Nine basics that everyone should know about dog body language

If you think about it, a lot of human communication happens through body language; an arched eyebrow, a clenched jaw, crossed arms, or a squared chest can tell you a lot about what the other person is thinking. The same is true of dogs, only more so. Over my 30 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.

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

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, canine body language mostly involves combinations of posture, tail position, and what they’re doing with their snout, with a few other indicators thrown in.

Sarko
Sarko is alert and attentive.

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, and 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, a dog’s 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 they are dog owners or just happen to run into a stray on the street.

#1. A wagging tail is not always a positive sign

As I mentioned earlier, dogs send messages through a combination of body signals, so you should not 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 incredibly excited at the sight of the neighbour’s doggie. Note how he seems to be straining forward.

#2. 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.

#3. 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: holding its head and tail low, and not making 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 - Submission
Bouncer submitting to Max. Note how his head and tail are lowered, while Max’s tail is still raised.

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

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 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.

ScaredSubmissiveDog
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)

 

#5. 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 hair between the shoulders and a little further down the back—are standing, it’s a pretty sure 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—whether that  means chasing a ball or attacking another dog.

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 - hackles
Lobo challenging the neighbour’s dog. Note the raised hackles between his shoulders. The fact that his tail is still wagging reinforces point #1.

#6. Indicators of playfulness: the ‘bottoms-up’, the ‘gallop’ and the ‘stand-up’

When a dog is in a playful mood, it will be sure to let you know, but 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 ‘bottoms-up’ 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 with each step. Lastly, small and medium-sized dogs that have not been completely trained may rise up on their hind legs and try and paw you with both their forepaws. 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.

Dog body language -bottoms up
Max in the ‘bottoms-up’ pose with a toy in his mouth

 

Dog body language - gallop
Max gallops in playful excitement. Note the height of his left forepaw.

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

Dogs have an expression that we dog-people call the ‘smile’, and that is 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.

Happy Lobo
Lobo is a picture of happy relaxation. Note the open mouth, laid-back ears and half-closed eyes.

#8. 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!

Max on the bed
Max rolls over, happy in the knowledge that he is safe.

#9. It’s all a matter of degree

All the things I’ve mentioned I’ve learned to recognize over time, but 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 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.

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

Dog body language - Standing up
Max standing on his hind legs. In this case, he’s not being playful but is, rather, trying to reach a treat.

Dog body language - Curious
Max is relaxed but curious, as shown by the erect ears.
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