In a study on dog body language, researchers found that people without dogs were actually more successful than dog owners, when it came to identifying dog emotions.

Shocking, right?

But it makes sense: dog owners might become accustomed to their dogs always being happy. But that’s not always the case. In this ultimate guide on dog body language, you will learn:

  • how to tell when a dog is feeling happy, aggressive, stressed, or scared, like Cesar Milan can
  • the best way to approach a dog
  • how to pet a dog (to scratch or pat?)
  • … and more!

Besides dog body language, how good are you at reading humans?

Vanessa Van Edwards Research Lab

Can You Read Body Language? (Quiz)

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Playful & Happy

Playful dog body language cues

Playful dogs are quite energetic and often do lots of “play bowing.” They might bark and raise their behinds in the air—this is all part of play body language. Playful dogs are generally happy and show happiness cues.

Look for these signs of happiness in dogs:

  • Open Mouth: Generally, a happy dog might have an open mouth with its tongue flopping out.
  • Relaxed Body: A relaxed dog with loose shoulders is likely calm and happy.
  • Play Bowing: A happy dog might feel playful and lower its front, with its rump in the air. This is called a “play bow,” and researchers suggest a bow is used to reinitiate more play after a pause.
  • Wagging Tail: Watch for the classical tail wag. If your dog is wagging back and forth in the air (you might even notice the dog’s bum moving), your dog may be happy.
  • Exposing the Belly: A happy dog might even roll over onto its back and show you its belly. Dogs might even expose their belly if they’re nervous and want to show submissiveness, but other times they will expose it if they’re happy and want to invite a belly rub.

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Dominant & Aggressive

Aggressive body language cues body language

Dogs might enter a state of aggression and dominance if they are around other new dogs or strangers. You might see this if a dog enters a dog park and is unfamiliar with its surroundings. Dogs become aggressive if they feel the need to defend themselves.

Look for these signs of aggression in dogs:

  • Locked & Loaded: Aggressive dogs might shift their weight to the back of their legs. They might do this in order to be “ready” to spring into action whenever they need to.
  • Growling: Aggressive dogs may give a low growl. According to one study, humans are 45–60% effective at interpreting growls. Along with growling, aggressive dogs might bark and bare their teeth.
  • Baring Teeth: Showing teeth is an obvious body language that screams, “Stay back!” If a dog shows their teeth, they are warning you that a bite may be incoming. Their mouth may also be very stiff, and in extreme cases, they might even snap at the air.
  • Fixed Stare: An aggressive dog will look directly at you. It won’t move its eyes from its biggest threat.
  • Whale Eye: This is a term describing when the whites of a dog’s eyes are showing. Dogs who give the whale eye might turn their head away and look slightly at their target, fixating on it.

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Calm & Relaxed

Relaxed dog body language cues

A relaxed state is the most common state for most domestic dogs. Relaxed dogs are calm and display non-threatening behaviors. They are usually able to be approached in this state.

Look for these signs of relaxation in dogs:

  • Smiling: No, dogs don’t really smile. But they could be exhibiting classical signs of upturned corners that kind of resemble smiling. Their mouth may be open with their tongue out.
  • Soft Eyes: A relaxed dog might have its eyes soft and unfocused on a specific target. Their eyes are freely moving around, and they may even be looking around.
  • Frog Position: A very relaxed dog might be lying on its belly with its legs spread out. Talk about a super comfy dog!
  • Leaning: A relaxed dog might want to lean on you for support. This might be similar to how a cat rubs its body on you. Except the dog might want you to rub their head or give them pats on the back.

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Stressed & Anxious

Stressed dog body language cues

Dogs can either be stressed due to their environment (stuck in a cage, in an unfamiliar place, etc.) or from other dogs and humans.

