Skip to content

get free shipping on any order

get free shipping on any order

10% off any subscription order

10% off any subscription order

Page Overlay

need our help choosing the right supplement for your fur-baby?


Decoding Dog Body Language: How Dogs Communicate with Humans and Each Other

Observing your dog's body language is critical to understanding their emotions and needs.

Decoding Dog Body Language: How Dogs Communicate with Humans and Each Other

Observing your dog's body language is critical to understanding their emotions and needs.

By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Professional

As dog owners, it’s important to recognize that our animal companions communicate differently from us, relying mainly on body language rather than voice. While dogs can associate sounds with meanings, they lack our understanding of definitions, making a verbal connection between us challenging.

To build strong relationships with dogs, grasping their language by interpreting their body signals is crucial. Effectively doing so allows us to listen and respond empathetically, considering they don't fully understand our language. Learning how each body part contributes to communication supports positive and productive interactions with our pups.

This article explores common dog body signals, their potential meanings (taking context into account), and how to respond effectively to convey your understanding of their many expressions. 

Canine Communication Signals

Observing your dog's body language is critical to understanding their emotions and needs. A dog's message or expression involves the actions of each body part, such as its position, tightness, and speed of movement. While we can interpret the general meaning of a tail's position, it's essential to consider your entire dog and the surrounding context to avoid missing important communication cues. 

Facial Expressions and Feelings

Individual dogs can express emotions differently, and even breed differences can alter facial expressions and appearance, so it's crucial to consider what is typical for the dog in front of you.

Another vital piece to the communication puzzle relates to those big, beautiful puppy eyes. Humans naturally enjoy making eye contact and often train dogs to do the same for focus or the positive feelings it generates. However, extended eye contact isn't innate for dogs; it's a learned behavior with humans. In emotional situations, dogs may rely on their natural instincts, like avoiding eye contact when scared. Despite positive reinforcement, making eye contact can still make a scared dog more uncomfortable.

A dog's behavior and body language are dynamic, meaning they can change rapidly based on the context and events in their environment. Keeping that fluidity in mind, here are some examples of a dog's general facial expressions when feeling relaxed, tense, fearful, and happy. 

Relaxed Dog Facial Expressions

When your pup feels relaxed, you may notice their eyes are soft and even partially closed. Their ears fall into a natural and neutral position. The mouth may be slightly opened or gently closed, and the tongue falls into place. 

Their general expression complements their facial expressions with a loose body posture, relaxed muscle tone, and an overall calm appearance. 

Tense Dog Facial Expressions

A dog feeling confrontational, on edge, or agitated will position their eyes forward with a glare or intense stare. Their ears may stand up straight in a forward position towards the source of concern. The mouth shows tension with tighter lips and teeth, sometimes exposed depending on how tense the dog feels

In addition to their facial expression, a tense dog displays a stiff body posture, appears on alert with tightened muscles, and tends to be more still than usual. 

Fearful Dog Facial Expressions

Fear can be an intense emotion that leads to more outward signs in the face the more frightened a dog may be. The white of a dog's eye is more visible in scared dogs. This change is known as "whale eye," where the brow tension pulls the eyes open more, exposing the white sclera. The dog's pupils dilate, and the ears pin back against the head. 

The face and mouth of a frightened dog show tension, with lips pulled back into what looks like a forced or awkward smile. Often, the more frightened the dog becomes, the more exposed the teeth become. The tongue will widen, and the dog may intermittently lip lick in between pants. You may notice wrinkling or rippled skin on the forehead. 

An uncomfortable — but not necessarily frightened — dog may show subtle variations of these signs. You might also notice the dog squinting or turning their head to avoid direct eye contact. In a frightened dog, face tension accompanies a lowered body stance, potential freezing or stiffness, seeming to hold their breath at times, and trembling. 

Happy Dog Facial Expressions

Happiness: the feeling we all strive to see on our pup's face! This emotion is expressed through smooth and relaxed facial muscles without tension. Their ears are comfortable in a natural position with soft, possibly lightly squinting eyes. The mouth of a happy dog is also relaxed and gently closed or open with a loose smile, and the tongue rests lazily in the mouth or dangling out through the teeth. 

A loose body and a wide, slow tail wag accompany a happy facial expression to complete the cheerful look. 

Breaking Down Body Language by Body Part

Domesticated dogs are about as diverse as humans. Sometimes, we alter their appearance after birth through tail docking and ear cropping procedures. 

Interpreting what a dog may be feeling or trying to communicate when their appearance has been cosmetically altered can be more challenging since a dog’s tail and ears have so much to say. Look at the base of the ears and the base of the tail for clues in cropped, docked, and amputated parts, such as changes in muscle rigidity and positioning from the base. 

Ear Positions 

Analyzing ear movements is one piece of the puzzle to understanding your dog's body language. Ear posture, position, and movement all factor into interpreting what your dog is thinking or feeling at any given moment.

