How To Decipher Dog Body Language

Sher Warkentin
June 19, 2017

Learn what it really means when your dog wags his tail.

What's in a wag? A lot, actually, according to Mikkel Becker, animal trainer at Vetstreet and Dr. Beth L. Strickler, veterinarian at Veterinary Behavior Solutions and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Dogs use their tails, as well as the rest of their bodies, to communicate how they're feeling. Learning to pay close attention to dog body language helps you understand your pup and any dogs you care for better and keep you both safe and happy.

Here are a few examples of some of the most common dog body language behaviors and what they mean:

Tails

The way a dog's tail wags can communicate many things. "One of the biggest misconceptions I hear is that a wagging tail is a happy one," says Becker. A wagging tail indicates a willingness to interact, but it can be a positive or a negative interaction.
 

  • Excited Tail
    If a dog's tail is high and wagging tightly, it indicates the dog is in a state of excitement and ready to react -- whether it's to chase a squirrel or another dog, or just to bark at someone passing. The higher and tighter the tail is, the more of an aggressive state the dog is in. If it's really high and tight, almost like a flag, it's a warning sign to give that dog some space.
     
  • Happy Tail
    A happy or relaxed tail is usually held at medium height and will wag in a loose or circular motion. Sometimes the dog's entire back end moves along with his tail.
  • Nervous Tail
    A nervous or anxious tail is often very low, or even tucked between the dogs back legs. This indicates the dog is feeling fearful or insecure. Treat the dog very gently and coax him calmly.

Ears, Eyes and Mouth
Dog body language extends beyond the tail. Pay close attention to your dog's ears, eyes and mouth to determine his mood. A dog will use his entire body to communicate and so it's also important to look for a combination of postures to really understand what your dog is expressing. As a general rule of thumb, the key thing to watch for is muscle tone, explains Becker. Recognizing when your dog's body is stiff and rigid, or when his muscle tone is loose and relaxed will help you understand what he's feeling.

  • Happy Dog
    When your dog is happy, his mouth may be open with his tongue hanging out in what can sometimes appear to be a smile. His pupils will be a normal size, showing the color of his eyes and his gaze will be relaxed. His ears will be soft. Typically he will have a relaxed posture without his weight shifting, while his tail wags loosely.
    Excited Dog
  • As your dog grows more stressed, his pupils might become dilated, giving the appearance of black eyes. He will likely be looking at you with his ears perked and forward. His face and neck will be tense and rigid. If a dog is becoming anxious or feeling defensive, he may snarl and show his teeth as a warning sign to back away. A dog who is assertive will typically have a stiff stance and may be leaning toward you. His tail will be high and stiff.
  • Scared Dog
    In addition to a low or tucked tail, a dog who is afraid or anxious will have his ears dropped back onto his head and his eyes may be darting around or averted away from you. If he is really nervous he may show the whites of his eyes. A nervous dog may keep his mouth closed with his lips pressed together or be panting excessively or licking his lips.

Remember, communication is complicated from dogs and can change depending on the response they receive. "It is a conversation and not just an announcement," says Dr. Strickler, "The dog will adjust his response based on what the person or other dog does in response."

For more on how to interact with a dog in an aggressive state, check out Dog Aggression: How To Get Your Pet To Play Nice.

Shahrzad Warkentin is a dog owner to an energetic rescue dog named Charlie. As a freelance writer she has had several years of experience covering pet care and health.

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