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  • Writer's pictureScarlett Bowman

Dog Tip: Understanding Your Dog's Body Language

Your dog is always communicating with you when they're around you. Do you know how to read their body language? (We'll cover different types of dog barks and what they mean in a future post.)

As you work to understand what your dog is communicating, remember to look at the whole picture: what their entire body is saying, what the situation is, and what you know about them. For example, many people assume that a dog with raised hackles is being aggressive, but this is often not the case. Looking at the rest of the dog's body language (are they also snarling? growling?) and the situation (are they trapped or feeling threatened by another dog, or were they startled by a loud noise) will allow you to piece the clues together and understand them.

Calming Signals

"Calming signals" are ways that your dog tells humans and other dogs that they are stressed, or want to avoid conflict. They are easy to miss, so pay attention when your dog is in a new environment or uncomfortable situation. Your dog may be telling you that they need a break from the situation, or feel trapped.

Here are few of the most common calming signals:

  • Turning their head away from the situation.

  • Shaking their head or entire body.

  • Yawning, licking his lips.

  • Walking in a curve.

  • Walking slowly or even freezing.

Tail Talk

Your dog says a lot of different things with their tail. Here are just a few of the things they could be saying:

  • Tail is tucked between the legs: Your dog is scared.

  • Tail is in a neutral position (where this is depends on your dog's breed): Your dog is relaxed.

  • Tail is held up high: Your dog is alert and paying attention to something.

  • Tail is wagging from side-to-side: Tail wagging is usually a positive sign that your dog is happy or excited, however this is not always the case! Be sure to read all of your dog's body language and the situation in this case. An aggressive or frightened dog may wag their. Tail is wagging quickly from side-to-side: Your dog is happy or excited.

The Eyes Have It

  • Eyes are relaxed and pupils are not dilated: Your dog is likely relaxed and feels safe.

  • Pupils are dilated: Your dog is either excited, frightened, or both. This is even more so the case if you can see the whites of their eyes.

Mouthing Off

  • Your dog yawns, licks their lips or pulls their lips taut: These are all ways for your dog to self-soothe if it is feeling anxious or frightened. Yawning can also be your dog's way of communicating that they do not want conflict, or want to be left alone.

  • Your dogs bares their teeth, growls or snarls: These are all warning signs that your dog will show before they decide that they need to attack, and should be respected! Don't punish your dog for giving you this warning. This is how your dog tries to communicate with you. If you don't listen, or punish them for it, they may skip the warning the next time and go straight to attacking instead.


  • Your dog holds their ears forward and high: They are indicating interest or confidence.

  • Your dog holds their ears flat or tilted backward: They are worried or gesturing submission.

  • Your dog's ears and relaxed and floppy: They are relaxed and happy!


  • When your dog's hair stands and up on their spine and tail, this is called "raising their hackles." It's important to know that just because a dog raises their hackles does not mean they are aggressive. Different dogs raise their hackles for different reasons. For example, they may be excited, afraid, surprised or defensive. It is usually a sign of a heightened emotional state.

Dog Communication "Do's and Don'ts" (from

DON’T: Standing above and reaching over or petting the dogs head DO: Kneel or sit next to your dog and rub under his chin or chest

DON’T: Moving or running too fast toward the dog DO: Walk slowly to the dog or even better, allow the dog to approach you

DON’T: Direct eye contact or staring at dogs eyes DO: Looking off to the side slightly will feel like less pressure

DON’T: Hugging and kissing DO: Some dogs like to snuggle, but most don’t. They prefer a good butt scratch or belly rub


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