Relaxed Dog Ears

The ears are in a neutral and natural position without tension. Typically, the ears are soft and still or moving little. This position often indicates that the dog is at ease and calm. 

Satellite Ears 

The term "satellite ears" refers to a dog's ears' movements when they move independently and quickly change direction. Rapidly changing pinna posture can indicate that they are trying to take in as much auditory information as possible in their current environment. These ear movements can be from anxiety from being unable to filter out non-threatening sounds or hearing something interesting in motion and wanting to gather more information about it. 

Alert Dog Ears

When alert, a dog's ears appear perked up and forward facing — fully extended towards what has their interest peaked. Alert ears indicate your pup may be curious, excited, or ready for conflict. 

Lowered Dog Ears

When your dog's ears are dropped down more than their natural or neutral position but not pinned back, it can indicate two different emotional pathways. 

First, it may indicate a friendly approach, appeasement, or "I mean no harm; let's be cool with each other." Dropped ears that convey this message are generally in addition to a loose, waggy body and tail, with the pup moving towards or into another person or dog. 

The second emotional interpretation involves freezing or moving away from an object, person, or other animal and body language that suggests tension or uncertainty. Dropped ears combined with these signs indicate your pup may be feeling unsure. 

Dog Ears Pinned Back (Link Article Why Do Dogs Put Their Ears Back)

When a dog flattens their ears against their head, that is a sign of stress. Tension holds them in this unnatural and telling position when a dog may feel threatened, frightened, or even painful.

A tucked or cowering tense body pairs with this aural behavior when fear or anxiety is at play and can signal physical or emotional discomfort. Dogs will also flatten their ears with appeasement gestures, which can be differentiated from fear or anxiety by a lowered, wiggly, licky dog approaching rather than avoiding the person or animal in front of them. 

Let's Talk About Tails 

The various aspects of tail movement, including speed and position, convey different meanings. Understanding context is crucial in interpreting tail wags. The same wagging motion can have different meanings depending on the situation. 

Generally speaking, a fast-wagging tail often signifies excitement and anticipation, whereas a slow-wagging tail indicates uncertainty or caution.

Looking at height, speed, and position combinations, we can deduce standard emotional states we attribute to dogs:

  • A high, stiff, and rapidly tight wag indicates high arousal and confidence. A dog with this tail posture type may be ready for potential conflict, to chase prey, or to engage in high-energy play.
  • A relaxed, low, wide, and slow horizontal wag indicates your pup is happy and calm. 
  • A tightly tucked and fast-wagging tail suggests your dog may be trying to appease someone, or they may be uncomfortable or unsure. 
  • A helicopter tail or wagging in random rapid circles can indicate your pup is super pumped and really happy about something, such as you arriving home after being gone.

Dog Posture and Body Position

Analyzing dog postures can help us better interpret signs of fear, anxiety, playfulness, heightened arousal, aggression, and even behaviors considered to be dominant or submissive. 

Generally, a tall or erect dog exudes confidence, alertness, and arousal. In contrast, a crouching or cowering dog exudes fear, anxiety, or uncertainty. 

A dog that rolls on their back may be looking for a belly rub, or they may actually be saying, "Please stop." The difference can be determined by what the rest of the body language collectively displays. 

Conveying Dominance or Submission

Dominance and submissiveness describe behaviors displayed with other animals or people in a particular situation. They are not character traits assigned to individual dogs. 

When a dog is vying for an object, a person, or a territory, they may display dominant behaviors, including an erect posture, raised head, stiffened muscles, and making direct eye contact

When a dog conveys appeasement, signaling that they mean no harm or offense, they may display submissive behaviors such as lowering their body, not making direct eye contact, pinning their ears back, and licking the other animal or person. 

Playful Dog Body Language

Bouncing into downward dog, a.k.a. play bowing, is a clear sign that a pup is trying to get the fun going. Playful dogs make bouncy movements with waggy tails and often dart back and forth to spark engagement. Their bubbly body language conveys their desire for friendly interactions. 

Identifying Signs of Aggression or Fear in Dogs

Aggression and fear are often intertwined, as fear is a leading cause of aggressive behavior.

When dogs act aggressively without fear in response to conflict, their body posture is stiff, hackles may be raised, intense staring takes place, and the tail is tense and either high or sticking straight out. If the dog intends to engage in conflict, they often lean forward, poised to lunge into action.

When a dog is fearful, their body position is lowered, their tail tucked, and they may be growling and baring their teeth. Extremely scared dogs may show all of their teeth, whereas dogs displaying a warning of intent to aggress may only show the front portion of their teeth. 

Vocalization and Verbal Cues

Decoding a dog's vocalizations involves recognizing the context and considering the specific nuances of each sound. Excessive vocalization should be addressed with attention to the dog's well-being and potential underlying issues.

