Understanding Basic Canine Body Language

The Importance of Understanding Canine Body Language

Dogs are unable to communicate their wants and needs with us through verbal language. Luckily, they are able to communicate with us using body language. That’s why it is so important for owners to be able to recognize and understand their dog’s body language. 

I once participated in an activity with my classmates that involved passing on a message to one another without speaking. The purpose behind the activity was to gain an understanding about what it is like to communicate without verbal language. I think everyone, myself included, would agree that it was extremely difficult and frustrating. We will never understand exactly how animals feel, but I imagine it’s similar to the way my classmates and I felt when we were unable to communicate with one another. 

Dogs are able to express how they are feeling through their body language. Certain body language may be easier to read than others, nevertheless, it is the owners responsibility to recognize these signs. It is important to recognize that any dog has the potential to become aggressive in response to fear. This is called fear aggression. If your dog is displaying signs of fear or aggression it is important to diffuse the situation and if possible, remove the trigger.

Fearful Posture
Fearful Posture

Tail Wagging

 “A dog with a wagging tail is always happy” is a common societal misconception. A wagging tail is a sign of emotional arousal. It can be due to feelings of happiness and excitement or fear and frustration. Typically, when a dog wags its tail side to side in fluent large strokes or in a circular helicopter-like motion it’s a positive arousal response. On the other hand, a raised tail wagging rapidly in small strokes is generally a negative arousal response. A dog with its tail raised higher than its natural position is typically feeling confident, assertive or aggressive. Normally, a sign that a dog is feeling uncomfortable or fearful is when their tail is low to the ground or tucked in between their legs.


A dog’s posture can tell us a lot about how they are feeling. It is also a way humans communicate their feelings to one another whether it’s a conscious or subconscious behavior. Typically, a confident person will walk with their shoulders back and their head held high whereas an anxious person will slouch their neck and shoulders. This behavioral concept is similar in dogs. A dog curled up and crouching close to the ground can indicate feelings of fear and anxiety whereas a dog spread out, standing tall and leaning forward can signify a feeling of confidence or dominance. A rigid and still posture, known as freezing is a sign of extreme discomfort and fear and can turn into aggression. Submissive dogs may crouch down, turn away, roll onto their back or urinate when feeling uncomfortable or nervous. 

Dogs also use posture to communicate that they want to play with other dogs or humans. A dog with his chest on the ground and his hind end raised is a common play posture referred to as the play bow. Another body posture that indicates wanting to play is when a dog drops his entire body to the ground while making eye contact with a potential playmate. Don’t worry if you notice your dog sneezing during playtime, this is a common behavior and means they are enjoying their time. 

Lastly, I think it is extremely important to mention that abnormal body positioning/posture can be indicative of pain. Therefore, it is important to know your dog’s normal body positioning and be able to recognize whether a specific body posture being displayed makes sense in a given situation or setting. If not, it may be a sign that your dog is experiencing pain!

Facial Expressions

There are alot of clues provided to us about how a dog is feeling through their facial expressions. A dog that refrains from making eye contact or frequently turns their head away from a stimulus is feeling nervous and anxious. If a dog does this during an argument with another dog it may signify that they are backing down or submitting to the other in order to avoid a potential fight scenario. A dog that continues to make eye contact in argument is displaying dominance. 

A dog with soft eyes and relaxed eyelids is feeling calm and content. When a dog is feeling angry or frustrated their pupils dilate and they may give a persistent, hard stare. A dog that is anxious or fearful may display what is known as the “whale eye.” This occurs when a dog turns his head but continues to watch what is going on and the sclera or the “whites of the eye” will be prominent. 

Just like humans, dogs smile. It’s a relatively uncommon behavior referred to as submissive smiling. If you have not seen a dog smile, you may be alarmed. Don’t worry, smiling is a peaceful, submissive and harmless gesture not to be confused with teeth bearing. A dog bearing its teeth is a warning behavior that is typically accompanied by a hard stare, growling or snarling. A dog may bear its teeth when  afraid, territorial, food/object aggressive or in pain. .

Raised hackles is the proper term for when the hair on a dog’s back stands up straight. It is an automatic and involuntary response to a specific stimulus that causes emotional arousal. It can signify aggression, discomfort or curiosity. 

The following video depicts Emma and Popo having an argument over a toy. They are giving each other the whale eye. Emma is lip licking, bearing her teeth and wagging her tail rapidly. They are both growling. 


There are a couple common behaviors that dogs may display in response to a stressful or anxiety-provoking situation. Lip licking is a sign of discomfort and anxiety. Of course, I wouldn’t consider this concerning if you notice your dog doing this after eating a Kong filled with peanut butter. Other behaviors include: yawning, panting, hiding, and shaking. The reason behind yawning in dogs is still not completely understood but it is thought to be a coping mechanism in response to stress. Shaking, panting and hiding are signs of fear. These behaviors are usually witnessed when a dog is feeling afraid and vulnerable, such as in response to loud sounds, when interacting with new people, experiencing new environments or visiting the veterinary clinic. 

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