How to Read Your Dog's Body Language

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 26, 2021
4 min read

Dogs don't communicate through speech as humans do. Instead, they have an advanced set of non-verbal cues that they use to communicate with each other and with us. They use their entire body to do this — eyes, ears, mouth, tail, overall body movement, and more. While dogs do use their voices for noises such as whining, yawning, or barking, their body movements are crucial to their communication. By looking at the following signs, you can better understand how your dog is communicating with their body language.

Many people think that all tail wagging means a dog is excited and happy. However, this is not entirely true. To understand what your dog may be trying to communicate, be sure to look for things like:

  • How fast their tail is wagging
  • If their tail is wagging sideways or perpendicularly
  • If their tail is making twitching movements

If their tail is moving faster, this means they are more excited. Tail wagging to the left is usually a negative arousal symptom. Tail wagging that moves the dog’s whole body is generally a happy wag reserved for loved ones.

Where the dog places their tail relative to the ground is another essential key to understanding their mood. If your dog's tail is lower to the ground, between their hind legs, or otherwise lowered, they might be feeling submissive or fearful. Conversely, if your dog is holding their tail up, they may be feeling aggressive, confident, or happy.

Some dog breeds have naturally lowered or heightened tails. Get to know your dog’s tail movements and how they relate to the situation you're in at the time.

When your dog raises their hackles, the fur on their back may raise up across the shoulders and down the back all the way to the tail.

This means your dog is excited, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. It could be that your dog is upset, but it could also signal extreme excitement or interest. Think of this reaction as being akin to goosebumps for people.

Understanding how a dog’s weight is distributed is key to reading their body language. For example, a hunched or cowering dog might be a dog experiencing fear and stress. This posture is meant to help the dog look smaller and more submissive in the face of something they fear.

The extreme version of this position is when the dog rolls over on their back and shows their belly. While this can be a sign of a dog waiting for belly rubs, it can also be a sign of deep stress and anxiety.

If your dog is standing or sitting with their body weight moving forward, they may be interested in something or perhaps offended and negatively stimulated by something.

When your dog raises their paw, this can either mean that your dog is signaling towards prey or that they are unsure or insecure about something.

While dogs have similar facial expressions to people, they do not always mean the same things. For example, people yawn when they are tired, but dogs yawn when they are stressed. In stressful situations, they will yawn to relax themselves or others. During stressful times for your dog, you can try yawning at them to help them relax.

Your dog might lick their lips in stressful situations. Don’t mistake it for them wanting to eat; it’s usually to disseminate the tension of uncomfortable situations. 

Often the most challenging facial expression to read is a dog's smile. Sometimes it can mean the complete opposite of what it means for humans. For example, your smiling dog might be menacingly showing its teeth. If combined with a relaxed posture and demeanor, the smile can be a submissive and sweet gesture.

Looking at your dog’s eyes is a very important piece of the puzzle. Are your dog’s eyes hard or soft? Are they squinting or looking at something repeatedly? When dogs are feeling aggressive, their eyes will go cold, and they shoot stares at their aggressor or the object of their anger.

Dogs will avoid eye contact when they're stressed. If they are outright ignoring you, this usually means your dog is uncomfortable. Similarly, if the whites of your dog’s eyes are showing, this can be another sign of anxiety and stress.

None of these behaviors and body signals exist in a vacuum. To understand how your dog feels by looking at their body language, you must see the sum of all their body parts. Your dog is talking to you all the time, and their bodies are remarkably expressive. Over time you will become familiar with their signals and have an easier time understanding them.