Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Hi! It’s me, your friendly neighborhood dog. My human’s gone off to work and left the computer on, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write this guide to understanding your dog’s body language. Please excuse any typos – my big paws just weren’t designed for a computer keyboard!

I know a lot of you out there are wondering what your dog is trying to tell you with those ultra-cute head tilts and tail positions.

Well, I’m here to answer all your questions and give you an A-Z guide on your dog’s body language. You see, just because we don’t speak your language, that doesn’t mean we’re not always trying our best to show you how we feel. You humans use your bodies and faces to express your feelings and emotions, and us here in the canine world do exactly the same thing.

Once you come to understand how we use our faces and our bodies to express our feelings, you’ll find that you can recognize many of the things we do.

On behalf of all good dogs everywhere, I’d like to invite you to read on and understand what we look like when we’re feeling different emotions.

When I’m Feeling…

Afraid

When I’m feeling afraid, I’ll push my ears back as far as they go, or even lay them flat against my head (if my ears are the kind that do that). I’ll tuck my tail away, usually between my legs and hard against my stomach. I’ll appear shorter than usual, with bowed legs. Sometimes I might even lie flat down on the floor.

When I’m doing this, you can help me by working out what it is that I’m afraid of, or taking me to a safe space where I don’t have to feel afraid.

Aggressive

When I’m feeling aggressive, I usually narrow my eyes and stare intensely at whatever it is that is making me mad. My legs will be slightly bowed, my ears back, and my tail will either be straight out or up high – but not wagging. If you see me showing this classic aggressive dog behavior, I’m warning you that something bad could happen at any second. Sometimes I just can’t control my temper! It’s a good idea to defuse the situation as soon as possible.

Alert

When I’m feeling alert, my ears will be perked right up and I’ll be leaning forward, with my back legs almost sticking out behind me.

It will probably look like I’m about ready to run off at high speed. If you’re wondering how to train a dog, it’s a good idea to look for these signals that show you I’m feeling alert. When I’m alert, I’m ready to concentrate and learn.

Anxious

When I’m feeling anxious, my tail will be bent down low, and I’ll probably have my head down low to the ground too. I’ll bend my legs to make me look shorter. Sometimes I’ll yawn when I’m feeling anxious, and I’ll sometimes show my anxiety or nervousness by opening my eyes wide and looking upwards.

When you see the signs of classic dog anxiety, you could ask yourself why I’m feeling so anxious and what you can do to help. If I’m at the vet, you could reassure me with some kind words. If there are some big, mean-looking dogs near me, maybe you could take me away someplace safe.

Finished

When I shake my head, it means I’m all done. For me, shaking my head is like pressing my reset button or changing the subject. I’ve finished that activity and I’m ready to do something else. That something else might even be lying down and having a well-deserved rest!

Of course, if we’ve been having a fun time playing with the garden hose or I’ve been splashing in some water, I might be shaking my head to get the water out of my ears!

Loving

Sometimes I love you so much that I could burst. I’ll try to show you with long, slow licks or by pressing my nose firmly into your hand or arm. The longer and deeper the licks, the more loving I’m feeling.
A short lick, on the other hand, is my way of saying hi. It’s like a peck on the cheek for you humans.

Needy

If I need something from you, I’ll raise my paw and touch you. Maybe I need to go outside, or maybe I just want your attention. This is my polite way of asking you for something. If you ignore me, I’ll probably follow-up with a fairly loud bark!

Pain

If I’m in pain, I’ll try to let you know so that you can help me. My mouth will usually be slightly open and it will be stretched backward in a funny way. You may never have seen me put my mouth in this kind of position before. If there is a specific body part that is hurting, I’ll let you know by limping or licking the area. Please take a closer look or make an appointment with the vet. Being in pain is no fun at all.

Relaxed

It’s a dog’s life! When I’m feeling relaxed, all the tension will come out of my body. Whether I’m lying down or standing up, my body will be soft and there won’t be any lines or creases on my face (unless I’m a wrinkly dog anyway, of course). My tail will be hanging down loosely, and my eyes will be soft. My mouth will either be closed or loosely open. Life is good!

Polite

When I’m feeling polite, I’ll probably avoid making eye contact with you. I know it’s the opposite in a lot of human cultures, with eye contact being a sign of respect. But in the dog world, eye contact is often used to show aggression or dominance. If I break eye contact with you, I’m being polite and telling you that I’m not looking for confrontation or any kind of drama. Let’s be friends!

Uncertain

When I’m feeling uncertain, I’ll have my ears up and I’ll cock my head to the side. Maybe I’m curious about what’s going to happen next, or maybe I’m uncertain about what you’ve asked me to do. Could you show me something, or explain what you want in a different way?

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what your dog is trying to tell you with their face and body. By keeping an eye out for the different body language signals your dog is sending you, you can get a better idea of how they’re feeling, what they need, and how you can engage with them.

I can hear my human’s keys in the front door so I’d better go. Thanks for reading!

The human that left the computer on:

Dog's Body Language

James Woller is a long-time dog enthusiast, and co-owner of Release the Hounds and Jet Pet Resort, professional dog walking and boarding companies in Vancouver, Canada. On his days off from running his companies, he enjoys learning and writing about topics that are of interest to caring pet owners. James is also the executive director of Thrive For Good (previously Organics for Orphans), a non-profit movement to secure organic food and natural medicine in impoverished countries.

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