Dog Body Language 101 Understanding Behavior & Tail Signs

A playful brindle and white mixed breed dog in a play bow position

As a dog owner, you probably think you have mastered the art of communicating with your furry best friend. What more is there to understand? After all, a dog howls when it’s sad and wags its tail when it is happy, right? 

Wrong.

Thanks to their inability to communicate using words- although that would have been really cool- dogs use a blend of sounds and mannerisms to communicate with their owners. Failing to understand dog body language can make communicating with your canine friend challenging and strain your relationship.

To understand your dog, you not only need to pay attention to its bark but also interpret every shift in its stance and posture. To help you do this, we have curated a crash course on understanding your dog’s non-verbal behaviors.

 

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Learning To Speak ‘Dog’

Wouldn’t it be great if your dog could speak to you? Communication is a massive part of every relationship. As humans, words make up the foundation of all our interactions with others, and non-verbal gestures are simply the cherry on top of clear interactions.

However, in our relationships with dogs, communication gets a little tricky. Our dogs can pretty much do anything. They are our furry companions who put smiles on our faces, entertain us with tricks we teach, and shower us with unwavering loyalty- check out our list of 10 most loyal dog breeds!-  and affectionate slobbery kisses.

While all these are great, one thing our dogs cannot do is speak. Although dogs come in different breeds, with each breed having unique traits, one thing all different dogs have in common is that they use a series of vocal sounds and unique body language to communicate amongst themselves and with their humans.

While dogs are experts at communicating using these behaviors right from birth, humans are not exceptionally skilled at deciphering their dog’s emotions from their little mannerisms like facial expressions and posture. This inability to understand a puppy’s needs through body language causes dog owners to misunderstand their dog’s responses to certain stimuli.

This causes humans to overlook signs that will otherwise warn them that their dog is stressed, agitated, or worse. Since your dog cannot directly dictate its emotions to you, it is your duty as its best friend to better understand your dog’s emotional exigencies through its non-verbal behaviors.

To do this, you must learn to be fluent in ‘dog’. Speaking dog doesn’t mean you have to be well-versed in telling apart your dog’s unique howl, bark, or whine pitches- although that will be a somewhat genius feat. Speaking dog means easily deciphering your dog’s different behaviors and non-verbal signals like tail position, ear position, and how relaxed or stiff their body is.

Young attractive man walking with an active dog Dalmatian in nature

Learn To Read Your Dog Like A Book

While you can often tell a person’s emotional state by simply looking at them, it is virtually impossible to do the same with dogs without having basic knowledge of canine body language.

Many dog owners believe their pet only has two innate emotions which are happiness, often evident through their dog’s excited tail wags and sadness which is often communicated through howls and an intentional avoidance of eye contact. However, what many owners don’t realize is like humans, dogs experience a slew of emotions that range from fear to agitation, boredom, and stress.

Understanding the signs that your dog uses to communicate its emotions will help you interact with your dog better. This will not only come in handy in avoiding unfortunate interactions with other dogs and humans but also help your dog receive the attention it deserves when necessary.

Understanding dog body language also comes in handy for dog trainers. It breaks down the barriers of canine communication and makes dog training much easier.

Your Dog’s Different Body Language Signals

Have you ever thought, ‘I wish I could just get my dog to tell me what’s wrong’? The good news is you can! Your dog communicates its emotional state using non-verbal body language signals. It is left to you as its owner to know what signs to look out for and understand what these signs mean when you see them. Some important behaviors and body language signals your dog exhibits include:

1. Tail Wagging

Although a dog’s tail plays a part in its balance, it is also significant in helping it exhibit its canine feelings. In fact, dogs use their tails so much that they are prone to a painful condition known as Happy Tail Syndrome. For many people, a dog wagging its tail means it is excited, happy, and friendly enough that strangers are free to approach.

