Canine Body Language


Photo by Photo Lab Pet Photography |

Because dogs don't speak our language, the only way to truly comprehend and communicate with them is for us to understand and appreciate what they are telling us through their body and vocal language. Often, gestures or actions that we assume mean one thing are actually the dog telling us the exact opposite, and determining what that wagging tail or exposed tummy really means can sometimes be the difference between a belly rub and a bite.

Dogs communicate using a complex language of body signals that reflect what they are thinking and feeling. They use these signals consciously and unconsciously to communicate intent and ensure their personal safety by affecting behavior in others.

Appeasement & Displacement

A dog might try to appease another by actively seeking attention via one or more of the following behaviors:

  • muzzle and/or ear licking
  • jumping up
  • lowering and curving the body
  • blinking
  • clacking or exposing the teeth “(“smiling”)
  • lip licking
  • lowering the head and ears
  • play bowing

Although much appeasement consists of this active body language, passive submission such as cowering and body freezing seems to be done in response to escalating fear in the presence of a perceived threat. A socially experienced dog receiving these signals will tolerate this language of appeasement and reciprocate with appropriate signals; other less experienced dogs might take advantage of this deference and attempt to control or aggress.

In addition to appeasement, dogs also commonly use displacement signals to avoid confrontation. These body signals are used to provide a distraction – a way of covering up what the dog is actually feeling. Yawning, sniffing, scratching, sneezing, and licking are all active behaviors that keep the dog calm and provide a distraction to refocus the attention of others away from him.

Common Body Language
Any signal that is demonstrated by a particular part of the dog’s body must always be read in the context of whatever other body or vocal language the dog is communicating. Similar signals have different meanings in different situations, so the position of the body and other vocal signals will help you understand a dog’s intent and emotional state.

Stress/Discomfort/Nervousness Language
When dogs are stressed and nervous they exhibit many different kinds of behavior that either help relieve the stress they are feeling or appease a perceived threat. While dogs like humans, yawn when they are tired, they are also much more likely to yawn when they are nervous. Lip licking does not always mean a dog is hungry or has just eaten either, but is a very clear stress signal that is performed when a dog is nervous or experiencing fear.

  • Yawning can be a sign that a dog is tired, but it also signals stress
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking. Dogs lick their lips when nervous
  • Brief body freezing – the dog is still for a few seconds before reacting
  • Body freezing – the dog freezes until the threat goes away or he decides to use fight or flight
  • 'Whale Eye' – the dog turns his head away but keeps looking at the perceived threat, showing the whites of his eyes
  • Head turn – the dog will turn his head away from a fear source as a gesture of appeasement
  • Furrowed brow, curved eyebrows – caused by facial tension
  • Tense jaw – the mouth is closed, and the dog is preparing for action
  • Hugging – a dog will gain comfort by holding onto his owner
  • Low tail carriage – indicates discomfort and uncertainty
  • Curved tongue – the tongue is curved at the edges from tension
  • Raspy, dry-sounding panting –   nervousness reduces saliva production
  • Twitching whiskers – caused by facial tension
  • Shaking – caused by adrenaline release
  • Drooling – stress can also cause excessive salivation
  • Lack of focus – an anxious dog finds learning difficult
  • Sweaty paws – dogs sweat through their foot pads
  • Piloerection – the hair on a dog’s neck and spine stands on end (like human goose bumps), making the dog appear bigger while releasing odor from the glands contained in the dog’s hair follicles

Appeasement/Deference Language
Deference language is designed to appease a perceived threat, avoid injury and is crucial for survival. If the dog engages in non-threatening behavior this helps deescalate the negative intentions of another animal or human. Most appeasement behavior is extremely submissive with the dog lowering the body, making it appear smaller and less threatening. Socially appropriate dogs will respond positively to this deference while others often take advantage of what they perceive as weakness.

