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Dog Body Language: Understanding Your Canine Companion

Posted September 8, 2015

Your dog is constantly communicating with you. Think of your pup as an open book—he or she is continually signaling their emotional state and intentions to you—you just need to know how to read them.

Although a dog may bark or growl, their primary communication with you and the world around them is through body language. Some physical displays are obvious to a dog’s human family, other displays are easily misinterpreted. For instance, you might automatically assume a dog is aggressive when they show their teeth—but look closer and you’ll see that their teeth are close together, their ears are pulled back along their head, their eyes are squinting, and their body is lowered and leaning away… the dog is actually showing submission.

Okay, let’s break down some common emotional states and the corresponding physical cues, so you can better understand your furry baby!

1. FRIENDLY AND APPROACHABLE:

Friendly dog body language

Body/ Stance: Loose. The weight is flat on the feet
Ears: Neutral position, can be up (but won’t be forward)
Tail: Up, out, neutral, possibly wagging
Head: High/ neutral
Eyes: Normal, neither larger nor smaller than normal
Mouth: slightly open with the tongue exposed

 
 

2. ALERT

canine body language - alert

Body/ Stance: Normal, possible forward lean. Standing tall, maybe on tip-toes
Ears: Forward, perked up toward sound
Tail: Horizontal (not bristled)
Head: High/neutral, forward
Eyes: Normal or slightly wider
Mouth: Closed (Sometimes slightly opened, but with teeth covered)

 
 
 
 
 

3. DOMINANT AGGRESSIVE

Canine body language - aggressive

Body/ Stance: Stiff, leaning forward
Ears: Forward, slightly spread to side to form wide “V”
Tail: Raised and bristled
Head: Forehead may show wrinkles, nose wrinkled
Eyes: Narrow, staring challengingly
Mouth: Lips curled with teeth and gums visible.

 
 
 
 
 

4. STRESSED OUT

dog body language stress

Body/ Stance: Body lowered
Ears: Pulled Back
Tail: Usually down
Head: Low
Eyes: Usually dilated
Mouth: May begin panting

 
 
 
 

5. PLAYFUL

Playful dog body language

Body/ Stance: Front end lowered (usually this stance is only held for a moment before breaking playfully away)
Ears: Usually up, or neutral
Tail: Up
Head: Neutral
Eyes: Dilated
Mouth: Open, tongue exposed

 
 
 
 
 

More Behavioral Cues

EYES
Eye Shape/ Characteristics Meaning
Larger than normal Fear, feeling threatened, feeling aggressive, alert
Smaller than normal Frightened, stressed
Squinting Sign of illness or pain, submissiveness
Direct eye contact Dogs do not look directly into each other’s eyes because that is a threat. If your dog is making eye contact with you, it may be playful, neutral, or pleasant, but watch body posture and tenseness of facial muscles. If the muscles in the face are tense, this indicates aggressiveness.
“Whale Eye” This is when a dog doesn’t look directly at you, but looks at you from the corner of his/her eyes, exposing the whites of their eyes. This usually occurs when the dog is exhibiting “guarding” behavior. An aggressive outburst is likely.
MOUTH
Mouth Shape/ Characteristics Meaning
Slightly opened, panting lightly, relaxed Happy, friendly
Slightly opened with teeth covered Alert, anxious, curious
Lips drawn back to expose teeth Fearful
Yawn in an exaggerated fashion Feeling uptight
Aggressive Pucker When the lips are forward over teeth and air is exhaled, so the lips look puffy. Meaning: Don’t come any closer
Lips open, drawn back to expose teeth in a snarl Aggressive
EARS
Ear Position/ Characteristics Meaning
Raised higher on head Happy, friendly
Up and Forward Aggressive, alert
Pulled back slightly Friendly
Completely flattened or stuck out to the sides of head Frightened, submissive
TAIL
Tail Position/ Characteristics Meaning
Natural position Relaxed
Wagging gently, or more forcefully in a circular pattern Happy
Held lower or tucked between legs Submissive or frightened
Held High Aroused
Held stiff and moved rigidly from side to side – like a “flag” Standing their ground, threatening

At NHV, we hope to bring health and wellness to your dog. And like all of us, a big part of your dog’s happiness is simply being understood. If you have any questions about your dog’s behavior, feel free to send us a picture or video—our NHV Pet Experts will do their best to help any way we can!

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