Life would be easier if our dogs could talk, right? If only they could answer our questions with intelligible answers spoken in our language, instead of looking at us and yawning, scratching, or running away and hiding under the bed. What is that supposed to mean?
But rather than waiting for dogs to learn our language, it’s far more efficient—and realistic—to engage our big human brains and become fluent in “dog.” Fortunately, you don’t need to be a linguistics scholar to translate your canine companion’s inner thoughts. You just need to know a few basics and closely observe your dog—something you likely do already because they’re so cute!
Advantages to understanding dog body language
Dogs use barking, growling, and whining to send vocal messages, but they also use an extensive and nuanced nonverbal vocabulary of body movements, facial expressions, and gestures. Recognizing common canine body language and what it means is more than mutt mind reading—it promotes a better bond between you and your dog by:
- Minimizing conflict and confusion
- Improving communication during training
- Strengthening the dog-owner relationship
- Preventing dog aggression — Reading your dog’s body language lets you anticipate and prevent a bad interaction.
While it’s necessary to look at the entire dog when evaluating body language, we’ve divided some common signals by body part for easy comprehension.
Your dog’s ears
Dog ears are highly animated and can convey alertness, fear, and curiosity. Typically, erect and forward-facing ears convey focus and attention, while ears pinned back or pressed against the skull can signify fear or, in some cases, happiness.
Although ear position and movement are easiest to see on a dog with upright or cropped ears, breeds with long or drooping ears also can express themselves. But rather than rotating or flattening the entire ear (i.e, pinna), long-eared dogs can only control the ear base, creating more subtle movements.
Your dog’s eyes
As windows to the soul, the eyes are your dog’s emotional barometer, indicating:
- Comfort — Relaxed dogs will have round almond-shaped eyes with little to no sclera (i.e., the white part of the eye) visible, and may squint slightly in appeasement.
- Fear — Nervous or uneasy dogs will display wide eyes with visible sclera (i.e., a characteristic known as “whale eye,”) and dilated pupils, and may have a darting gaze.
- Uncertainty — Submissive or overwhelmed dogs may look away and refuse to make eye contact—a threatening canine action. Dogs who intently stare at their target (i.e., staring with “hard eyes”) may be agitated and over-aroused—and should not be approached unless their temperament is well-known.
Your dog’s mouth
Happy dogs have little to no facial tension and may lightly pant. Nervous or stressed dogs may pant rapidly and have a tight-lipped expression with the corners of their mouth (i.e., commissures) wrinkled slightly from the pressure. They may abruptly close their mouth during panting.
Aggressive or reactive dogs also will display facial tension and may pull their lips back to expose their teeth. This is not the same as a submissive “grin,” which some dogs will perform in conjunction with a lowered body posture and wagging tail. Remember to evaluate the entire dog when assessing body language.
Your dog’s posture and movement
You’re probably sensing a trend by now. Relaxed features indicate content and calm dog, while tension suggests fear, anxiety, or stress. This pattern continues as we evaluate the dog’s posture and gait. Happy dogs show a neutral standing posture or may bend their body into a slight C-shape. When approaching a person or dog, they may move in a gentle arc rather than a straight line.
Nervous or submissive dogs take on a lowered stance and may crouch, crawl, or roll over and expose their belly. Nervous-reactive dogs will attempt to make themselves as large as possible, standing tall, extending their neck, and tensing their muscles. They may approach in a straight line or hold their ground.
Your dog’s tail
While we like to think of the tail wag as a simple two-gear mechanism (i.e., up equals happy, down equals scared), it’s more complicated than that. For starters, tail action indicates emotional arousal—which can be any emotion, including stress. Tail carriage (i.e., location) may give us clues about the dog’s mindset, depending on their breed, such as:
- An erect tail — This tail stands above the dog’s back and wags slowly or stiffly and may indicate aggression or over-arousal.
- Neutral tail — This tail extends off the back horizontally and is typically friendly.
- Low or tucked tail — A tail curled tightly between the hind limbs suggests fear and timidity.
Accurately reading your dog
Always view the entire dog and the context (i.e., environment) when evaluating body language to prevent overinterpretation. For instance, an erect tail is appropriate for a fox terrier, and your dog’s whale eye may be caused by the pizza at a nearby table rather than nervousness or fear. If your dog is experiencing true fear or distress, remove them from the environment or activity if possible.
If, after evaluating your dog’s body language, you notice your dog is displaying many fear, stress, or reactivity-related signs, contact the Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital team. Our Certified Fear Free approach prioritizes your dog’s emotional well-being at the hospital and at home. We can discuss your dog’s needs and suggest helpful resources, including training, medication, or environmental management.