Look for these signs of stress in dogs:

  • Ears Down: Dogs may lower their ears, sometimes even covering them. You might even notice their ears drop as soon as stress sets in.
  • Self-Licking: Similar to fidgeting with objects in humans, dogs might lick their bodies out of anxiousness or even boredom. This is a self-soothing behavior similar to a self-massage.
  • Slow Mode: Stressed dogs might not be as vibrant or active as normal. Their movements might slow, and their walking speed might decrease.
  • Pacing: On the other hand, stressed dogs might pace back and forth, almost as if they are too stressed to relax. This is a way for them to release their energy. If the problem stops, you might notice them stop pacing.
  • Yawning: Dogs who are tired might yawn, but they may also yawn when stressed. A stressed yawn is usually drawn out longer and can also be accompanied by excessive drooling.

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Alert & Ready

Alert dog body language cues

If you’re a dog owner, then it’s likely you already know how alert your dog becomes as the mail carrier comes over. Your dog might spring into action, going from fully relaxed to 100 in seconds.

Look for these signs of alertness in dogs:

  • Closed Mouth: When a dog enters alert mode, their otherwise-open mouth might close immediately.
  • Pointed Ears: If a dog hears something strange, they might perk their ears up, or you might notice ear twitching. If the strange noise persists, the dog might move into full-alert mode (aka barking and ready for action).
  • Barking: A common sign in dogs, barking indicates a dog is scared, angry, lonely, irritated, and more.
  • Stiff Tail: A stiff or straight tail can indicate a cautious dog. Usually, dogs’ tails will not go down—this indicates fear, instead.

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Scared & Fearful

Scared dog body language cues

Dogs might get scared if they are facing a threat, such as a bigger, dominant dog invading their territory. Scared dogs might take a while to calm down. If you’re the threat, make sure to give the dog proper space to relax.

Look for these signs of fear in dogs:

  • The Slow-No Wag: A slowly wagging tail or tail that is down and immobilized might indicate fear. 
  • Trembling: A fearful dog might tremble or shake its body. This is a normal fight-or-flight response that helps a dog’s muscles to prepare to fight or flee if necessary.
  • The Hideaway: Scared dogs might retreat behind desks or other objects. They are trying to block themselves from physical harm. They might even stick to the corner of a kennel or close to the side, away from others. To avoid further fear, don’t try to chase them—instead, let them calm down and feel safe first.
  • Deactivated: Fearful dogs might not display “normal” dog behaviors like sticking their tongue out. Their bodies might be completely frozen in fear. You might only see this in extreme circumstances and if a dog has no choice to run away or fight.

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Submissive & Sorry

Submissive dog body language cues

If a dog cannot run or fight, you might see them go into submission mode. This is a dog’s way of “playing dead” and is usually only seen under extreme circumstances.

Look for these signs of submission in dogs:

  • The Hotdog: A scared dog might try to show appeasement behavior by lying on its back but staying very still. The dog’s on high alert but also showing submissiveness to reduce anger and stress from others.
  • Grimace: Similar to humans, submissive dogs might show the grimace facial expression when they’re feeling submissive. The grimace is when their mouth corners are pulled back.
  • Licking: Submissive dogs might lick their lips more often than normal.
  • Hushed Voice: Submissive dogs generally will not bark loudly or aggressively. They might be quieter than normal or even whimper if they’re not playing.

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The Approach

Time for some dog body language cues. But first, I highly recommend checking out this video by Barbara Sherman:

Have you ever noticed that dogs will rarely approach each other (or humans, for that matter) from head on?

They often make a semicircle pattern to come up to you. According to Michele Hollow, “Dogs move in an arc when walking toward other canines. While most socialized dogs are used to the more direct human approach, you can make a very submissive dog more comfortable by angling toward her.”

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The Smile

“I swear my dog smiles at me.” I hear many owners say this about their pup. There might be some truth to this.

