Understanding Dog Body Language

Kelly Roper
Agressive dog

Understanding dog body language is your key to communicating with any dog you may encounter, including your own.

The Key to Understanding Dog Body Language

When it comes to understanding dog body language, it's all about posture. How your dog holds himself is directly related to how he's feeling about the world around him. Most of the time, your dog is probably fairly relaxed, but as soon as there's some kind of action taking place your pet will quickly respond to the stimulus.

Although dogs do use their voices to communicate, their chief means of communication are through smell and posture. These two tools help every dog establish its place in the pecking order, whether that's with humans or other canines.

Reading the Signs

It's really not that hard to understand what your dog is trying say. Let's examine some of your dog's basic moods and the postures that accompany them.

Confident

Confidence is fairly easy to spot. A confident dog will stand with all four feet planted square, but not exactly rooted to the ground. His head is up, and his ears are perked. His eyes are focused, yet still have a relaxed expression about them. The mouth may be open, but there's no effort to expose the teeth.

The tail, if he has one, is held up or out, and will likely be fanning in a relaxed manner unless something happens to capture his attention. Then it will be left to hang down until his curiosity is satisfied and he'll resume fanning it again.

A confident dog gives off a friendly, yet nonchalant vibe that's easy to detect.

Playful dog

Happy

Take the confident dog stance, kick it up a notch or two and you have a happy dog. The tail speeds up from fanning to full strength wagging. Rather than standing in one spot, the dog will more likely wiggle or prance back and forth with excitement. Barking is also common at this point, but it will lack any menace.

Playful

A happy dog may also feel playful. If he does, he'll invite you or another dog to interact using the play stance. He'll drop the front of his body to the floor with his front legs outstretched. Meanwhile his rear is still in the air and the tail is up and wagging invitingly. He appears to be waiting in anticipation for someone to respond and join the game.

Submissive

A submissive dog presents a very different picture from a confident one. The submissive dog averts his eyes in deference, and typically lowers his head laying his ears flat. The body is lowered to the ground, and the dog may even roll over on his back to expose his belly. The tail will fan at low mast. The general attitude is very sheepish, as if to say, "I'm not looking for any trouble."

Fearful

A fearful dog instinctively crouches near the ground to protect his belly. His head is lowered with the ears pinned back. The tail is usually tucked between the rear legs as the dog whines apprehensively.

Aggressive

An aggressive dog posture begins with all four paws planted square on the ground as if to say, "This is my territory." There is an air of electricity about the animal, and the hairs along the shoulder, or hackles, stand on end.

The head may be held high or slightly lowered, depending on just how aggressive the dog is feeling. The ears are firmly pinned back, and the mouth is open and snarling or growling. The eyes are firmly fixed on the dog's perceived opponent in an intense and challenging stare. The general attitude is one of menace.

Reacting Accordingly

Now having a better understanding of dog body language, it's time to decide how to react to the message the dog is sending.

Submissive dog
  • Confident: Confidence doesn't really require any reaction from you. The dog is doing fine.
  • Happy: Enjoy the moment and give the dog some affection.
  • Playful: Take the invitation if you're in the mood or tell him to settle down if you aren't. Just do it gently so you don't spoil his happy mood.
  • Submissive: Again, this mood doesn't always require a reaction from you, but you can take the opportunity to give your dog a good belly rub and accept his gesture of deference.
  • Fearful: A fearful dog can be unpredictable. If it's your own dog, you can use a soothing tone of voice to reassure him, and gently coax him to you. If it's not your dog, it's better to slowly back away from the situation.
  • Aggressive: An aggressive dog can be very dangerous. If it's your own dog showing aggression toward you or another dog, it's important to quickly regain dominance over him. Give a loud and firm "NO" command. Then, if you've done your job establishing yourself as the pack leader, your dog should give up the challenge and show some signs of submission. If the dog showing aggression is not your own, it's best to remove yourself and your own dog from the situation slowly and calmly, without showing fear.
Understanding Dog Body Language