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Dog Body Language: What is Your Dog Trying to Tell You?

Dog Body Language: What is Your Dog Trying to Tell You?

Have you ever wished that your dog could just tell you what she wanted? This primer on dog body language can help you and your dog communicate without words.

I have been taking my nervous dog — Jenna — to dog training class practically since the day we adopted her two years ago. Training has done wonders for her anxiety, and it’s helped us bond in a way that I don’t think we would have without our weekly classes. One of the most eye-opening moments in training happened maybe a year ago. The trainer asked us to run through our usual comments, but without the words. No sit. No stay. No come. Just hand signals and eye contact.

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I’d never tried communicating wordlessly with Jenna before and was amazed that she did every single command without me saying a word.

Verbal commands are still important, of course. If your dog isn’t looking at you, you need her to respond to her name and commands, so that you can get her attention. And humans are verbal creatures, so I think that it helps us, too. The point here, though, is that your dog is reading your body language, and she is trying to communicate with her own non-verbal signals.

Related Reading: 8 Good Reasons to Leash Your Dog

Take a look at the picture at the very top of this page. That photo is from the day that Jenna came home with us. See how she is sitting? Eyes straight ahead, and ears back? That dog body language is not saying that she’s calmly waiting to be petted. She is terrified. Jenna shuts down when she is nervous, but if she had aggressive tendencies someone trying to pet her in this situation would be in danger of being bitten.

Dog Body Language

That lolling tongue and ears nice and relaxed? You are looking at happy dog body language! I'm pretty sure Jenna is making eyes at the neighbor's dog in this photo.

What Dog Body Language is Saying

Just as some words can mean different things in different context, dog body language can mean different things from your dog. Some signals are very clear while others might require you to get a feel for how your dog communicates. I learned most of the signals below through our years in training class and some just from bonding and communicating with Jenna.

  • Wide eyes – Your dog is afraid or uncomfortable, and you should get her out of that situation as soon as possible.
  • Ears pulled back – This is a sign of nervousness.
  • Bristled fur – Most folks are familiar with this sign of aggression.
  • Yawning – This dog body language can mean that your dog is tired, but it can also signal that she is overwhelmed or anxious. Consider the situation when deciding what your dog’s yawn means.
  • Rolling onto her back – She may be asking for belly rubs because she’s feeling playful, or she could be nervous and looking for comfort. In general, if she’s more stiff, she’s more likely to be nervous than happy. EDIT: My friend Allison, who is also a professional dog trainer mentioned that she has seen agressive dogs get on their backs and play submissive, then bite when you approach. Such a great reminder that dog body language depends on temperament. If you don’t know the dog well, it’s always best to be cautious and take your cues from the owner.
  • Wagging tail – A tail that wags freely means your dog is happy, but if her tail looks stiff when she’s wagging it, she’s feeling nervous.
Dog Behavior Jenna

Another early photo of Jenna. See how she refuses to look at me and that raised front paw? She's nervous and needs a little bit of space.

  • Raising one front paw – Your pup is telling you that she’s feeling uncertain. Jenna does this when she needs more time in the backyard to go potty, too.
  • Eye contact – In many cases eye contact is aggressive dog body language. If your dog is in a new or strange situation, though, she will often look to her owner — the alpha “dog” — for how to react.
  • Bared teeth – Paired with other signs of nervousness, a dog showing her teeth is acting aggressively. Jenna also shows her teeth when she is hot or happy though. You can tell the difference because the rest of her signals are relaxed.
  • Lack of eye contact – If a dog refuses to look at something, chances are it’s frightening her. It’s pretty easy to tell when a dog is just scoping out the scene versus pointedly trying not to look at something. As you get to know dog body language, you’ll be able to tell the difference.
  • Sitting – If you didn’t ask your dog to sit, and she sits down in a hurry, she may be nervous, especially if she freezes and shows other nervous signs, like staring straight ahead or lifting a paw.
  • Shaking – Is your dog cold? If not, she’s probably scared. Whenever there is a thunderstorm or there are fireworks, Jenna quivers visibly.

I would love to hear from the other dog owners out there! What signals does your dog send when she’s happy, nervous, or aggressive?


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Becky Striepe

Becky Striepe is a freelance writer and vegan crafter living in Atlanta, Georgia. Her life’s mission is to make green crafting and vegan food accessible to everyone! Like this article? You can follow Becky on Twitter or find her on Facebook!


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1:42PM PST on Nov 6, 2014

thanks for sharing :)

12:56AM PDT on Aug 4, 2014

Hmmm..........well Roger H. what about this story then. I wanted to sleep in and ignored my dog's irritating little noises she was making to be let out of the bedroom. After being ignored and frustrated, she straddled my body and took the covers around my neck into her mouth and backed all the way down until the covers were pulled entirely off my feet at the bottom of the bed and then sat at the bedroom door again. She figured out that if she made me uncomfortable enough, I'd get out of bed and tend to her wants. Do you still think this is not a dog "planning" a course of action to get what it wants rather than "reacting" to a situation? If I'm sleeping there is nothing for the dog to "react" to.

8:47PM PDT on Aug 3, 2014

Terry, that's a lovely story. Thank you. However, charming as it is to believe it is an example of deviousness, I think not. I believe that you confuse correlation with causality here and that the dog has simply been smart enough to take advantage of a situation.

