Have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking? While they may not be able to tell us verbally, our dogs express themselves all the time through non-verbal communication (i.e., body language). Learning how to decode your dog’s wordless communication will open up a new world of possibilities—including a deeper relationship, improved behavior, and the ability to advocate more strongly for their safety and comfort in all situations.

Dog communication basics

While dogs can and do use a range of vocalizations, they primarily communicate through body posture and facial expression, with each gesture or action working in concert. Therefore, observing the entire dog—not one isolated part—is essential when evaluating their body language. 

You must also consider the context, including the dog’s environment and any recent events (e.g., a sudden sound, an unfamiliar dog rushing up), before interpreting non-verbal messages. For example, when your dog is excitedly wagging their tail at home, they may be signaling comfort, but when they visit their veterinarian, their wagging tail may signal stress or unease.

Benefits to learning canine body language

Understanding dog body language is more than a fun party trick. Knowing how your dog is feeling can improve their emotional and physical health and enhance their quality of life. Additionally, your ability to recognize nervous or aggressive warning signs can help protect and benefit you and your dog in the following ways: 

  • Preventing bites and fights — Most dogs display one or more warning signs before taking aggressive action. With a trained eye, you will recognize these signs and know when to avoid or end an interaction.
  • Improving behavior — Effective dog training requires trust, which requires clear communication. Canine learning is accelerated when dogs feel safe and understood.
  • Helping ensure a longer life-span — Behavior-related problems are a common reason why young dogs are surrendered to shelters and ultimately euthanized. But, improved communication means dogs are more likely to stay in their homes.
  • Forming a stronger relationship — Rather than seeing your dog as stubborn, willful, or shy, you can identify their confusion or fear and help them become more confident.
  • Recognizing pain and illness Learning your dog’s normal behavior and posture and recognizing their fear and stress can help you identify sudden changes that require prompt veterinary care.

Decoding the dog—3 body language studies

The most common body language cues of a confident, anxious, and aggressive dog are described as follows: 

  • The happy and confident dog — When dogs are relaxed and self-confident, their body posture is generally loose. When alert, they relax—not tense—their muscles and facial expression, and they move freely and easily. Confident dogs may approach another dog or human in a C-shaped path, rather than a straight line. Typical happy dog traits also include:
    • Soft or slightly squinting eyes
    • Mouth slightly open
    • Natural ears that are neither high or low set
    • Calmly wagging tail
    • Natural stance
    • Submissive grin — Some dogs may express happiness by showing their teeth, which is also a notorious aggression sign, so always consider this behavior in context.
  • The anxious or scared dog — Fear, anxiety, and stress can manifest themselves in different ways. In addition to overt fear signs, like shaking or hiding behind their owner, nervous dogs use self-soothing motions (i.e., calming signals) or displacement behaviors (e.g., sniffing, yawning, scratching) to alleviate nervous energy or internal conflict. Dogs also use calming signals to comfort other dogs and puppies—so you may also see these signs in a confident, relaxed dog. Anxious or fearful dog traits include:
    • Wide eyes (i.e., whale eye, visible white of the eye)
    • Ears back or out to the side
    • Stiff posture
    • Avoiding eye contact
    • Shaking or trembling
    • Lip licking
    • Yawning
    • Scratching
    • Sniffing
    • Running in circles (i.e., zoomies)
    • Crouched posture
    • Tucked or frantically wagging tail
    • Submissive displays (e.g., urination, exposing the belly, crawling, or repeatedly licking a person or dog)

  • The aggressive or reactive dog — Always take a dog’s aggressive display seriously. Dogs who are guarding their resources or feel threatened can react quickly and cause serious or life-threatening harm to other pets and people. If they direct their body language at you, stop what you are doing, to avoid escalating the situation. If an unfamiliar dog sends these signals to your dog, do not allow any interactiontake your dog, and leave. 

Threatened dogs normally try to make themselves look as big and impressive as possible to convey height, size, and power. Signs include:

    • Stiff, tall posture
    • Raised hackles
    • Rigid limbs
    • Erect ears
    • Fixed stare, with a hard focus
    • Stiff, raised tail that may be wagging
    • Bared teeth
    • Vocalization (i.e., growling and short, loud barks)

Tips on how to speak dog

Communication is a two-way street, so show your dog you’re listening by talking their language. Speak soothingly, and add the following moves to your canine-friendly vocabulary.

  • Present your side first — Take a cue from the confident, happy dog and first approach with your body angled away from the dog. When asking your dog to “Come,” also turn away, drop your shoulder, and look back at your dog.
  • Don’t reach out — Humans love to reach and grab, but dogs perceive this as rude and dangerous. Rather than reaching down to pet a dog, or reaching out to take them by the collar, offer a treat, and let them come to you when they’re ready.
  • Practice smooth moves — Remember the confident dog’s “loose” body posture and easy movement? Send them similar comforting signals—relax your shoulders, breathe evenly, and move in a calm, unhurried manner around your dog.

Need more help decoding your dog’s behavior? Contact Marina Village Veterinary and Integrative Care for advice, or we can match you and your dog with a reputable local trainer.