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Understanding a Dog's Body Language

Decoding Canine Communication: Understanding Your Dog's Body Language

Dogs communicate primarily through body language. Understanding their signals can deepen the bond between you and your furry friend. You can decipher their feelings and needs by paying attention to their movements, expressions, and postures and even anticipate their reactions for most dogs.

Tail Wagging:

A dog's tail is the most contradictory of the body language parts. It should never be taken on its own but put in perspective with the rest of the dog's body language.

This is because a wagging tail doesn't always mean happiness. The tail speed and position of the wag can convey different messages. A high, fast wag often signifies excitement, sometimes joy, but it can also signal reactivity, arousal, or confrontation. A dog wagging its tail when it sees another dog is not always happy to see the other dog but could be showing emotional reactivity, even overexcitement or worry. While a slow wag generally indicates uncertainty or submission, a slow wag could also be a sign of contentment and a sign of a relaxed dog. A tucked tail suggests fear, anxiety, or simply a puppy form of submission, which is not always bad. We recommend considering the dog's tail in correlation to other body parts when working out what your dog is trying to convey.


Ears are windows to a dog's mood. Forward and erect ears indicate alertness or curiosity, while flattened ears signal fear, aggression or even submission. Pay attention to ear movements in various situations to gauge your dog's emotional state.

The Eyes:

A soft gaze communicates trust and affection, while a hard, unblinking stare may suggest aggression. Direct and intense eye contact can be a sign of confidence or challenge. Many believe you should avoid prolonged eye contact with unfamiliar dogs, as it can be perceived as a threat. Large “whale eye”, where you can see the whites of the eyes, could indicate the dog is scared or stressed.

Body Posture:

A dog's overall body posture speaks volumes. A relaxed and loose stance indicates comfort, while a tense or crouched posture suggests reactivity and readiness to pounce or run, and at times, it can be anxiety or even fear. Observing their body language in different situations provides valuable insights into their emotional state.

Mouth and Lips:

A slightly open mouth with a relaxed jaw can signify contentment, while tightly closed lips may indicate stress. Yawning is to get more oxygen to the brain and often occurs when working with the dog; therefore, it could show that your dog is concentrating a lot, but yawning is also associated with stress or discomfort. Pay attention to subtle changes in lip and mouth positions to understand your dog's feelings.

Licking of the lips indicates an emotional response; it could be a "please", seen when begging, or a "thank you", or even a "sorry".

Paw Lift:

A lifted paw can indicate uncertainty or a desire to communicate. Some dogs lift a paw when seeking attention, demanding or avoiding work or a command. Sometimes, paw lifting can indicate that the dog is navigating a confusing situation.

It's essential to consider other body language cues when interpreting this signal.

Rolling Over:

While many interpret a belly-up position as an invitation for belly rubs, some dogs use rolling over to demand attention and have learnt that if they roll over, humans give them belly rubs; in this way, they train their humans.

Rolling over can also signify submission or vulnerability. Some dogs roll over to communicate trust, while others do it out of fear. Context and additional cues help decipher the message.

Hackles Raised:

Raised fur along the back of the dog indicates heightened arousal, which can be triggered by excitement, fear, or aggression. Please always consider the overall context and other body language signals to interpret this display accurately.

Play Bow:

The classic play bow involves a lowered front end and raised hindquarters. Dogs use this gesture to signal their playful intent, inviting others to engage in a friendly interaction. Recognizing this posture encourages positive socialization.


By becoming fluent in your dog's body language, you'll build a stronger connection and respond more effectively to their needs. Attention to these subtle cues will enrich your relationship with your canine companion and contribute to a harmonious bond based on understanding, respect and trust.

Consider the context, and remember that individual dogs may display facial and body variations depending on their age, breed and history.

The details below are general for most dogs, but some do not abide by these standards, particularly in breeds commonly bred for dog fighting.

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