  • Head bobbing or lowering
  • Head turning
  • Averting eyes
  • Lip licking
  • Low tail carriage
  • Tail tucked between the legs
  • Curved and lowered body
  • Stomach flip – the dog flips over quickly, exposing his stomach; he is not asking for a belly rub, but signaling that he is withdrawing from interaction

Curious/Anticipatory Language
Dogs are naturally curious animals and the more confident they are, the more they can deal with novelty and change. All dogs will size up any situation to ensure safety using the following language:

  • Head cocked to one side or the other
  • Front paw lifted - anticipating what will happen and what the dog should do next
  • Mouth closed - sizing up the situation in preparation for action

Displacement Language
Displacement language helps the dog to self-calm and refocus attention away from them and onto something else. If a perceived or actual threat approaches and the dog is nervous or uncomfortable she will often indulge in behaviors that take the threat’s focus away from what could be a negative intention. The threat’s attention is diverted onto the behavior the dog is doing, like sniffing the ground or scratching and not actually the dog herself. These behaviors are often performed when the dog needs an outlet for their pent up energy or frustration, but can become compulsive if the outlets are not given. Displacement behaviors can result in compulsive behaviors including excessive spinning or licking.

  • Sneezing
  • Shaking
  • Sniffing
  • Nose licking
  • Yawning
  • Spinning
  • Pacing
  • Chattering teeth
  • Shake off - dog will release stress and tension by shaking their bodies as if trying to get water off their backs.

Defensive and Offensive Language
When a dog has to defend herself from an actual or perceived threat she will demonstrate defensive or offensive language in order to keep herself safe. This language manifests itself in behaviors that encourage a threat to keep their distance. If the threat does not back away and the dog has nowhere to go, defensive behavior will turn offensive and the dog will bite.   These behaviors are usually easy to recognize and understand.

  • Body leaning forward
  • Tense mouth
  • Lips pushed forward and vibrating as the dog growls
  • Air snapping - the dog snaps in the air to warn something to back away
  • Snapping with skin contact - also a warning to back away
  • Fast nip – an immediate bite and release with bruising or slight wound, telling a threat to back off
  • Deeper bite – a dog that bites with more intensity is intending to harm
  • Bite and hold - intent to harm
  • Bite, hold, and shake – intent to harm and potentially to kill. Some dogs will bite, hold, shake, and disembowel stuffed toys, simulating the killing of prey; while this is prevalent among dogs with high prey drive, even dogs with low drive can indulge in behavior of this type. If your dog likes to disembowel stuffed toys, this doesn’t mean he wants to do the same with people or other animals. Sadie loves to disembowel toys, but she is incredibly gentle with people, especially children.
  • Wagging tail – again, a wagging tail does not always mean a happy dog
  • Hard, staring eyes

Relaxed Language
There is nothing better than being with a happy dog. The body is fluid and relaxed, the mouth is slightly open with tongue hanging to the side and all the signals a dog gives off communicate joy, confidence and a desire to invite play and attention.

  • Mouth slightly open, tongue relaxed and lolling to one side.
  • Small body freezes during play.
  • Play bow – this signal invites play and tells others that whatever action comes next is still just play.
  • Turning over, inviting belly rub – showing trust and enjoying social contact.
  • Relaxed facial expression.
  • Squinty or blinking eyes.
  • Tail wagging fast, either side to side or in a round motion like a helicopter.
  • Wiggling backside.

What does a wagging tail mean?
Tail wagging is a frequently misinterpreted signal. Most people believe that a wagging tail only means a dog is happy, which of course is often true, but some dogs also wag their tails when aroused, overstimulated and frustrated. You can usually tell the difference by looking at what the rest of the body is doing:

  • A confident or aroused dog will hold his tail in the air, allowing scent from the anal glands to circulate more freely and advertise his presence.
  • A dog that is wagging his tail but barking with a defensive body posture, tense face, and hard staring eyes is overly aroused and frustrated, which means that he should not be approached.
  • A tail that is held low or between the legs signals a lack of confidence, nervousness, or fear
  • A tail that is held high but wagged more slowly means that the dog is assessing a situation.
  • A tail that is extended and curved means that the dog is tense and ready to take offensive or defensive action.
  • A tail that wags around and around like a helicopter and is accompanied by relaxed fluid body movement and a wiggling bottom signals friendliness and a willingness to engage.
  • Research has shown that when a dog sees someone they like, his tail wags more to the right. When he sees an unfamiliar person, his tail wags more to the left. Subtle body language like this is easy to miss.

