While dogs also communicate with barks, whines, and growls, the best way for you to understand your dog is to look at their body language. Did you know a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog? Or that licking and yawning can be signs of stress? Here are some tips on reading your dog’s body language to keep both you and your pup safe and happy.
Want another way to communicate with your dog? Teach them to speak with buttons!
A wagging tail indicates that your dog is emotionally aroused. While that can mean they’re happy and excited in a good way, it can also mean your dog is frustrated or showing aggression. How can you tell the difference?
- Look at the speed of the tail. The faster the wag, the more aroused the dog, so a slow wag is a relaxed, happy dog, while a twitchy, quick wag is a hyper-aroused dog, like a guard dog on high alert.
- Check the direction. One study showed that dogs tend to wag their tails more to the left when facing something negative and more to the right when they feel positive about something. When a dog spins their tail in a circle like a helicopter, that indicates they’re very happy.
- Notice the tail’s position. The higher the tail, the more assertive the dog. Relaxed dogs keep their tails in a neutral position (although neutral varies by breed), while scared dogs tuck their tails between their legs, and dogs with their tails held straight up are confident, potentially to the point of being aggressive.
Eye contact is crucial for dogs, and people may misinterpret what their dog is actually feeling. Here is what common eye expressions represent:
- Soft eyes have relaxed lids as if the dog is squinting, and they show that a dog is happy or calm.
- Hard eyes are rounder and may look like a cold stare. A dog with hard eyes often signals a threat, especially if they are accompanied by other body language that indicates aggression.
- Whale eye is when a dog shows the whites of their eyes, and it means they are stressed or anxious.
Even though dogs have some similar facial expressions as people, they don’t mean the same thing. For example, while a dog may yawn if they are sleepy or have seen you yawn, yawning can also indicate stress, so it’s important to consider the context if you see your dog yawning.
Another example is lip-licking, which is a sign that your pup is feeling anxious.
One dog posture most people are familiar with is the play bow, when a dog puts their weight on their chest and sticks their butt in the air. Like the name suggests, dogs use this to initiate play.
A cowering dog who is hunched toward the ground is showing fear or stress. It’s used to indicate “I mean no harm,” and may even include a dog rolling over to expose their belly. That doesn’t necessarily mean your dog wants a belly rub - it’s a sign of anxiety and stress and may even be accompanied by some urination.
Opposite of that is a dog who has their weight shifted forward, trying to get closer to something. They may just want to sniff an interesting smell, but it may indicate aggression, especially when it’s used with other body cues such as a twitching tail held high.
When the hair on a dog’s back stands up, it indicates that the dog is aroused. While the dog may be feeling aggressive, they may also feel stressed or excited, so you need to check the dog’s other body language.
When you know what to look for in your dog’s body language, you can better understand them and have a better relationship. Make sure your kids understand your dog’s body language, too.
Just because the pup is yawning doesn’t necessarily mean they want a good cuddle right that moment. Understanding dog body language keeps everybody safer and your dog happier.