Insights into Understanding Dog Body Language

By Joan Hunter Mayer

If you’ve ever wished that you and your dog spoke the same language, a great place to start is simply watching your pup and noting what you see. When observing various body language signals your dog displays, some key areas to watch are the head, eyes, ears, brow, muzzle/mouth/tongue, nose, legs, and tail. However – and this is also important — when observing your own dog or another dog at any given time, remember to look at the entire picture, not just one area.

The good news is, you probably spend a fair amount of time watching and observing dogs already; this is a wonderful thing to do! (Haven’t all of us gone down the rabbit hole of watching dog videos at some point?) It gives you insight into what a variety of emotions look like.

Here are some tips to further help you better understand what your dog is communicating.

The Relaxed Dog

You might observe the following in a relaxed dog:

  • General appearance: Possibly playing and having fun or just enjoying life; appears unworried. Body is loose and relaxed.
  • Ears: You might notice ears are in a neutral position.
  • Mouth: Mouth is open, and the tongue may be hanging out, draped, often to the side.
  • Eyes: Gaze is soft, looking around at nothing in particular.
  • Nose: Most likely taking in various odors from their surroundings, but not locked into any one thing in particular.
  • Tail: Tail is in a loose, neutral position, not rigid, flagged upward, or tucked. (Note: There are breed differences regarding tail carriage to consider.)

It’s a great idea to take a mental snapshot of what your dog looks and acts like when relaxed. Remember to maintain a big picture perspective to establish a baseline of your dog’s friendly demeanor and comfort level.

The Alert Dog

When your dog meets someone new, goes to a new place, sees or hears something completely different, his body language can help tell you what he could be thinking.

You might observe the following signs in a dog who is alert and assessing the situation:

  • General appearance: In this case, he may be leaning forward (as people often do when trying to make a judgment call about the safety of our surroundings).
  • Ears: Ears might be pointing forward, even moving independently, as if trying to pick up a sound.
  • Mouth/Face: Mouth might be closed, lips pursed, brow a bit tighter.
  • Eyes: Glancing around, checking the surroundings, scanning and locking into anything that may warrant further investigation.
  • Nose: Air sniffing, trying to take in more information.
  • Tail: Tail up but not necessarily bristled and maybe even moving side to side. That’s right! A wagging tail doesn’t always mean “happy.”
  • Front paw: A paw raise might indicate there is something that needs tending to.

Be aware of your dog’s surroundings and the possible effects they may have on his behavior. Anything new? Different? Something he might be afraid of? Something that interests him? For instance, if your dog is communicating there’s something that he might want to go after, you’ll be able to read his signals beforehand, interrupt, and ask for an alternate (incompatible) behavior before he takes off!

The Fearful or Anxious Dog

The more familiar you are with how Fido expresses himself, the better you’ll be able to help him alleviate fear and anxiety and remove him from situations that make him stressed or uncomfortable.

There are several telltale (telltail?!) signs that can help clue you in when your dog is aroused, scared or defensive. These may include:

  • General appearance: Hackles raised. Please note, raised hackles don’t necessarily mean the dog is being “aggressive.” Sometimes dogs’ hackles raise when they’re just happily excited, similar to when humans get goose bumps.
  • Body Position:  Body stiff, shifted forward slightly or lowered. Or, when confronting another animal or person, they may stiffen and straighten their body more, as if trying to get taller.
  • Ears: Ears either forward and upright or flattened back.
  • Mouth: Lips curled or pulled back, and perhaps showing teeth.
  • Brow: Often tense and furrowed.
  • Eyes: Staring at whatever is triggering arousal, whether that is another animal, a human, or something unfamiliar. 
  • Nose: Sniffing and taking in any and all odors that might provide additional information.
  • Tail: Tail either straight up and stiff in the air like a flag -more alert- or tucked under the legs -more concerned. (Again, know your dog/breed’s neutral tail carriage.)

If and when your dog shows any change from her baseline, relaxed appearance -recall that mental snapshot from before- try to determine and note what the trigger might be. You may want to do some pleasant association training to help your dog feel more relaxed around various stimuli. A force-free dog trainer can help you and your pup learn these skills.

Speak Dog Like a Pro

If you’d like to go even further into the world of canine communication, visit Remember, each dog is unique and different, so the more you get to know your own inquisitive canine, the better you’ll become at reading Fido’s emotional state – and the messages your pet is trying to communicate. Sometimes the expressions can be more subtle, but with keen observation and open curiosity, it won’t take you long to learn what your inquisitive canine is saying.

Which brings us to our number one tip for learning to speak dog-lish…always stay inquisitive.

The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!


Written by Joan the Dog Coach

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer who founded "The Inquisitive Canine." More information can be found at

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