The tail is important for both balance and signaling, which is why the practice of tail docking, or partial removal of a dog’s tail, is so harmful. Because the tail is a prime indicator of mood, dogs with docked tails are unable to communicate properly using that part of their body, which means that other dogs and people miss vital signals.


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23 thoughts on “Canine Body Language

  1. Gayle Woods Huff

    Ha our dog is a master communicator! Yesterday we went to the dog park in the morning, left disappointed since no one was there. We went again in the evening, tons of dogs, much much fun. This morning I was going to take him to the park again. I called him to jump up in the car but he resolutely stood on the sidewalk looking at me like, no thanks and turned toward our walking route. I said do you want to go for a walk? He looked right at me and did his answer bark and wagged his stubby little tail. No problem communicating at all!

  2. mary

    my neighbors dog howls and screams and wriths. What the heck. Neighbor says she doesn't like big dogs. he does this when the husband comes home. he does it in most situations. What does this mean.

  3. Carl Grandpopstobe Hickman

    He or she is probably sulking because you have finished playing yet wants to carry on

  4. A Better Dog

    Just because your dog is looking at you from the corner of his eye, which is whale-eye like, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is being displayed due to stress. Always take into account the context of the situation and environment at that moment in time, as well as other body language signals... such as the set of the ears, tail, mouth, if his body is stiff or relaxed, etc. etc.

  5. Laura Rakestraw

    Depends. The whites of the eyes showing could mean they are uncomfortable, but it also could just be the dog moving their eyes to look at something without moving their head. Usually whale eye is used to avoid appearing confrontational, and in context does not look like watching. If it's hard to tell from just the eyes, look at his body as a whole. A loose, floppy dog is relaxed/playful, and offering his belly as a sign of trust in his play partner, while a nervous/uncomfortable dog appears more stiff throughout their body and face, and is probably getting a little overwhelmed with the intensity of play. Well matched dogs will often take turns being on top and bottom while wrestling, whereas mismatched play partners will often have one dog frequently on the ground with the other over them but rarely the opposite.

  6. Jill Strachan

    i have a wonderful wolfie cross who comes up and cuddles on the bed (lies over me and goes to sleep!). It is very calming for me, it is his choice as he asks first. I notice that he licks and chews - like a horse does when they are comfortable ( i train horses). I assumed it was the same response as he is very relaxed. Am i reading him correctly?

  7. Lisa McClelland

    Went on a home visit with my 8 week old male foster pup. He is about 4 pound yorki mix. Met a adult fixed male boxer mix around 2 yrs old and a female fixed maltese 8yrs old and fixed. The two adult dogs were overly excited being pushy with me and the puppy. Would not stop licking, sniffing, jumping on, barking at, and pawing at puppy. I was at their home, pup was on my lap. Took one dog out away so could do one dog at a time. I could not put the puppy on the floor the dogs were so rude and pushy with him. Pup was scared not curious. This happened with dogs separate, and if they were together they were worse behaved. I left after 1/2 hour because they were escalating instead of calming down. What do you think of this behavior? I feel concerned for pups safety and he was very afraid. The people are insisting the pup will be fine.

  8. Hannah

    You have to protect your dog! If the other dogs are ill mannered - keep your pup away! Not worth giving him a bad experience at such a young age. The other dogs need to learn to respect your space and back off when told. There was probably a fair amount of transference going on on your part also. You probably were apprehensive about the situation as well, as the other dogs were not under effective control and without intentionally doing so your pup will have picked up on you being anxious around the other dogs. They can smell your body chemistry and are expert readers of body language. This can make him anxious and stressed around other dogs in future encounters. Bottom line is you MUST protect your dog! If he doesn't feel like you will stand up for him, he will learn to stand up for himself, which is obviously something you don't want to happen 🙂

  9. terri

    My son in-laws dog Standsprotectively by him if their two year old granddaughter approaches him the dog just licks her in the face is this any kind of a warning sign

  10. wowmyfingershurt

    Hi all. OH and I recently rescued a puppy out of basically an emergency situation we've had to bring him here immediately.
    Now for the most part its fine but our older dog occasionally flicks his head like he has something stuck in his teeth.
    Any idea what this means and if we can make this situation easier on him?

