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Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Although dogs are often happy-go-lucky, it’s important to stay tuned in to their body language. Not only will understanding  your own dog’s body language help you keep them happy and comfortable, noticing common stressors and behaviors in other dogs may help you keep your dog out of potentially dangerous situations.

When a dog encounters a new situation, they are more likely to show their true feelings through their body language. As a pet parent, the best way for us to understand what our dog is communicating at any given time is to be aware of and recognize the cues they are sending.

Your dog’s communications decoded

If you’re trying to figure out if your dog is happy, fearful, stressed or feeling something else, take a look at these common  behaviors and what they are trying to tell you.

Dog's Behavior What it Means
Excessive scratching (when pests or coat issues are not the cause) Stress
Nose licking Stress
Slight or major cowering Fear/anxiety
Licking of lips (when no food is present) Fear/anxiety/stress
Panting (when not hot or thirsty) Fear/anxiety/stress
Brows furrowed with ears to the side Fear/anxiety/stress
Slow-motion movements/walking slow Fear/anxiety/stress
Sleepiness or yawning outside of normal periods of being tired Fear/anxiety/stress
Hyper-vigilance/quickly looking in multiple directions Fear/anxiety/stress
Sudden avoidance of food Fear/anxiety/stress
Actively moving away from object/turning and walking away Fear/anxiety/stress
Pacing Fear/anxiety/stress
Cowering with large/whale eyes Request for space
Straight/heightened posture On alert
Straight/heightened posture with forward stance Suspicious
Actively barking at object while moving away or staying away Threatened
Barking combined with active movement toward object Angry
Shaking (when not wet) Stress release
Scrunched body position Attention-seeking
Head tilted to one side Curious
Sitting patiently while staring Wanting something
Down on all fours, eyes alert, calm gaze Hungry/ready to be fed or wanting interaction
Rolling over on back Looking for love
Wagging tail Ready (perhaps in response to play), happy
Down on front legs Ready (perhaps in response to play)
Curved body Polite/friendly
Licking someone Polite/friendly
Looking away/turning head At peace
Sniffing the ground At peace
Sitting calmly while offering their back At peace
Soft ears with blinking eyes Relaxed
Stretching or paws up Friendly/greeting
Playful bow Friendly
Relaxed body with light eyes and “smile” Friendly

Reacting to your dog’s body language

Once you recognize that your dog’s body language holds the key to what they’re feeling, you can start to address whatever they’re trying to communicate. Sometimes a dog’s signal can be worked through in the moment, but other times an action or scenario might need to be ended completely before the dog will return to feeling safe or happy. For example:

  • When to stop: If your dog is acting aggressively (growling, lunging, barking or snarling), is exhibiting signs of fear, anxiety or stress (like fidgeting, panting, trembling or showing avoidance by moving away), then you’ll want to stop whatever is causing your dog stress or immediately remove them from the situation.
  • When to be aware: If your dog is displaying more than two moderate signs of stress mentioned above more than four times in a minute, you should exhibit caution. Try offering treats, toys or attention as a distraction. If that doesn’t work, then remove your pet from the situation.
  • When you can keep going: If your pup is exhibiting mild signs of stress but keeps a relaxed body language and continues to solicit social interactions, then you should be able to defuse the situation and slowly get them to be comfortable with what is going on using treats, toys or attention.

Remember that socialization efforts as a puppy are very important, but you’ll want to keep these efforts up as your puppy ages so that your dog remains open to new experiences and social engagements throughout their life.