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.

Related Reading: Natural Remedies for Dog Anxiety

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?



Glennis Whitney
Glennis W2 years ago

When I was on the farm. the sheep dogs used to alert us if there were snakes around. Thank you for caring and sharing.

Glennis Whitney
Glennis W2 years ago

Beautiful dog. Prince used to follow my son everywhere when he was little,Lance and his little mate decided to go walk about one day and when I found them Prince was running around them yelping so they wouldn't fall in the Katherine River. Prince got heaps of pats and the kids had sore asses , they never ventured down there again. Thank you for caring and sharing.

Glennis Whitney
Glennis W2 years ago

Dogs can also sense a person who is not very nice. Thank you for caring and sharing.

Roger Hawcroft
Roger Hawcroft2 years ago

You can deal with this and should, for both your own peace of mind and the dog's. At the same time, try to focus your energy on providing positive experience for your dog & when "fearful" activities (for the dog) are happening, act as normally as you can for if you make a fuss it will just reinforce, in the dog's mind, that there is something to worry about.

As I've mentioned before in these columns, patience, persistence, firmness and affection are the keys to any successful training.

Roger Hawcroft
Roger Hawcroft2 years ago

* Where practicable, find out when fireworks are likely to be used and be prepared for those times - ask your local Council, Civic Authority or any institution that puts on thes displays if they would provide local residents with advance warnings of such events.
* At times when there are fireworks or noisy events nearby, have the radio or other music playing to lessen the effect of the fireworks and make their sound less distinct.
* Don't make a fuss when fireworks are frightening your dog - simply reassure it that everything is o.k. Be affectionate but not so intensely that you add to the dog's feeling that something is different
* Dogs are very sensitive to flashing and bright lights so ensure that when fireworks are happening you keep your curtains or blinds drawn or keep your dog in a space without windows.
* Your vet can prescribe medication to relax your dog so that it doesn't get as worked up at such times.
* If you have prior warning of fireworks then give your dog extra exercise on that day so that the animal works of excess energy.

To change the dog's worry about the fireworks or whatever has disturbed it you need to desensitise it. What this means is that you gradually introduce it to a similar but very much slighter experience of the same sort, When you do so you need to be sure that you have your dog under control (i.e. on a leash) and give soothing reassurance and praise when the dog is calm. Have them sit or go down and praise them for doing so. A

Roger Hawcroft
Roger Hawcroft2 years ago

The refusal or resistance to going outside, even to places with which that are familiar is another aspect of this response - the dog is associating the outside with whatever has caused the fright.

What can you do? A visit to your vet and discussion with them and/or an animal behaviorist would be useful. Your vet can provide medication that can settle your dog to lessen its distress and, through that, also make it more amenable to curative training. I would strongly advise expert advice in your situation, not least because it is extremely hard to identify exactly what the problem is without being able to see the dog & owner and witness behaviour directly.

However, there are things you can do in this situation to help:
* Give your dog its own relatively contained space in an area of the home which is preferably away from windows and least exposed to external noise and disturbance. If you don't have such a space then an indoor kennel could be an alternative. Whichever it is, provide a blanket and some of your dog's favourite & familiar toys and, if possible, something of your own which you don't mind sacrificing - an old pair of socks, jumper or some such. The dog will get comfort from having your smell close to it.
* Where practicable, find out when fireworks are likely to be used and be prepared for those times - ask your local Council, Civic Authority or any institution that puts on thes displays if they would provide local residents with advance warnings

Roger Hawcroft
Roger Hawcroft2 years ago

Audrey, your account suggests to me that your dog is suffering a fear phobia and from what you say, it is almost certainly one caused or exacerbated by the fireworks. It may well be that your dog has always been of a nervous disposition either as a character trait or, more likely, as a result of being removed from its mother prematurely or having suffered some "threatening" behaviour as a puppy. (I mean, threatening from the dog's point of view - it need not have been behaviour or an event *intended* to threaten.)

My advice now is that you need to take both preventative and curative action. You need to take preventative action to minimise the chance of increasing the phobia if there are fireworks or other loud or startling noises or events in the future and you need to take curative action to settle you dog and help them to accept that they will not actually suffer any harm as a result of whatever is upsetting them.

In threatening situations dogs will react, as do humans, with a fight/flight/freeze response. Your dog's incessant trotting is really an example of the flight response but, because the animal is contained it appears as aimless trotting back and forth. Curling up in a corner or narrow closed in space is a freeze response - the dog is trying to hide and seeks as dark and closely confined space as possible, as if trying to make itself invisible - just as you may do if an armed intruder came to your house and you couldn't get out. The refusal or resistanc

Audrey B.
Audrey B2 years ago

My dogs trots around the house, can't settle down more than a minute, she hangs her head down. My dog is afraid of everything thing and this is driving us crazy. We take her out on a leash as we did from day one. She does not run loose. She was never afraid before, and everyday she gets worse and worse. We take her to a park or walk her around the neighborhood she is fine, she knows where all the dogs live and she looks for them wagging her tail, we walk her 7 days a week at home, and weekends we venture out somewhere to socialize her in crowded places, she is 8 months old now. She is terrier & shepherd. There has not been anything traumatizing, one of us is with her day & night. She is not a destructive dog. She justs keeps hiding, and acting paranoid. Last night she sleeping in the bathroom, moving to several areas, later I found her in our walk-in closet. This started about 4 days ago just out of the blue.

We take her outside through the garage, we get out of the garage about 6 feet, and she stop abruptly, I try to drag her a bit then wind up carrying her to do her thing on the grass.

I just remembered this might have started Memorial Day that night some one set off some firecrackers across the street, she ran all over the house, and then hid behind the couch and during the night in our closet. No fireworks since. This is when the worse of her fright began, she is always frighten of different situations, but did not pace all day & night.

Does anyone

Roger Hawcroft
Roger Hawcroft2 years ago

Christine J.

Thanks for the vote of confidence.

A dog's yawning is generally a response to stress. It doesn't imply agression, nor does it imply submission. To other dogs it basically says - "look I'm quite happy here and don't have any antagonism or inclination to fight, o.k.?" - The reaction is basically a passive one.

Research has also shown that yawning is contagious, at least in as much as it tends to be passed from one person to another. If you have several people in a room and one starts to yawn, it is very likely that the others will, too. Similarly, dogs may respond to their owners yawns or to visitors, room rearrangements or other disturbances that cause them to feel stressed.

I have never known it to be a preliminary to aggression and can usually be curtailed by an alert owner who notices the signs and relates them to the context in which they present. The operative corrective action is simple reassurance and affectation, given in a gentle not rowdy, ruff and tumble sort of way.

Christine Jones
Christine J2 years ago

Useful info. here that could prevent some dog attacks.

I agree with Roger H. that the most likely cause of a dog biting after rolling over is not a devious subterfuge, but rather that he was surprised while in a vulnerable position.

The only behaviour listed here that I'm not sure about is yawning. I'm currently fostering a dog and he yawns quite a bit. He's certainly not anxious with me; in fact he's comfortably asleep on the rug next to me right now. Because he's a pound rescue, I can't prove it, but other behaviours of his make me believe that he's been both hit and kicked. Perhaps the yawning is a remnant of his past life?