However, this is not the whole truth. Tail wagging is an overly misinterpreted body language because, contrary to popular opinion, dogs wag their tails to communicate a wide range of emotions. While it is true that a dog will wag its tail when it is happy and welcoming its friends, dogs by default wag their tails when they are excited… and this is not always a good thing. 

A dog uses its tail to communicate happiness, anxiety, submission, excitement, and aggression when they feel threatened. Does this mean you should be suspicious every time you see your dog’s furry tail move? Well, not necessarily. However, it will pay to assess the situation and the dog’s movement or position in wagging its tail. 

The most challenging part of understanding a dog’s tail movement is perhaps that tails come in different shapes, sizes, lengths, and positions. The normal position of a dog’s tail varies with breed type. For example, your dog’s tail might be curly and corkscrew-shaped like a Pug or sickle-shaped and pointing in a c-shape towards the back of your dog’s head as in Chihuahuas.

Since we now know that there is no anatomically correct tail position that we can label as the correct neutral position, to understand what our dogs tell us using their tails, we need to pay attention to the speed and position of the wag. Generally, the faster a dog wags its tail, the more excited it is.

A furiously wagging tail in a relaxed stance means your dog is happy or excited. This is usually evident during playtime or when you come home after a long day of being away from your dog.

Since the speed of a tail wag can mean a lot of things, the position of the tail when it is wagging tells us more about what a dog might be trying to communicate. Some positions and their meanings include:

  • Happiness: a happy dog wags its tail in its neutral or a more horizontal position. It can be slow or fast, depending on the level of stimuli.
  • Submission or appeasement: when a dog is in the presence of a dog or human, it considers a higher authority, and it often shows submission to prove it is not a threat. In instances like this, the dog’s tail is tucked between its back legs, where it will flag slowly. 
  • Alertness: at alert, a dog’s tail is raised, just as its ears are. The tail is often stiff.
  • Aggression: An aggressive dog is not afraid to attack when it considers a person or another dog a threat. In this situation, the dog’s tail moves from its neutral position to a more vertical placement, or in other cases, arching over its back. Aggressive dogs do this to release more scents from their anal glands, warning their threat to back off from their territory.
  • Curiosity: like humans, dogs get curious. When this happens, the dog’s tail is straight out in a horizontal position.
  • Negotiation: have you ever noticed how your dog’s tail suddenly stops wagging or wags more slowly than it was when a stranger approaches it? This is your dog trying to warn your company that they do not want to interact with them without being aggressive.

The direction of the tail wag can also help you understand the level of your dog’s arousal. Research shows that a dog’s tail wags to the right when experiencing a positive emotion and to the left when it has negative feelings. This directional tail wagging results from increased activation of a side of the dog’s brain.

Amazingly, there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. Like the human brain, a dog’s brain sides play differing roles, with the left side of the brain controlling the right side of the body and vice versa.  Since the right side of a dog’s brain is associated with aggression, it only makes sense that a dog reflexively whips its tail to the left when frightened or aggressive.

Knowing your dog’s tail talk is an excellent way to ensure you are in tune with your canine friend’s emotions. 

2. Erect Hackles

Have you ever experienced a tingly fear so severe that you felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand erect in response? Surprisingly, dogs share this same response and use their fur to communicate emotions that range from excitement to fear. The medical term for erect hackles in dogs is called piloerection.

Similar to goosebumps, this phenomenon occurs when the hair on your dog’s back- and often to the base of its tail- fluff up. Although raised hackles are often classified as a negative response to stimuli, this is not always the case. Admittedly, you might observe piloerection on your dog when it seems to be freaked out by smell, sight, or sounds that will otherwise be unfelt by your human senses, raised hackles are associated with different internal states.

Raised hackles, like goosebumps, are an uncontrollable and reflexive canine response. It can be a sign that your dog is aroused, fearful, startled, or excited. Erect hackles can also be a sign of stress. While erect hackles can often be a way to be privy to your dog’s emotions, to understand better what your canine buddy might be feeling, ensure that you note other signs like its posture and facial expression before making a judgment call.

