The Language of Dogs

It has been said that a dog will talk to those who know how to listen, and this is true.  A dog will tell you everything they intend to do with their body language.  Knowing what our dogs are trying to tell us allows us to have a better relationship with our dogs.  We get the opportunity to see the things that frighten or make our dogs anxious and help to change the emotions associated with that thing.  We get the chance to make our dogs’ lives better by knowing how to listen to them. 

Something that I always suggest for my students is to pay close attention to their dogs at home and learn their dog’s normal postures. If you know your dog’s normal body posture, then you will know very quickly when your dog is not comfortable and secure in its surroundings. 

The parts of your dog’s body that you need to learn to read are the eyes, ears, mouth, tail, and overall body posture.  When observing a dog’s body language, you must take it all into consideration, no one part of their body can tell you how your dog is feeling.  Just because a dog’s tail is wagging does not mean that the dog will not bite. 

Their eyes will tell you a lot about what your dog is feeling. Fear and excitement can cause a dog’s pupils to dilate and or become glassy.  Fear can also cause a dog’s eyes to open so widely that you can see the white of the eye all around the iris, we call this Whale Eye.  When nervous you may notice your dog’s eyebrows may be furrowed.  When a dog is nice and relaxed their eyes tend to take on an almond shape. 

Canine Body Language, Brenda Aloff

There are different kinds of ears and this makes it difficult sometimes to read them.  There are floppy ears that hang down against the side of your dog’s face and prick ears that stand up.  If your dog is actively engaged in listening to something you may notice the ears twitching.  This is something I have my students look for when saying their dog’s name. Often a fearful dog will have its ears held back and often to the side.  A dog that feels threatened or on alert will have its ears facing forward.

pinned back ears – Marley

A relaxed dog will often have a relaxed and loose mouth or sometimes open with a slight pant, but you won’t see any tension around your dog’s mouth.  If your dog is feeling fear or anxiety you may notice that the mouth tends to be tight in a long line across its face, you may also notice some lip licking.  Some dogs may pant heavily or drool when they are nervous or fearful.  A dog that is feeling threatened will have anywhere from a slight to a very pronounced raised lip, showing teeth. 

Lip licking – Marley

Tails are a lot like ears, they are hard to read.  Some dogs have tails that hang down nicely and are relaxed near their back legs. Some dogs have their tail held high but not straight up. It may wag slowly back and forth or wag so fast and hard it could clear a table of anything on it.  Some dog breeds tails are held high and curl over the dog’s back.  The one sign to watch out for is a dog with a loose tail that stands up straight like a flag pole, this is normally a sign that the dog is ready to go on the offensive.  A dog that is feeling fearful or anxious may tuck their tail between its back legs.  A low slow wag can be an indication of a dog that is feeling threatened. 

Raised, but relaxed tail of a Poodle – Kona

When a dog is emotionally balanced, they stand with their weight equally distributed among all 4 feet. There are times when our dogs feel threatened and that weight will shift in one of two ways.  If they are on the offensive their weight will rock forward as if they are standing on their tiptoes.  This is usually a dog that is going to make the first move in a scuffle.  A fearful or anxious dog will rock backward on their feet as if trying to lean as far back away from the thing they are scared of.  They may turn just their head away as if trying to act as if the thing isn’t really there if they can not see it.    A fearful dog may lower their body in a crouching stance, it may or may not lower its head as well. 

What Language do Dogs Speak
Small Cattle Dog – Leaned back on his hind feet while nervous of the other two. – Loki

One of the more common misconceptions about body language is the ridge of hair that runs down the center of your dog’s back.  Some people refer to it as the hackles, trainers refer to it as piloerection.  The old wife’s tale is that this means that your dog is aggressive.  However, this is actually an involuntary reaction.  Adrenaline causes the muscles to contract and the hair down the back straightens as this happens.  This again is something that can be different depending on your dog’s emotional state.  Some dogs get the hair from their neck to their tail standing up.  For some, it’s only halfway down the back, in others it’s a wide strip or a thin strip of hair.  This reaction can be from any emotional response that releases Adrenaline such as Fear, Anxiety, Excitement, or Confidence.  Your dog’s temperament is going to denote how he/she responds to that emotion. 

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Another very misunderstood way that our dogs commutate fear or anxiety with us is their growl.  A lot of pet parents think when their dog is growling, they need to get on to their dog to stop the growling. However, when a dog growls they are giving you a chance to help them out of a situation that is upsetting to them.  A dog’s growl is an early warning system, if you teach your dogs not to growl, we take away that warning to our dog’s emotional state. 

Once you are confident in how your dog responds to his or her emotions you and better communicate with your dog.  If you would like more information on how to read body language there are lots of free handouts and reading on the Sophia Yin Blog at

For more information, you can reach me at

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