Dog Body Language Guide: How to Read Your Dog Like a Pro

We all wish our dogs could tell us what they’re thinking through words, however, this is not the case. What we can do though is watch our dogs body language very closely and you will be able to tell what your dog is telling you through their actions.

Understanding your dogs body language is an extremely important part of developing the relationship between you and your dog. You need to learn the visual cues and then you will be able to interpret whether your dog is happy, sad, angry or any other emotion. We understand this may be confusing at first that’s why we at The Pet Embassy have put together our “Dog Body Language Guide” to help you read your dog like a pro.

Canine Communication: How Dogs Communicate

Dog Body Language Guide: How to Read Your Dog Like a Pro
Cute dog looking all confused! Photo by Steshka Willems from Pexels

It can be said that dogs do have some vocal ability, but the range of sound that they produce is very limited when compared to humans. There are a few sounds that you will know straight away such as when a dog growls, you understand that your dog is angry or when your dog whinges they are feeling a little sad.

The difference is, while humans primarily use verbal communication, dogs mainly communicate non-verbally through the use of body language and secondarily through vocalizations. It can be said that dogs do have some vocal ability, but the range of sound that they produce is very limited when compared to humans. There are a few sounds that you will know straight away such as when a dog growls, you understand that your dog is angry or when your dog whinges they are feeling a little sad.

However non-verbal communication is their primary use of communication. The body language they use includes ear and eye positioning, body movement and position, facial expressions and tail carriage and motion.

We have all seen the familiar pattern emerging when dogs greet each other. The circular pattern around each other and then smelling sniffing each others mouths and then their genital area. This is the ideal situation as this is a calm interaction between the two dogs as they learn about each other. Dogs greet one another with a familiar pattern, circling one another and sniffing each others muzzle, then genital area. Ideally this is a calm interaction as the dogs learn about one another through their sense of smell rather than their sense of sight like humans.

Dogs and other animals have an organ known as the Jacobson’s or ‘Vomeronasal’ organ, which is a special ‘scent’ organ within their nasal cavity. This special organ allows them to analyse chemicals as they sniff and detect different scents. This information that they gather will help them determine the breed of the other dog as well as the many other traits. This subtle and highly sophisticated ability gives dogs ways to communicate in ways that humans could not even begin to think of.

When looking at a dog’s body language it is essential to observe the entire dog as well as the situation in which they are in. Observing both of these will allow you to accurately determine what message your dog is trying to portray. For instance, a waggling tail may not necessarily mean a happy dog, the motion in which is moves is to be looked at. However, there are some more obvious signs that belong in one body language group such has a stiff body and eats back. These features will tell you that your dog is not happy.

There are five common groups of dog body language signals. As you review each of the different groups, please keep in mind that a dog may demonstrate behaviours belonging to more than one of these groups as a given time. For example, a dog may be fearful of a stimulus but as that fear grows they quickly switch to more a aggressive behaviour. Please also know that stress can influence a dog’s response to a situation, we as humans must look at the whole dog and their body language as well as the situation that they are in to make an appropriate response.

Now, let’s learn to decode what our dog’s body language looks like and means.

Different Types of Dog Body Language

Happy Dog Body Language
Dog Body Language Guide: How to Read Your Dog Like a Pro
Happy dog smiles into the camera! Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

Usually a happy dog is generally very loose all over there body. What we mean by that is that their muscles and mouth are a little bit loose and their eyes will be slightly relaxed and even a little bit squinty.

A dog will also show some of these signs that indicate your dog is happy and relaxed:

  • Mouth is slightly open. Ends look like they’re turning up (almost like your dog is smiling)
  • Ears are in a neutral position – not tense and high up nor drawn back behind their head
  • Eyes are soft, with no hard staring
  • Your dog will be loosely wagging their tail in a light back and forth motion or even a circular motion.

The looseness in your dogs body will echo their feelings of relaxed and happy. You may even find that your dog will slightly lower their head and ears and lay down in a frog leg position.

Frightened Dog Body Language
Dog Body Language Guide: How to Read Your Dog Like a Pro
Brown puppy sits on the ground looking a little scared of the big world infant of them. Photo by Torsten Dettlaff from Pexels

When your dog is scared, they will most likely react with their whole body rather than just one part. A scared dog might cower or try to hind under or behind things. This type of body language may show up as a combination of several signals and/or may appear as a progression through these signals as the dog’s response intensifies.

There are a few other signs that your dog is scared such as:

  • Lip licking – even though your dog is not hungry
  • Averting eye contact
  • Lifting a front paw
  • Yawning- even though your dog is not tired
  • Holding perfectly still

Many of these body signs correlate with submissive behaviors.

With all that being said, we should also look at the absence of active signals as they can communicated just as much as more active signals. For instance, if you notice that your dog freezes when being reached towards, or they stop eating when someone approaches their kennel or bowl, then your dog is scared as both of these actions are demonstrating fearful communication signals.  

If you do not address what is making your dog scared in a quick manner, there is a chance that a fearful dog will switch to a more aggressive body language if your dog is exposed to the fearful stimulus for too long or if this stimulus becomes a more aggressive.