You may be right. I may be right. Unfortunately, so far we can't actually get inside our dog's minds to know - though with advances in brain mapping we may, before long, at least be able to decipher which areas of the brain are used in association with certain behaviours and that may give us more clues or even evidence of motivation.

For now, however, I must stay with my experience and I have not yet seen or heard of any behaviour that could not be explained without resource to attributing human attributes.

10:20AM PDT on Aug 3, 2014

Roger H. - dogs can indeed be devious and plan to deceive. I had a Pom/Chihuahua cross and a Samoyed lived with us. The Samoyed had a rawhide bone and wouldn't share it with my dog. So my dog promptly asked to go outside and when I went to the door to let her out, the Samoyed jumped up to go out as well. As soon as the Samoyed got to the door beside my dog in anticipation to be let out, my dog bolted for the abandoned bone left on the floor and of course, refused to let the Samoyed near it. She didn't want out at all, she had devised a way to get the other dog away from the rawhide bone. And - you say dogs possess any human devious traits? HAH!! lol

3:10AM PDT on May 31, 2014

Thanks, my dog is nervous, good to know some of these signs I didn't know.

7:47PM PDT on May 29, 2014

My Maltese Rigby runs in tight circles if he is excitedly saying YES. When he wants to comfort himself he sucks and chews the tail of a stuffed pig. We now have a huge garbage bag of the same stuffed pig minis the tail. Iam afraid of the day I can't get that pig anymore! He has to have it.

3:30PM PDT on May 25, 2014

continued from previous

I train with praise as reward, not food - which is a lazy way and will often backfire, which is not to say that I never give my dogs a treat but that although it can seem effective, it is not a good way to train.

I've probably already written too much. I'll close with my own pet paradigm for effective training: Patience, Persistence, Firmness, and Affection.

3:28PM PDT on May 25, 2014

cont. from previous
The importance of "association of ideas" with training is important to understand - too many owners have problems because they think the dog understands language and, as a result, all their commands have the same tone and volume and the dog can't differentiate them. Every command should be clearly different.

The second major failure with training occurs because the handler teaches the dog *not* to do what he or she commands! - How? Well this happens when the handler or trainer repeats the command several times without making sure the dog obeys it. i.e. "Rover, sit. Sit. Sit Rover. Sit ..." I'm sure that you've witnessed this many times and what is happening is that for each command that the dog doesn't carry out, it is learning that it needn't do what it is asked. The point is, never give a command unless you are able to ensure that the dog carries it out - even if that means you helping it - and only give the command once. This means that you should never try to work your dog off the lead until you are completely certain that it obeys every time when on the lead. It also means that you carry out training in small steps and when switching from on-leash training to off-leash training, you go back to the beginning and start with the simple things first, gradually increasing the level of difficulty and trust you place in your dog.

I love all animals and my dog is certainly the best friend I have and has helped me through many difficult times.

3:27PM PDT on May 25, 2014

cont. from previous:

I would suggest that what has probably happened in your friend's case was more likely to be a situation of the dog being caught unawares or otherwise startled whilst in what is a vulnerable position for it, thus causing it to react. I would completely reject the notion of an intentional ploy and strongly suggest that a big "NO" in relation to working with dogs, or indeed any animals, is to attribute human characteristics to them.

As far as following commands without words is concerned, that is not really about a dog reading our body language. Body language, as most of your points reflect, really refers, in both animals and humans to the subtle expressions, positions and movements we make. In training, the dog learns by "association of ideas", i.e. if you make a particular sound each time it sits (or is made to sit) and do so consistently each time the dog sits, then it will learn to sit when it hears that sound for it associates the action with the sound.

When a command is given to a dog, it will be accompanied (if the training is conducted appropriately) by a very clear hand/arm gesture or movement - not so much body language as a deliberate and clear action. This action should also be consistent and made slightly before the voice command is given. Again, if this is repeated each time the vocal command is given, the dog will learn to associate the gesture with the action, as well as the sound. At that point, the dog will respond to either

3:25PM PDT on May 25, 2014

Some good advice here, Becky. Thank you for posting it. I would offer a couple of cautionary comments, if I may:

An over-arching aspect to almost all (if not all) of these comments regarding the dog's body language is that they need to be taken in "context". That may seem self evident but my experience is that often it is the obvious that is missed. For instance: dogs will lay their ears back when they are content and relaxed, it is not necessarily a sign of nervousness. Understanding exactly what this behaviour means needs to be informed by other considerations - history, temperament, breeding, surroundings, people or other animals nearby, physical condition, noise, weather conditions, etc.

Raising a front paw certainly can be a sign of uncertainty but it is also a common trait of many dogs when they hear, smell or sense something that causes them to "attend". It is very common with dogs bred as shepherds (ie. flock guards as opposed to sheep dogs that, paradoxically, are those bred for herding).

A dog rolling onto its back can be either a gesture of submission or a gesture of relaxation and enjoyment. I am surprised by your friend's comment suggesting that a dog will do this deliberately as some sort of "trap" to disguise intent to menace. In around 50 years of working and training dogs and training dogs and their owners or handlers, including police dogs trained to attack on command, I have never known a dog to adopt the deviousness of a human being. I wou

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