You might think it’s pretty easy to tell when your dog is happy, excited or scared, just by her wagging tail or perked-up ears. But decoding dog expressions and dog body language—whether it’s your own pup or someone else’s—isn’t actually so straightforward. According to Lexi Donnelly, Behavior Consultant Team Lead at Best Friends Animal Society, you usually see several dog body language signals happening at once. To make dog expressions even more nuanced, “Body language signals can be challenging due to breed difference and physical appearance, such as cropped ears, docked tails, wrinkles, etc.” Donnelly explains that dog body language signals can be classified as signs of comfort/play or discomfort, which can be broken down even further into appeasement, calming, stress and warning signs. Here’s a primer on dog expressions from head to hindquarters.
The head turn is a stress signal, notes Donnelly—and if the head is low or down, it shows fear. Robin Bennett, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, consultant and expert on dogs, says that a dog turning her head away is one sign that “the dog may not be comfortable and is trying to avoid or prevent an encounter from continuing.” Now if your furry friend tilts her head, Donnelly assures us that she’s playful, comfortable or interested.
Staring is an early warning sign that you should back away. Averting the eyes can show fear if the dog is showing some other signs of fear along with it. A dog that averts her eyes but has a loose, relaxed body, is most likely comfortable. If the eyes are wide open, Donnelly says it can mean that they are overwhelmed or overcome with excitement.
The ears can also be a good indicator of dog communication. Most people will read flattened dog ears as a stress signal of fear or submission. When they’re perked up, the dog is alert and attentive. But you have to play close attention to other dog expressions to know whether the perked ears are a good thing or a warning sign, says Donnelly. “High, upright ears can mean play or over-arousal, or can be an early warning sign. High ears held back usually means play.” Dave Comiskey, co-founder of Barkly Pets dog-walking service and smartphone app, adds that a dog with ears perked straight up, with her fur standing on end and eyes fixated on something, is suspicious of something or someone, so you should be cautious. “If the ears are flat back instead of perked up while their hair is still standing on end, they’ve gone beyond suspicion to the point of feeling threatened,” says Comiskey.
A dog’s uneasiness can also be gauged by checking out what’s happening with her mouth. It might not seem like anything, but a closed mouth is “usually the first sign that a dog is getting nervous (equivalent to us holding our breath when we are nervous),” explains Bennett. The same goes for when you see a dog yawning. Aside from a sleepy dog waking up from a nap, dog yawning can be a calming tactic to alleviate stress, notes Donnelly. Yawning and/or nose licking are moderate signals of discomfort, points out Comiskey. “The dog is likely sure that things are going to be okay, but is looking for reassurance from you.” Lip licking is another way for pooches to tell their owners that something’s wrong in dog language. That brings us to the teeth. Dogs will bear their teeth or snap at the air to correct another dog’s behavior; it’s a signal to stop whatever you’re doing, says Donnelly. And even though it sounds strange, “dog smiling” is actually a sign of appeasement, not contentment. If your dog is panting, and it’s not hot out, Bennett suggests that it’s generally stress related. For instance, she’s panting after arriving at the vet’s office, but she hasn’t been running around in the heat.
So what are the signs of a happy pup? Look for an open mouth with a tongue hanging out, which translates to calm, comfortable and playful. A doggy kiss is also a surefire sign of affection that releases a dog’s endorphins, notes Comiskey.
How do dogs communicate their feelings of distress using their body? Well, plenty of ways. According to Donnelly, dogs convey anxiety by turning away, stretching, lifting a paw, shaking off, scratching, stiffening up, pacing or even doing a urogenital checkout. If a dog freezes, they could be ready to attack, but if they’re trying to defer to another dog or a person, they might urinate submissively or do a “tap out” that involves lying on the back and showing the belly. Shaking off in dog language is a way to “try to make the other dog feel more comfortable,” says Donnelly. “Shake-offs also allow the dog to ‘reset’ and often occur after times of high arousal/excitement.”
Aside from conveying distress, the body is also the easiest way for dogs to show they’re up for a play session or a cuddle. For the most part, a wiggly body, muzzle punch, body check or play bow mean it’s playtime. These go hand in hand with vocalizing and bouncing around, recounts Donnelly. When your dog tells you it’s time for a game of fetch or tug of war, break out the KONG AirDog Squeakair ball or USA Bones & Chews Cotton Rope with Bones toy. Leaning into your legs to get a get belly or back rub is a way for your pup to show affection toward you, and a big stretch means she’s happy to see you, says Comiskey.
You’ve probably seen a dog’s hair stand on end, and most people read this as a bad sign. Donnelly goes further to say that it can mean arousal, fear or discomfort. Just like we get goosebumps when we see something amazing or watch a scary movie, a dog’s fur can have the same reaction to unfamiliar, overwhelming or scary situations, like meeting a new dog they’re not sure they’re going to get along with. But it can also happen when your pup is excited about a play session. So the key is to pay attention to the other parts of the body to be on the lookout for more signs of stress or comfort.
What tales can the tail tell? Wagging tails can be happy tails, but not always. The key is noticing the position of the tail, and reading it along with other dog body language signals. Donnelly breaks it down for us: “A high tail wag can be over-arousal or early warning signal that the dog is frustrated or fearful. A loose, half-mast wag can be comfortable and playful. A low tail wag can signify fear and serve as an early warning signal.” And we all know from the saying, “Caught with your tail between your legs” that this body posture is not one of confidence or feeling at ease.
Understanding what your best friend is trying to tell you in dog language can be a little challenging sometimes. But it’s also truly rewarding when it just clicks, and your pooch finally feels like her favorite person really “gets” her. So watch those tails and tongues to make sure your four-legged BFF is happy and having the time of her life.