Collie dog sad eyes closeup hanging on bench

3. Facial Expression

Although one look at a doggo’s face will often tell you what you need to know, looks can be deceiving. To avoid misinterpreting your dog’s facial expressions, you should learn what certain facial signs mean, starting with the eyes.

Eyes

The eyes are the windows to the soul, and unsurprisingly, you can often learn a lot about a dog’s emotions through its eyes.  A pooch in discomfort or experiencing a stressful situation will often refuse to hold eye contact with you.

Anxious dogs will also communicate using ‘whale eyes’, a situation where it shows the whites of its eyes. When a dog’s eyes are soft-gazing and relaxed, they are considered calm and happy. On the other hand, a dog with cold eyes that may look like it’s glaring or starting you down can be aggressive and should be approached with caution.

Mouth

Is your dog smiling, or is it something else? Your dog’s mouth is a great communicating tool, and no, we do not mean its barks, whines, or growls- although those are pretty helpful. The position of a dog’s mouth can tell you a lot about its current emotional state.

A relaxed dog often shows a relaxed snout, either with an open mouth and a drooping tongue or not. In a state like this, your dog might also look like it is subtly smiling or grinning, depending on the breed and shape of its snout. While this ‘smiling’ look might make a dog look cute and approachable, it is essential to decipher between a submissive grin or smile-lookalike and a leer.

A dog’s teeth are one of its most dangerous weapons, and it is not afraid to show that it is armed to the teeth- pun intended- when threatened. They do this by baring their teeth in a menacing snarl with their lips forming a C-shape. Additionally, lip licking is a typical dog behavior that pet parents barely understand.

While your dog might lick its lips to show the food is delicious, it might also be one of the many signs of stress. Dogs also exhibit facial calming signals like yawning in stressful situations. This is another sign of fear or anxiety that pet parents misunderstand as sleepiness or canine boredom.

Ear Position

When paired with your dog’s body signals, the ears are an excellent way to communicate with your pet. Generally, when your dog’s ears are pointed back and down, it means it is submissive. This is often synonymous with the tucking of the tail between its legs.

If you notice your dog’s ears are up, it could mean they are paying attention to or trying to track a sound. When this happens, its body will be stiffer. A dog’s ears pointed erect and paired with other signs of aggression might also be a sign that it feels threatened by someone or another animal.

4. Body Posture

A dog’s stance and weight distribution are excellent means of human-dog communication. With its posture and entire body, a dog clearly dictates its intentions and emotional states. Some common pointers include:

  • A relaxed stance and wiggly body signify a calm and playful dog.
  • A dog who rolls on its belly might be asking for a belly rub but might also be offering submission. This might also be a sign of a fearful dog.
  • A dog that acts out a play bow with its chest to the ground and butt in the air is most likely asking you to be its playmate.
  • A rigid dog with tight muscles is mostly likely aggressive and warning you to back off.
  • A dog cowering in the corner with its body close to the ground is most likely afraid.

Decoding Your Dog

Your dog is an open book. However, to understand your canine friend, you need to understand their body language well enough to know what every movement means. When reading your pup, it is essential to know that none of these behavioral signs should be read as independent pointers.

Examine all parts of your dog from its face to its feet to gauge what its true disposition is. All-in-all, understanding your dog’s behavior is a great way to build and strengthen your bond.

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Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is an animal lover and the proud dog-mom of a Golden Retriever named Brody and an Italian Greyhound named Jessup. Unfortunately, Jessup developed serious allergies to many different types of dog foods and ingredients when she was just a puppy. Meanwhile, Brody could eat seemingly anything and carry on as healthy as could be. Sarah spent hours of time researching and testing different foods and brands before finding something that worked for little Jessup. She wants Dog Food Care to simplify this experience for future dog-parents who face food allergy or tolerance issues of their own.