According to the Dog Lady, when a dog opens its mouth and pants, it “is experiencing a bodily adjustment—homeostasis—and not an emotional response. Dogs pant when they are hot, thirsty, excited, exuberant, anxious, sick, or out of breath from exercise. A dog’s facial expression may be just his way of saying he’s hot and tired, but we see a brilliant smile.”

She adds that there is no harm in imagining your dog smiles—it’s just a part of human nature to find faces in a variety of situations!

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Mounting

Oh, isn’t it embarrassing when your dog humps someone else’s dog… or someone else’s leg? There is a reason dogs do this.

According to Psychology Today, “While mounting is best known for its role in reproduction, it also occurs in many other contexts and emotional states. Dogs mount when they’re excited and aroused and even when they’re stressed and anxious.” And don’t worry, it’s completely normal!

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Scratch, Don’t Pat

Hollow also says that a pat on the head is not nearly as enjoyable for a dog as a scratch behind the ears or on the tummy.

This is because as you lean over or stand over a dog, you are showing them higher status. If you tower over an aggressive dog, she may growl or snap.

However, “If you stand over a submissive dog, she may cower or roll over.” The best way, according to Hollow, is to “turn sideways, squat, and let the dog approach you.”

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The Look Away

Don’t take it personally if a dog doesn’t look you in the eyes. Dogs look away to diffuse tension, according to Hollow. “An alpha dog who’s being pestered for attention by an underling will signal her disinterest by looking to the side.”

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The Tail Wag

The direction of the wag may hold clues as well. A study on tail wagging showed that dogs tend to wag more to the right when they feel happy, like when they’re about to receive a treat. They wagged their tails to the left when they were facing something negative.

And of course, you have the wild wag that spins in circles like a helicopter. You might notice this one when you come back after work, and your dog is super excited to see you.

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Dog Noises

What does it mean when a dog howls? Barks? Yip-yips?

According to Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, dogs don’t yawn only when they’re tired—they do it when stressed and even do it to calm others down, including their owners.

American Kennel Club says that dogs bark when they’re “frightened, lonely, surprised, irritated, and more.” That’s not so helpful, but if you know a dog’s baseline behaviors, you can tell when he really means business:

  • A lower pitch usually indicates more seriousness. Playful dogs might bark with a high pitch.
  • The number of barks can play a role—if a dog keeps barking, they may be more aroused.
  • How fast your dog barks can be important. The more barks, the more aggressive or stressed your dog might feel.

And as for howling, dogs (and pups!) do this when left alone. They might be feeling lonely or want your attention. At other times, dogs might howl to communicate with other dogs or in response to high-pitched noises.

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Piloerection

Piloerection, or raised hackles, is when a dog’s hair stands up. Usually, this can mean a dog is aroused or feeling strong emotions such as anger or distress. It can be either positive or negative.

This is similar to how humans have goosebumps on their skin.

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Are Children or Adults Better at Reading Dog Body Language?

Psychologists investigated how children and parents perceive and interpret a dog’s body language. In short, the results were not so impressive—52% of children and 17% of adults underestimate and read dogs’ body language wrongly.

In short, children are at a higher risk of wrongly interpreting dogs’ body language. This can be dangerous if a dog is angry or scared. This might pose a risk of a dog bite. That’s why I wrote this guide—my 2 year old, Sienna, loves playing with dogs, and I’d be devastated if a dog ever bit her.

Brushing up on your dog body language skills is critical if you’re a parent, planning to be one, or if you want to know what your dog is really saying.

So I hope this article was helpful for you dog lovers out there! If I helped you in any way, please leave a comment below about your own dog.

And, as always…

To your dog-loving success,

Vanessa



Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!

3 replies on “Dog Body Language: How to Speak Canine”

  1. Shana Compton

    I read information regarding animal body language the other day and was going to post a question for the group. But you always have so much information on the Science of People that I have a hard time finding a subject you haven’t touched on already! You are awesome Vanessa, I learn so much each time I visit the Science of People website! Thank you for sharing it with us!

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