Aggressive Dog Body Language
Dog Body Language Guide: How to Read Your Dog Like a Pro
Look at those teeth! Photo by Torsten Dettlaff from Pexels

Aggression is a normal and natural behaviour in many animals, and dogs are no exception to that. Often aggression is triggered by what your dog thinks is a threat, whether that be another dog, a stranger or an object. Aggression is a defence mechanism used by dogs to either protect themselves or to protect their possessions. Sometimes a fearful dog may transition into an aggressive dog if left exposed to stimulus for too long.

Unlike the loose body language of a happy dog, an aggressive dog is stiff: stiffened legs to help your dog appear taller and a stiff body in general.

Other aggressive canine body language signs include:

  • A lip lifted into a snarl
  • Bared teeth
  • A stiff and upright tail, which may wag slightly
  • Barking or growling
  • Snapping or biting

If you see any signs of aggression in your dog, consult a trainer or veterinary behaviorist for advice on how to de-escalate or stop aggressive behavior. This may include removing triggers of fear or aggression, behavior modification that includes positive reinforcement training, and helping dogs learn how to better socialize with humans and other dogs.

Anxious body language
Dog Body Language Guide: How to Read Your Dog Like a Pro
Dog panting on a walk. Photo by Sabrini from Pexels

Just like humans, dogs can get anxious too. A change of scenery is usually why dogs get anxious. You may notice that your dog is starting to pace around, pant excessively and loose focus.

 He may pant excessively (when not hot or recently exercised), lick his lips (when not hungry), yawn (when not tired), and have a slightly lowered body stance with his ears slightly back

Other anxious canine body language signs include:

  • Panting excessively – when not hot or have recently exercised
  • Lick their lips – when not hungry or have not eaten recently
  • Yawn – when not tired
  • Slightly lowered body stance with ears slightly lowered

Anxious dogs, similar to fearful dogs, may exhibit the absence of behaviors and appear “shut down”.

Aroused body language
Dog Body Language Guide: How to Read Your Dog Like a Pro
An energetic beagle running around. Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

The body language a dog shows when they want to play is very much loose and fun. They will show body movements that are pretty inefficient, in that, your dog may be relatively bouncy, with their feet lifting off the ground as they run or they may look like they have a spring in their step.

There are some key signs that a dog wants to play, that we have listed below:

  • Wiggly movements and body
  • Open, relaxed mouth
  • Fast and free movement
  • Playful barks and growls – different to the aggressive bark and growl.

There is nothing better than a dog that is aroused and wants to play. We would recommend taking them out into the yard at this point or on a long walk if possible so they can burn off that energy and continue to be happy throughout the day.

Why should I learn dog body language?

Learning dog body language allows you to better communicate and understand your dog. This in turn, will help your relationship between you and your dog grow into something beautiful.

Whilst we can express our views and opinions through verbal communications, dogs unfortunately cannot. Dogs actually understand very little verbal communication, such as a few words or tone of voice, therefore, understanding their body language and responding to that will only help you and your dogs lives. You’ll know when your dog is scared and how to defuse the possible confrontation or you will understand when your dog is eager to play.

We appreciate that learning to read body language, in order to respond appropriately, takes time, observation, and practice. What we would recommend is that a dog may display more than one group of signals in the same situation. You should look to read the whole sitation before making a judgment as to what your dog is trying to communicate and what your response should be in this situation.

We also have some other posts about different dog breeds so why not read them below!

Top 10 Most Loyal Dog Breeds for Your Home

Top 10 Best Dogs for Beginners and First Time Dog Owners

Top 10 Most Energetic Dog Breeds for Active People

Top 10 Dog Breeds for Kids and Families

Top 10 Smartest Dog Breeds (Intelligent Dog Rankings)

Is My Dog Depressed? – What To Do If Your Dog Seems Sad and Tired

Top 10 Favorite Small Dog Breeds to Keep You Company

Top 10 Least Active Dog Breeds for Lazy People

Top 10 Best Dog Breeds for Seniors and Older People

Top 10 Best Dogs for Apartments and Smaller Living Spaces

Top 10 Longest Living Dog Breeds to Fill Your Home With Love

Top 10 Best Dog Breeds for Protection and To Keep You Safe

Top 10 Favorite Medium Dog Breeds That Encompass The Best of Both Worlds

Top 10 Favorite Large Dog Breeds for Any Adventure

Top 10 Small Hypoallergenic Dog Breeds for People Who Suffer From Allergies

Top 10 Working Dog Breeds to Help With Those Tasks

Top 10 Herding Dog Breeds for Active Families

Why Does My Dog Do That? An Answer to The Most Googled Questions of 2020

Helpful Tips to Follow When Introducing Dogs

New Puppy Checklist to Help You Ease Your New Companion Into Your Home

How To Build a Dog’s Confidence In A Shy or Fearful Dog

Ways to Recognize Stress in Dogs To Help Them Through a Tough Time

Top 10 Big Fluffy Dog Breeds That Are The Same As A Real Life Teddy Bear

Top 10 Terrier Dog Breeds to Keep You Entertained

Why Does My Dog Run Away and How to Stop Them

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