with one being on top and then allowing the other to be on top. Some dogs will let themselves “lose” to be fair, especially when a larger dog is playing with a smaller dog. An excited dog may wiggle and engage in lots of movement with just brief pauses on occasion. He may also bounce his paws off the ground in excitement.

Of course, many people associate dog zoomies with playfulness. “Zoomies” are a common way for overstimulated dogs to release their excitement by running around in a cartoonish fashion. However, zoomies could also indicate that your dog is stressed and needs to release built-up stress as a way to self-soothe.

Your Dog is Curious

Dogs are naturally curious creatures and may take the time to explore their surroundings, especially in new places. When in a curious mood, your dog may cock his head to one side or the other. He may also lift his front paw in anticipation of what will happen next. Curious dogs may also appear alert with their mouth closed, preparing for action.

Your Dog is Alert

There are times when your dog will be alert, especially when he’s around new people or places. His body language may include signals that may appear the same as fear or stress, because nervousness and excitement have similar energies. A dog that is alert will usually stand still with a closed mouth and high, forward ears.

Your dog may put his tail up high and remain frozen in a forward stance. Just because your dog is alert does not necessarily mean that he is frightened or will become aggressive. Instead, it means that he is taking in his surroundings and is preparing to act if necessary.

Understanding Dog Body Language

As dogs don’t speak our language, it’s important to communicate with them in the only way they know how. Dogs communicate using many different body signals and vocal indicators. Over time, you’ll start to understand how your dog is feeling by reading these behaviors, allowing you to form a closer connection with your pet.

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