  11. sam

    just wondering if anyone else has this I have a 4 1/2 year old staffy cross she is lovely with kids and people very submissive and most dogs now the dogs she doesn't get on with are dogs that are very excited or pushy she wants to say hello so she goes over slowly and her body is low and curved ears and head sown but as soon as the other dogs goes to sniff he tells them off not attacking but bearing teeth and lunging but doesn't make contact then lays down again just wondered if this is because they are to excited and she is telling them to be calm once they are calm she is fine until the other dog bounds or has a burst of energy at her.

  12. Lauren Covarrubias

    Yes your dog is only correcting the excited dogs behaviour she is not intending to harm them she is just saying "you're too excited,you need to calm down" I work at a doggie day care and I have studied animal behaviour for 4 years this is usually the case with some dogs that I care for I insure all my dogs are calm during introduction to reduce tension in my pack because sometimes I could be caring for up to 25 dogs at a time but the owner of the other dog should make their dog calm first before introducing them to another dog it's a bit intimidating to a dog when they're being calm and trying to say hi well the other dog is jumping all over them even more so if one of the dog is nervous and the crazy dog is jumping all around them and getting in their face.

  13. Lauren Covarrubias

    If the dog is just licking her face or especially the lips that is not the dog being protective that is the dog being submissive (the lower ranking in the pack) dogs lick each other's muzzles and mouths this is prodominantly submissive/ playful behaviour. If the dog was being protective over your son in law the dog would stand infront of him intensely stare at everyone and if anyone started getting close growled at them for a warning and then if they ignored the growling warning and continued coming closer then the dog would take a defensive stance (head, ears and tail held high, frantically lift body up and down while barking, growling and showing teeth in a smiling position)

  14. Astrid Jordan

    My elderly bitch has been through a hard time physically and is on the mend, but lately she displays some unknown behaviour. She open her mouth and closes it with a snap repeatedly. When she opens it she looks like she's going to pant. She sometimes will follow this by licking her front paw a couple of times. Someone told me she feels nauseous when that happens which would tie in with her recent digestive problems but as they have been going on for much longer and are actually getting better, I'm not not so sure if that's true. Any ideas?

  15. Brian O'Rear

    My daughter and I went to visit the local animal shelter. The dog she was attracted to did not put his nose through the fence like the rest who wanted attention. He is older about 4 yrs old (older compared to most of the other dogs there). He repeatedly rubbed his body against the fence first one side, then the other. He wouldn't look at us, but did allow us to pet his back through the fence..... I was confused by this body language. Any suggestions?

  16. Emily Case

    Can anyone help. When i tell my dog off for doing something wrong she shakes her bum at me. Just woundring what it means
    Many thanks

  17. Crewlaw

    My two yr old female Dutch Shepherd sometimes comes from behind me when I'm standing and stands or sits between my legs, facing the same direction as me. My wife says it's dominance, but she does it at times when she has no reason to want to dominate. I'll be standing in the driveway with a cup of coffee looking at the view, and she just comes about halfway through and stands and looks out where I'm looking. Not a problem behavior, just curious, as I've not seen this behavior with previous dogs.(mostly German Shepherds)

  18. Positively

    Hi Dexter, context is everything. Do check our website ( and enter "canine body language" in the search field. Happy reading! The Team at Positively

  19. Positively

    Hi Tracy,
    I recommend a consultation with a qualified trainer to give you some tips on how to manage or change this behavior. It is impossible to give you good advice without seeing your pup's behavior, I'm afraid.
    For immediate help, I recommend that you visit our website and plug in your zip code or city to see if there is a VSPDT local to you. If there isn't, there is always the option of doing a phone consultation with one of them.
    Here is the link to search for a VSPDT:
    Here is the link to request a phone consultation:
    Either way, you should be able to get some very much-needed help.
    The Team at Positively

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