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We, as dog owners, are always saying “if only our dog could talk”.  It would be a dream to be able to understand what’s going on in their heads on a regular basis.  But did you know that they are communicating their emotions and intentions in many ways already? Dogs use verbal cues like barks, whines and growls, which can be easy for us to interpret, but they are saying so much more through their non-verbal body language, which can be more difficult for us to decipher.  Dog body language can be quite different from how people communicate with one another, leading to plenty of human-dog misunderstandings since sometimes dog body language is simply unfamiliar (after all, people don’t have tails) or in direct contrast with what that same signal means to us, like yawning or looking away. Let’s go over some body language signals and what they mean, so you can better communicate with your canine companion.

Tail Wagging

Tail wagging seems like an obvious body language signal. If a dog’s tail is wagging, the dog is happy, right? Wrong. This is the most often misinterpreted signal. All a wagging tail means is that the dog is emotionally aroused. It could be happiness and excitement, but could also mean frustration or worse. To interpret the dog’s emotions and intentions, look at the speed and direction of the wag, as well as the position of the tail.

Basically, the faster the wag, the more aroused the dog. Think about those long, slow, side-to-side tail sweeps your dog makes when greeting you — the type that wags the dog’s whole body. That’s a relaxed dog. A faster, twitch-like wag indicates a higher level of arousal, possibly in a negative way. Think of a guard dog on alert.

The direction of the wag may hold clues as well. Dogs tend to wag their tails more to the right when feeling positive about something, like interacting with their owner, and tend to wag more to the left when feeling negative about something. Then, there’s the helicopter tail wag (where the dog’s tail spins in a circle). Without question, that’s a happy wag. You’ll usually see it when a dog is greeting a beloved person.

Tail wag speed and direction can be difficult to differentiate at times, so it is a good idea to also notice the position of the dog’s tail relative to the ground for additional important clues about the dogs emotional state. Essentially, the higher the tail, the more assertive the dog. Dogs with their tails pointing down to the ground or even tucked between their legs are feeling fear, nervousness, and stress. Dogs with their tails held up like a flag are feeling confident, and perhaps even aggressive.

Relaxed dogs hold their tails in a neutral position, but it is also important to note that neutral depends on the breed. Some breeds, such as the Chow Chow, have tails that naturally curl over their backs, whereas other breeds, like the Italian Greyhound, have a very low neutral tail position. If you get to know your dog’s neutral tail position, you will more quickly recognize when their emotions have shifted.

Raised Hackles

Hackles are the raised hair along the back of a dog. Technically called piloerection, the fur can fluff up across the shoulders or down the back and all the way to the tail.  It is often an involuntary reaction, like goosebumps in people. While we often are told that raised hackles are a sign of aggression, they actually just indicate a state of heightened arousal. When fur is piloerected, it may mean that a dog is feeling afraid or defensive (and may or may not become aggressive), but it also could indicate uncertainty, curiosity, or surprise.


A dog’s weight distribution can tell a lot about mood and intention. Consider a cowering dog that is hunched toward the ground. That’s a sign of fear or stress. The dog may be trying to get away from something and the posture makes the dog appear smaller. In other words, it says, “I mean no harm.”

The extreme of this posture is a dog that rolls onto their back, exposing their belly. This may look like a dog soliciting a belly rub, and in a relaxed dog, it often is. But it can be a sign of considerable stress and anxiety. The dog may even urinate a little in appeasement.

The opposite posture is a dog with their weight shifted forward. This dog is trying to get closer to something. This might simply indicate the dog’s interest. But it could also indicate offensive intentions, particularly paired with other aggressive body language cues like a twitching tail held high. In this case, the dog is trying to appear larger.

An easy-to-read aspect of dog body language is the play bow. This is when dogs place their chest on the ground with their rump in the air. As the name implies, it’s used to initiate play with other dogs and even with people.

A less easily understood signal is the paw raise. In pointing breeds like the English Setter, the paw raise is part of pointing behavior, where the dog indicates nearby prey. But outside of this context, a raised paw often indicates a dog is uncertain about a situation or perhaps feels a bit insecure.

Facial Expressions

Dogs have similar facial expressions to people, but they don’t use them in the same way. Consider yawning. People yawn when they’re tired or bored, and dogs can too, but dogs also yawn when they’re stressed and uncomfortable. Dogs use yawning to calm themselves in tense situations and to calm others, including their owners.

Aside from yawning, other calming signals include turning the head or entire body aside, pawing, approaching in an arc, squinting, flicking the tongue or licking the nose or muzzle, sniffing the ground for no apparent reason, freezing in place, or crouching down with the front of the body. Oftentimes these things happen so quickly they are difficult to notice, but they are also often paired with at least one other signal, making it a little easier.

For example, lip-licking is another bit of dog body language that people often misinterpret. Just like people, dogs will lick their lips after a delicious meal, but they will also do it when they feel anxious. Sometimes the tongue flick is so quick it’s tricky to notice. Your dog isn’t signaling a desire to lick your face, but rather discomfort with a given situation.

The most confusing facial expression is smiling. Yes, some dogs smile, and if you’re not familiar with the expression it can look terrifying. Usually, when dogs bare their teeth, it serves as a warning, as if they’re saying, “Look at my weapons.” It’s hard to mistake the aggressive intention of a snarl, especially when it’s paired with a menacing growl. The corners of the dog’s lips form the shape of a C, and the front teeth are fully displayed. Smiling dogs also display their front teeth, but the meaning is the complete opposite. Also known as a submissive grin, this expression is often found on a happy dog with a loose and wiggly posture. The dog’s overall attitude says, “Hello, I come in peace.”


You can learn a lot about your dog’s internal state by looking at the eyes. First, a dog’s eyes can be soft or hard. Soft eyes have relaxed lids and sometimes look like the dog is squinting. They indicate the dog is calm or happy. The opposite is hard eyes, where the eyes seem to go cold. These indicate a negative state of mind, and you’ll know them when you see them. The dog might be guarding a toy or feeling aggressive. A hard stare, where the dog looks intently at something, especially for a long time, usually signals a threat.

Eye contact is an important signal for dogs. Just as the hard stare can be a precursor to aggression, looking away is meant to calm a situation. When dogs feel stressed, they will pointedly look away and avoid eye contact. People often misinterpret this as their dog ignoring them or being stubborn, but the dog is expressing discomfort.

The whites of the eyes are another key indicator. Known as “whale eye,” when a dog shows the whites of the eyes, it’s a signal they are feeling anxious, threatened, or stressed. It happens when they are trying to turn their head away to help calm themselves and diffuse the situation, but they don’t feel comfortable enough taking their eye off of the “threat”.  You might see them when you make your dog uncomfortable, like when they’re afraid someone will steal a bone or toy.

None of these signals act alone, they are all part of a package. So, when you are trying to determine what your dog is thinking, look at all the signals the dog is using, including body posture, ear position, tail height, eye shape and more to create a more complete picture.

Your dog is “talking” to you all the time. If you can learn what your dog is saying, you can develop a deeper bond of trust and respect. Plus, your newfound understanding of your dog’s emotional state can help you predict your dog’s feelings and behaviors and can help you prevent future problems before they occur!

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