Beyond Words: Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

July 1st, 2023

dog and person holding hand paw


Some of the best conversations are with our dog pals friends. It’s a fact. How often have you found yourself narrating your day to them or giving them words in their own little voice? At some point, you’ve come home and excitedly greeted them with, “How was your day? Were you a good doggy? Yes, you were!” It’s because they make the very best, loyal friends. Plus, they can be attentive listeners. It only makes sense that we would hold a long conversation with them as they stare at us, most likely waiting for those keywords like treat, walk, or let’s go to come out of our mouths.

As dog lovers, we cherish the unspoken bond we share with our canine companions. Have you once, twice, or many times said, “I wish I could know what is happening in that little noggin of yours?.” Your furry pal is communicating with you all day long, and while we may not know what they are saying, you can gauge some feelings and emotions through their body language. Your dog has big feelings and lots to “say,” and it’s likely coming through the subtle messages hidden in their postures, expressions, and movements.

dog lying in persons lap


Many of you dog owners out there, over time, have deciphered your dog’s own little body language cues. For example, maybe they’ve had enough play or cuddle time and walk away looking slightly annoyed and planting themselves on the opposite side of the room. Don’t take it personally; it’s their kind way of saying, “I need a little alone time.” Or have been on the receiving end of the side eye they give you when you tell them, “It’s not time for dinner yet.” You know your dog best and can intuitively read those little thoughts running through their mind.

Learning some canine communication helps pet parents understand their furry friend’s body language, which lends to some big rewards, including building a strong bond, fostering mutual trust, and ensuring their well-being, especially when they are out in the big world away from their comfort zone. And you may know some of your dog’s language, but it is helpful to be aware of cues that other dogs may be giving off so you can react appropriately.

happy pit bull dog


Totally Chill & Happy

Happy, content dogs glow with confidence. What does this look like? They will stand tall, with a relaxed body and tail, and have a calm face with a lolling tongue. When a dog is happy, their ears are typically in their natural position. When you approach or give them attention, they may wag their tail rapidly or wiggle their entire body.

Other Happy Cues:

  • neutral body positioning
  • lean into you while getting all those pets
  • eyes are soft
  • ears in a neutral position
  • mouth is slightly open (we’re counting this as a smile!)
  • loose tail wag with a back-and-forth motion.

scared dog hiding behind persons legs


Feeling Uneasy

Signs of anxiety or aggression all stem from a place of fear. When thinking about this behavior, it is important to remember that it can be alarming, especially when it pops up suddenly. These are instinctive reactions your dog will experience when put into an unfamiliar or scary situation or is suddenly caught off guard and feel threatened.

An anxious dog often has a lowered head, holds the ears partially back, and stretches the neck out. If unsure of their surroundings, your pet pal typically stands in a tense posture with a tucked tail. Another big indicator is showing the white of their eyes, known as “half-moon” eyes. This is when a large portion of the white of their eye is visible. This happens when their head is slightly turned away from what they are afraid of, but their eyes still look at it.

Common behaviors that indicate fear or uneasiness:

  • Lip licking
  • Averting eye contact
  • Lifting a front paw
  • Yawning when not tired
  • Holding perfectly still

When they feel scared, especially if a dog or person is in their personal space, making them uncomfortable, they may cower, lean away, or even try to hide under or behind things. Sometimes, dogs can experience such high levels of nervousness or anxiety that they may lose control of their bladder and have an accident. These are all signs that they are trying to avoid a person or dog approaching. This situation might trigger a defensive response in your furry companion, leading them to exhibit the following additional cues:

  • a high wagging tail accompanied by stiff movements
  • narrowed eyes
  • hard stare
  • raised hackles (the hair along the back)
  • weight shifted back

grumpy white dog


Sometimes their little emotions can escalate into bigger ones leading to some aggressive actions. Getting to this point can be scary for everyone. The biggest sign that it may go this way is that your dog’s stare will be direct, which is a confrontation behavior, along with stiffening their body to appear taller.

Aggressive signs can also include:

  • Bared teeth
  • Growling
  • Snapping
  • Lifted lip forming a snarl

dog waiting for person to throw ball


Come on! It’s Time to Play!

You’ve seen it a million times – that little happy dance they do when they want to play. Their ears are up, their eyes are bright, and their tail wags rapidly. Sometimes the behavior is not so subtle, and they will grab their favorite toy, plopping it right in front of you while staring at you until you do something!

Dogs LOVE themselves some serious play time, and it’s not hard to know what those cues may look like, but it’s also important to double-check that a dog, especially not your own, is telling you – GAME ON! And, of course, you never want to miss an invitation for playtime!

Here are some happiness cues that would put a smile on anyone’s face:

  • “Play Bows” is when they do a little downward dog movement – front paws out and stick their little booties in the air.
  • Wiggly body movements (The Happy Dance!)
  • Open, relaxed mouth
  • Fast and free movement
  • Playful barks and growls (different in tone than aggressive barking/growling)

happy dog snuggling person


The Language of Love

Your four-legged BFF may not have the words, but they can for sure communicate their infinite love for you! Their little personalities shine through, and how they show you affection and devotion will be their unique love language towards you, whether it’s pure excitement when you enter a room, how their eyes light up, their gentle licks all over your face or nuzzling against you while on the couch.

They also have an innate ability to sense our emotions and offer comfort during challenging times. Dogs truly have a special gift for conveying their love.

dog begging for more treats


It is well worth the time it takes to understand and learn your dog pal’s body language and communication. It allows you to interpret their emotions, needs, and intentions. Additionally, understanding their unspoken cues enhances our ability to prevent potentially dangerous situations. Being in tune with what your dog is trying to say nurtures a better human-canine relationship. And it gives your furry BFF a voice to thrive and lead happy, fulfilling lives.