Published on: April 8, 2024
Author: Claudia Bensimoun

We all understand what a tail wag means, but there’s a lot more about your pup’s body language to understand. It’s also so different from how humans communicate and involves many exciting ways of communicating emotions and intentions. 

Dogs communicate with us and other animals through barking, growling, whining, and general body language. Plenty of canine communication involves barking, but it can also include nonverbal communication like a simple yawn or looking away from you. This, for example, can mean that a dog is stressed or indifferent. Much of nonverbal dog communication can be easily misunderstood, especially if the dog’s body language is unfamiliar.

While humans can verbally communicate about what is going on with them, dogs do the same through body language and vocalizations. You may not be an expert at reading canine body language, but eventually, you’ll learn to read the subtleties of a dog’s body language.

Body language includes tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Understanding and accurately translating dog body language will help decipher what a dog is trying to communicate.

If you’re trying to figure out what your pup is trying to tell you, you should look at your dog’s body language. Dog experts say you should examine the entire body, from the ears to the tip of the tail, and use this information in a situational context. 

A wagging tail does not necessarily mean a friendly dog. If a dog’s body is stiff and crouching, with ears back, beware! The dog may not be happy! Relaxed dogs will hold their tails up in the air in a neutral position, but you should also keep breed in mind. For example, the Chow has a curled tail that curls over their backs, and other breeds, like the Italian Greyhound, will have a shallow neutral tail position. 

Essential Canine Body Language Signals

Basically, dogs use five common groups of communication signals. As with humans, a dog’s response can change in any given situation. A dog can first be excited by a stimulus and then decide that the stimulus is a threat.

A dog can change its body language to show a threat and use aggressive signals, such as fear or sometimes both. If a dog is stressed out, it can drastically change its response to any situation and influence its response.

Tail Wagging

Relaxed communication occurs when dogs are in a playful mood. Tail wagging is often misinterpreted for happiness but does not necessarily mean your dog is happy. It just means that your dog is emotionally aroused and could indicate arousal, frustration, or worse.

If you’re at the dog park, your dog may pant, show plenty of tail wags, and play bow, showing they’re ready for play. If your dog meets another dog at the park, they may interact with dogs and people by licking them after a quick sniff. This means your dog’s happy and ready for play.

Raised Hackles

On the other hand, if your pup has raised hackles and the hair is raised on your dog’s back, also called piloerection, you’ll see the fur standing upright across the shoulders and down the back. Consider this as a sign of arousal, but not always in a negative way. Raised hackles can also indicate excitement, stress, and curiosity and do not always mean your dog is upset or stressed out.


If you see a dog cowering and hunched close to the ground, most people will presume fearfulness and anxiousness. The dog is probably trying to escape and get away from someone. 

Yet, if a dog rolls over on its back, it could be asking for a belly rub and be quite relaxed. The dog may even urinate a tiny bit. However, this friendly act may also show that the dog is slightly stressed and anxious. This could be a timid dog trying to appease.

If a dog shifts forward, showing curiosity and eagerness, the dog may try to inch closer to something more interesting. The same posture could show offensive intentions, especially if the dog’s body shows signs of aggressiveness, like a twitching tail held high above the body.

Information from body postures plays a similarly important role for dogs as it does for humans.

Behavioral research has shown that dogs, like humans, are experts in perceiving facial expressions and bodily gestures such as hand signals. 

40 pet parents and 15 dogs participated in interesting researchabout how dogs have a particular area in their brains, located in the temporal lobe, that helps them understand body postures, much like humans do. 

This means that when dogs look at how someone is standing or moving, a specific part of their brain works to figure out what those postures mean, similar to how our brains process body language.

Facial Expressions

There’s so much to see in a dog’s facial expressions. Similar to people’s facial expressions, dogs show us what they’re feeling via their facial expressions. Yet, in some cases, like a yawn, this means your pup is stressed out or indifferent. Dogs may also yawn when another dog is yawning. 

If your dog takes part in repeat licking, this likely means that they’re anxious or scared. Here are some more behavioral signs that show fearfulness or anxiety.

