Nine basics of dog body language that everyone should know

Everyone, especially first-time dog owners, needs to have a good idea of how their dogs communicate. Most of what they’re trying to say is in their body language.

Body language communicates so much!

If you think about it, a lot of human communication happens through body language. An arched eyebrow, a smile or crossed arms can tell you a lot about what someone is thinking. The same is true of dogs, only more so. Over my 30-odd years of living with them, I’ve learned that you can figure out a lot about a dog’s state of mind just by looking at them.

Of course, dogs also communicate through sounds like barking, whining and growling, but because they see no need to hide what they are feeling, their body language will tell you a lot even if they aren’t making any sounds. In my experience, dog body language mostly involves combinations of posture, tail position, and facial expression. With a few other indicators thrown in.

Dogs are capable of infinite amounts of love and affection, and bring lots of joy to their owners. You shouldn’t forget, though, that they are descended from wolves. They still carry those predator’s instincts around with them, buried under the loyalty to humans that they’ve learned over the last few millennia. And just like with humans, dog body language can be misunderstood, especially if you don’t know what to look for. And that can have unpleasant consequences. So here are a few basic things that I believe everyone should know, whether you’re dog owners or just happen to run into one on the street.

Also read: Eight things every first-time dog owner should do (and one that they shouldn’t)

A wagging tail isn’t necessarily a positive sign

As I mentioned earlier, dogs send messages through a combination of body signals. So you shouldn’t determine a dog’s friendliness just by the wag of its tail. If a dog is wagging its tail, is holding its head low and its ears back, it would be safe to say it’s friendly. But if it’s standing upright and rigid, with weight forward, head high, ears forward and tail wagging fast, that means it’s very excited, and not necessarily friendly. Extremely excited dogs can be unpredictable. So you should probably hold off on the affection a little until you have a better idea of what it’s going to do.

Dog body language - excitement
Max is very excited at the sight of the neighbour’s doggie. Note how he seems to be straining forward.

Standing tall displays confidence, which could make a dog unruly

If a dog is self-confident, it will signal this by ‘standing tall’: keeping its chest out, its head and tail high, and making frequent eye contact. Mostly, this just means that the dog is comfortable with itself and you. In some cases, though, this confidence could be because it sees itself as equal or higher that you in social status. Very confident dogs can be more unruly or confrontational—though not necessarily aggressive—than dogs that are a little more submissive.

Dog body language - Confidence
Bouncer the stray (L) and Max are confident but careful as they approach each other. Note the raised tails.

A lowered tail, head and eyes indicate submissiveness—usually a good thing

A submissive dog will display the exact opposite posture of a confident dog. It will hold its head and tail low, and not make too much eye contact. This usually means it’s acknowledged you as being above it in social status. If this is accompanied by a wagging tail, you probably have a friendly, easy-going dog on your hands. Very submissive dogs will sometimes even lie down and roll over after they have displayed the above behaviour.

Dog body language - Submissiveness
Bouncer being submissive with Max. Note how his head and tail are lowered, while Max’s tail is still raised.

There’s a fine line between submissiveness and fearfulness, and fearful dogs can bite

A dog that’s too submissive could actually be afraid, and that might be confusing. A fearful dog will display a posture similar to a submissive dog, but to a higher degree. The head will be lower, and the tail will be tucked right between the legs, but they will look at you so they can see what you are doing. A fearful dog will try and avoid you. And you should probably let it, because fearful dogs can bite in self-defence if they feel trapped. If a dog has its tail between its legs, but has its ears held flat back and its teeth bared, then it’s definitely time to back off.

