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  • Writer's pictureVickie Foster

What Is Your Dog’s Body Language Telling You?

Canines have a secret language that is a guide to their moods and behaviors. Once you know how to decipher it you have an insight into their world. This code can be found in their body language, communications that are different from how humans communicate. Learn what your dog’s body language means with our tips below:

1. Tail Wagging

People associate a dog’s little wagging tail with happiness. This is a common misinterpretation. A wagging tail means the dog is emotionally aroused. It could mean the dog is excited or frustrated or worse. Look at the tail’s speed, direction and position to read the dog's emotions.

The speed of the wag is a clue to mood and intentions. The faster the wag, the more aroused the dog. Have you seen those long, slow side-to-side wags your dog uses when greeting you? You know the kind of movement that wags the dog’s whole body? This is a sign of a relaxed dog. On the other hand, a guard dog’s quick twitch like wag indicates high arousal, possibly in a negative way.

The direction of a tail wag has meaning, too. A study showed that a dog wags its tail to the right when it is feeling positive. Conversely, a dog wags its tail to the left when it is facing something negative. Then there’s the helicopter tail when it spins in circles. That is a positive, happy dog.

The position of the tail holds clues also. The higher the tail, the more assertive the dog. Dogs with their tail closer to the ground or tucked between their legs are stressed. A tail held up like a flag means the dog is confident and possibly aggressive. A neutral tail position means the dog is relaxed. Neutral positions though, can depend on the breed. Some dogs have tails that curl when they are in a neutral position. Other dogs like a greyhound hold their tails lower when in a neutral position. If you learn your dog’s neutral tail position, you can better judge their moods.

2. Raised Hackles

A dog will raise its hackles by fluffing up the hair along the shoulders, down the back and all the way down to the tail. It’s called piloerection and it is an involuntary response like goosebumps in humans. It is a sign of arousal and stress. The dog could also be excited or intensely interested.

3. Posture

A dog’s posture can tell you a lot about its mood and intention. A cowering dog or a dog on its back means submission and “I mean no harm”. It is a sign of stress and anxiety, unless it is used by a relaxed dog to solicit a belly rub.

A dog that is standing with its weight shifting forward shows interest. It is trying to get closer to something. However if it is done with an upright, flagged tail it can mean aggression. The dog is trying to appear bigger.

The easiest body posture to recognize is the play bow. A dog trying to solicit play will often bow with its chest toward the ground and its rump in the air.

And lastly, in dogs that are not pointers, offering their paw may be a sign that the dog is feeling insecure.

4. Facial Expression

Dogs have many of the same facial expressions as people. Dogs however use them for different meanings. For instance when a dog yawns he’s not bored but stressed. He can “catch” a yawn like humans though. Try yawning at your dog in stressful situations like a vet visit. It may help him relieve stress and he will yawn back.

Lip licking is a sign that a dog is anxious. He can flick his tongue out so fast that it might not be noticeable. A lip licking dog is uncomfortable with the situation.

Another facial expression in a dog is a smile or bearing its teeth. This is saying aggressively “ look at my weapons”. This is particularly menacing when accompanied with a growl. A slight grin with a wiggly, wagging body means just the opposite. This is a submissive grin and is saying “I mean no harm”.

5. Eyes

Eye contact is an important signal for dogs. A hard stare is a lead up to aggression. A dog that will not look straight at you or has a “whale eye” with the whites of its eyes showing is anxious or stressed.

Learning your dog’s communications both verbal and body language actions can lead to a greater bond of trust and respect. Your dog is always talking to you in some way. Deciphering its language will help you learn its moods and possibly help before problems start.



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A dedicated organization that provides service dogs to veterans and first responders living with PTSD at no cost to the recipient. In addition, the New Life K9s prison rehabilitation program educates and trains incarcerated men to become dog handlers and puppy raisers for potential service dogs entering the program. If you wish to learn more about our mission and ways to help visit

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