  • Ears back with lip licking plus tense facial expression
  • Panting, salivation, yawning, and licking, if they do not occur due to a physical reason like heat, overexercise, tiredness, or the presence of food, mean anxiousness or fearfulness.

If a dog displays some of these behaviors, it’s most likely related to fear and anxiety, especially if many signs are demonstrated simultaneously. Dogs also have an attentional bias toward threatening social stimuli. It’s found that a dog’s expressions affect gaze fixation, which involves eyes, midface, and mouth.3 This shows how gaze fixations are spread systemically on a dog’s features, which include eyes, midface, and mouth. 

Dogs evaluated social threats quickly, which led to attentional bias, dependent on the depicted species: threatening conspecifics’ faces evoked heightened attention, but threatening human faces instead an avoidance response.


Understanding your pup and learning more about canine communication means looking into your dog’s eyes. This allows you to understand your dog’s feelings and thoughts. A hard stare may reflect a negative state of mind, where your pup may be guarding something like his bone or favorite toy. If your dog has a long, hard stare, this usually means that your dog is guarding something and displays an aggressive mode. If the dog looks away, it is trying to calm a situation.

But if you’re making eye contact with your furry best friend and you and see gentle eyes with relaxed lids, you’ll know that your pup is in a relaxed state of mind and game for a belly rub.

Dogs produced significantly more facial movements when humans gave more attention to their dogs. 4 The researchers found that a dog’s facial expressions are usually viewed as spontaneous, automatic reactions tied closely to emotions. However, other dog research suggests something different, especially in domestic dogs. 

These findings demonstrate that dogs’ facial expressions not only result from their emotions but may also involve thought processes, indicating something emotional and, to some extent, thoughtful.

Interpretation of Emotions

Just like people, dogs show emotions, and if you’re trying to decipher your dog’s body language, you need to understand that your pup is talking to you 24/7. Easy-to-read dog emotions like anger and happiness are recognized from early on regardless of experience with dogs. 

Understanding a dog’s emotions is essentially based on experience. The ability to understand a dog’s emotions was higher among people who grew up with a positive attitude about dogs.

Communication Through Vocalization

If you’ve been around dogs your entire life, it’s easier to recognize their emotions. Your pup’s sounds can also show feelings with groans, whines, moans, and a majestic howl. 

Growling can be a threat or warning, even used to ask for playtime. 

Nothing beats the majestic howl triggered by a dog’s deepest emotions, similar to that of wolves. As with humans, dogs make all sorts of sounds, and it’s their way of communicating with us and other animals.

Importance of Context

As part of our commitment to the welfare of our furry best friends, we must try to understand the importance of context, especially when we’re training dogs or working with rescues. We need to understand a dog’s body language at the dog park, dog beach, when training, or when introducing dogs to each other. 

Things like excessive licking, yawning, tense facial expressions with wrinkled eyebrows, a closed mouth, tense lips with different vocalizations, and even the lifting of one paw with a change in the barking pitch mean different things.

Humans significantly impact a dog’s behavior, with human attitudes influencing dogs and animal welfare all the time. By understanding our dogs, we can learn more about what they’re trying to tell us. Dogs teach us all the time, and we learn new things from every dog in our lives.

Deciphering Dog Body Language

All body language signals work together and are part of a package. Recognizing a dog’s emotions and behavior means we can always relate to our dogs, like when they are happy, sad, or stressed. 

Fortunately, we spend so much time with our dogs, which makes this easy. If you’re worried or concerned about your dog’s body language, you can video your dog’s behaviors or use an activity tracking device. By monitoring your dogs health, you can give your veterinarian or positive dog trainer concise details and seek their advice on how to move forward.

Dogs communicate with us and other dogs and animals constantly, and it’s our job to try to understand what they’re saying. It’s not just about a tail wag or raised hackles but also about facial expression, ear positions, and how your pup uses his body. 

Understanding what your dog is saying and looking at everything a dog does, such as panting, body posture, and movement, is key to understanding dog body language. Understanding canine communication allows you to meet your dog’s needs and keep them happy and healthy throughout their lives!