Read Your Dog's Body Language Like a Pro

A happy golden retriever staring at the camera
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Can you read your dog's body language? Do you know what is your dog trying to say? Knowing how to read your dog's body language is the key to understanding your dog. Because dogs are non-verbal, their body language does the talking for them. Vocalization takes second place to a dog's body language. By interpreting body language, you can assess your dog's attitude and predict her next move. You can determine whether she is at ease or uncomfortable with a given situation. 

After you learn these basic types of dog body language, spend some time observing dogs interacting with people and other animals in various situations. With some practice, you will begin to see the subtleties of canine body language. When two animals interact, their body language is almost like a conversation. It may even seem like a kind of dance. Much of the same can be seen between a human and a dog.

Once you understand your dog's body language, it can do more than simply help you communicate with your dog. Reading your dog's body language can help protect you and your dog from dangerous situations. Without a sound, your dog can tell you that she senses a threat. Also, when watching your dog interact with another dog, you can watch the body language to see when harmless play is turning into fighting between the dogs. Also, interpreting body language can also help with dog training and the identification of common behavior problems.

  • 01 of 08


    A chihuahua standing on the sidewalk showing confidence
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    The confident dog stands straight and tall with her head held high, ears perked up, and eyes bright. Her mouth may be slightly open but is relaxed. Her tail may sway gently, curl loosely or hang in a relaxed position. She is friendly, non-threatening and at ease with her surroundings.

  • 02 of 08


    A chocolate Labrador demonstrating happy body language
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    A happy dog will show the same signs as a confident dog. In addition, she will usually wag her tail and sometimes hold her mouth open more or even pant mildly. She appears even more friendly and content than the confident dog, with no signs of anxiety.

  • 03 of 08


    A dog demonstrating playful dog body language
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    A playful dog is happy and excited. Her ears are up, eyes are bright, and tail wags rapidly. She may jump and run around with glee. Often, a playful dog will exhibit the play bow: front legs stretched forward, head straight ahead, rear end up in the air and possibly wiggling. This is most certainly an invitation to play!

  • 04 of 08


    two dogs meeting, with one submissive dog body language
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    A submissive dog holds her head down, ears down flat and averts her eyes. Her tail is low and may sway slightly, but is not tucked. She may roll on her back and expose her belly. A submissive dog may also nuzzle or lick the other dog or person to further display passive intent. Sometimes, she will sniff the ground or otherwise divert her attention to show that she does not want to cause any trouble. A submissive dog is meek, gentle and non-threatening.

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  • 05 of 08


    A very anxious looking dog
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    The anxious dog may act somewhat submissive, but often holds her ears partially back and her neck stretched out. She stands in a very tense posture and sometimes shudders. Often, an anxious dog yawns and/or licks her lips. She may also whimper or moan. Her tail is low and may be tucked. She may show the whites of her eyes, something called whale eye. An anxious dog may overreact to stimulus and can become fearful or even aggressive. If you are familiar with the dog, you may try to divert her attention to something more pleasant. However, you must be cautious. Do not provoke her or try to soothe her.

  • 06 of 08


    A terrier demonstrating fearful body language
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    The fearful dog combines submissive and anxious attitudes with more extreme signals. She stands tense but is very low to the ground. Her ears are flat back, and her eyes are narrowed and averted. Her tail is between her legs, and she typically trembles. A fearful dog often whines or growls and might even bare her teeth in defense. She may even urinate or defecate. A fearful dog can turn aggressive quickly if she senses a threat. Do not try to reassure the anxious dog, but remove yourself from the situation calmly. If you are the owner, be confident and strong, but do not comfort or punish your dog. Try to move her to a less threatening, more familiar location.

  • 07 of 08


    A dog demonstrating dominant body language on a child
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    A dog showing dominance will try to assert herself over other dogs and sometimes people. She stands tall and confident and may lean a bit forward. Her eyes are wide, and she makes direct eye contact with the other dog or person. Her ears are up and alert, and the hair on her back may stand on edge. She may growl lowly. Her demeanor appears less friendly and possibly threatening. If the behavior is directed at a dog that submits, there is little concern. If the other dog also tries to be dominant, a fight may break out. A dog that directs dominant behavior towards people can pose a serious threat. Do not make eye contact and slowly try to leave. If your dog exhibits this behavior towards people, behavior modification is necessary.

  • 08 of 08


    A dog barking at stranger aggressive dog body language
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    An aggressive dog goes far beyond dominant. All feet are firmly planted on the ground in a territorial manner, and she may lunge forward. Her ears are pinned back, the head is straight ahead, and eyes are narrowed but piercing. Her tail is straight, held up high, and may even be wagging. She bares her teeth, snaps her jaw and growls or barks threateningly. The hairs on her back stand on edge. If you are near a dog showing these signs, it is very important to get away carefully. Do not run. Do not make eye contact with the dog. Do not show fear. Slowly back away to safety. If your own dog becomes aggressive, seek the assistance of a professional dog trainer to learn the proper way to correct the behavior. Note: dogs with aggressive behavior should never be used for breeding.