A veterinarian is a great place to start if your pup starts vocalizing more frequently than usual. If a medical concern is ruled out, enlist the help of a behavior professional, such as a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant or Veterinary Behaviorist. 


Just as many words in our languages can mean different things depending on the context in which they are used, dog barks can indicate various emotional states depending on what your pup is responding to.

Dogs may bark to indicate alertness to something within their environment. These barks are often sharp, quick bursts of sound to draw attention to a specific stimulus.

Excited barking often accompanies playfulness or anticipation. These barks are generally rapid and high-pitched, accompanied by a wagging tail and energetic body language.

Dogs may also bark to signal discomfort or insecurity. Anxious dogs may bark continuously, with a higher pitch, and may include whining or yelping sounds. Fearful and uncertain dogs will often back up while barking.

When dogs feel the need to go on the offensive, they may bark with a deeper pitch and a severe tone, accompanied by rigid body posture, to tell the recipient of their communication to "get back — or else."


Growling happens in play, which can signal excitement in the game. It can also show up in warning signals to thwart a threat or notify an adversary of intent to engage in conflict. From shallow bursts during tug of war to a guttural rumble meaning serious business, growling is another layer of communication that can help us interpret what their whole body is saying. 


Anticipation and eagerness can spark whining with excitable body movements, like when your pup is watching you prepare their favorite meal. Panting, pacing, and whale eye accompanied by a high-pitched whine that conveys a sense of urgency can indicate anxiety in an uneasy pup. Favoring part of the body due to illness or discomfort will often be accompanied by this type of vocalization. 


Dogs may howl as a social response to other dogs, to express excitement during play, and sometimes when sad and lonely. 

Tailoring Your Response to Canine Body Language

Responding to your pup's many body language signals is just as important as being able to interpret them, especially when your furry best friend is communicating fear or aggression.  

If your dog is displaying some of the signs mentioned, such as pinning their ears back, trembling, crouching down, or baring teeth, you'll want to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. 

Dealing with Fear and Aggression

Fearful or aggressive body language can be scary sometimes. In a tense encounter with a dog, the objective is to ease the dog's discomfort and de-escalate the situation. For instance, if a dog is growling as you approach, the best action is to step back rather than move towards the dog.

Unfortunately, the typical reaction is to correct the dog for growling. However, this approach can lead to more significant issues later on. Corrections don't address the dog's emotional state; they often exacerbate it. From the dog's perspective, ensuring safety and security is crucial to resolving emotional conflict.

Follow Your Gut

Trust your instincts if you sense something isn't right, like when your hair stands on end or you feel uneasy. Your intuition might be picking up on signals from the dog. In this case, moving away from the dog slowly and giving him space would be advisable. If the dog's behavior escalates, whether defensively or offensively, create further physical distance using an object like a car or umbrella. If you're outdoors, consider moving to another room or building. 

Avoid getting down on the "dog's level" to prevent misunderstandings. Sitting down next to them may seem comforting, but it can also lead to being bitten if you are too close for their comfort. Instead, give the dog space and let them approach you when they feel safe.

If your dog consistently shows signs of fear or aggression, seek help from a behavior professional to identify the underlying cause and develop a behavior modification plan. Talk with your veterinarian to determine if a medication or supplement like Native Pet's Calm Chews may help your pup feel more at ease.

Additionally, many fearful and aggressive behaviors can be prevented early on with the assistance of an accredited dog trainer. Professional dog trainers help with early socialization and relationship building, which can teach you how to raise a more confident, well-rounded dog. 

Avoiding Misinterpretation

Misinterpreting body language can lead to troubling outcomes. As discussed, seemingly identical tail wags or ear positions may convey vastly different meanings depending on the overall context of the dog's body language.

By paying close attention to dogs' body signals in different situations and practicing assessing their behavior, you can build on past experiences to learn how to best respond to what your dog is trying to say in a way that says, "I hear you!"

An example would be a dog rolling over. Some dogs will roll over when relaxed and wanting a belly rub from their favorite human. That dog may also roll over and show its belly to a stranger visiting the home. However, in this instance, the dog is not inviting the person to rub its belly but instead asking that person to please stop. Misreading this signal could lead to a bite if the stranger believes the dog wants pets when he does not and ignores the polite request. 

Mutual Connections

Understanding and respecting a dog's body language is invaluable for those who love and want to connect with dogs on a deep level. There's nothing quite like unlocking the rewards that come from what a dog gives back to us when we learn to listen to how they communicate.

As social beings, it feels uplifting to have a human friend who listens to you, respects you, and loves you for who you are. Being just that for your canine companions can create a relationship built on a profound sense of security and comfort. You can foster an environment where they can be their authentic selves without fear — just as we come to feel in the presence of a genuine friend. 

illustration of dog's tail & the dog is digging

need our help choosing the right supplement for your fur-baby?

illustration of dog's tail & the dog is digging