Also read: In the shadow of elephants in Valparai

Scared Submissive Dog - Basic dog body language
A fearful dog. Note the ears laid back, the tail tucked between the legs, and the refusal to make eye contact (image courtesy Ellen Levy Finch via Wikimedia Commons)

A wrinkled nose, raised hackles or a ‘freeze’ are usually warning signs

Like I mentioned earlier, dogs—unlike humans—see no need to hide what they’re feeling. So if a dog is about to become aggressive, there are a few warning signs that could tell you in advance. Most people instinctively know what bared teeth mean, but a wrinkled-up nose can be just as much of a warning. The same way, if a dog’s hackles—the fur between the shoulders—are standing, it’s a sign that the dog is angry. Lastly, if a dog ‘freezes’ or goes rigid, it’s probably going to explode into action in a second. If you’re playing fetch, then that’s fine. But if a dog freezes in a tense situation, it’s usually a sign that it’s going to do something aggressive.

Dog body language - nose wrinkle
Max is mildly annoyed. Note the slight wrinkles above the whiskers. The wrinkles get more obvious the more annoyed the dog is.
Dog body language - raised hackles
Lobo challenging the neighbour’s dog. Note the slightly raised hackles between his shoulders. The fact that his tail is still wagging reinforces point #1.

Indicators of playfulness: the ‘play bow’, the ‘gallop’ and the ‘stand-up’

When a dog’s in a playful mood, it’ll be sure to let you know. Sadly, some of this playful behaviour is often misinterpreted as aggression. The most common thing you will see in a playful dog is the slightly ridiculous-looking ‘play bow’ pose. The dog will drop down on its elbows with it forelegs splayed out in front and its rear in the air. Often, it will also look at you, wag its tail and bark.

Dogs that want to play will also often ‘gallop’ towards a toy or towards you, lifting their forepaws high and see-sawing with each step. Lastly, small and medium-sized dogs that have not been completely trained may rear up on their hind legs and try and paw you. Both this and the gallop are easily misinterpreted, but if you see this behaviour in a dog, you can be pretty sure it just wants to play with you.

Also read: Photo diary: 63 cute doggies we’ve met on our travels

Dog body language - play bow
Max in the ‘play bow’ pose with a ball in his mouth
Dog body language - gallop
Max gallops in playful excitement. Note the height of his left forepaw and the flapping ears from his body’s see-sawing motion.

The doggie smile: open mouth, tongue out and relaxed ears

Dogs have an expression that dog-people call the ‘smile’. That’s a good indication that the dog is happy and relaxed. The doggie smile involves an open mouth with the tongue slightly out and the ears relaxed. Combine those with half-closed eyes, and you can be pretty sure that this dog’s happy to just hang out with you.

Dog smile - Basic dog body language
Lobo is a picture of happy relaxation. Note the open mouth, relaxed ears and half-closed eyes.

The ultimate expression of trust: the exposed tummy

Submissive dogs and dogs that are comfortable with you will often roll over onto their backs and expose their underside. While most of us probably think all they want is a tummy rub, I personally believe that this is the ultimate expression of trust. They are putting themselves in the most vulnerable position possible, and trusting you not to harm them. If dog does this with you, rejoice!

An exposed tummy shows trust - Basic dog body language
Max rolls over, happy in the knowledge that he is safe.

It’s all a matter of degree

Everything I’ve mentioned here are things I’ve learned to recognize over time. I’ve also learned that dogs often display very similar behaviour for very different states of mind, and that it’s all a matter of degree. For example, an extremely excited dog and a dog that’s simply curious will both display the same posture, but the curious dog will be a little more relaxed. The same way, a submissive dog and a fearful dog will both display lowered heads and tails, but the submissive dog might wag its tail and the fearful dog will try and get away from you. So while every dog can potentially be great fun to be with, if you’re not sure what mood its body language indicates, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution.

And if you’re a new dog owner, don’t worry about it too much. Once you know the basics, your doggie will teach you the rest over time.

Also read: Eight things every first-time dog owner should do (and one that they shouldn’t) 

Dog body language - Attentive
Max standing on his hind legs. In this case, he’s not being playful but is trying to reach a treat. Note the focused expression.
Dog body language - Relaxed but Curious
Max is relaxed but curious, as shown by the erect ears.
Alert and attentive dog - Basic dog body language
Sarko is alert and attentive.

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