5 Dog Body-Language Basics You Should Know About

Unfortunately, your pet can’t speak to you when he’s feeling scared, tired, angry, or even jealous. We have to rely on animals’ body language to tell us when there’s a change in behavior, feelings, or emotion. Aside from a snarl or growl, how can you determine the more subtle changes? Janet Graham, CPDT-KA, CTDI, and head trainer at “I Said Sit!” School for Dogs fills us in on what language basics to look for to get a clue as to how your dog is feeling.


Q. Aside from a tucked-under tail, how else can a dog tell you he’s feeling scared?

A. There are many body language signals a dog can exhibit when fearful such as cowering, flattened ears, brows furrowed, moving in slow motion, moving away, suddenly won’t eat, being hyper-vigilant (looking in many directions), raised hair on the back of the neck, licking lips when there is no food present, yawning when not tired and panting when not thirsty or hot. If you see these signs, he’s probably reacting to something in his environment.



Q. When does aggression come about?

A. Dogs will sometimes display aggressive behaviors when people don’t notice the body language signs of fear. If a dog is cowering and backed into a corner by a stranger with no escape, he might lunge toward that person cause them to step back. This allows the dog to feel safer now that it has created more space.


Q. What does it mean when a dog’s tail is straight, as opposed to curled under in fear/submission or up wagging?

A. When a dog’s tail is stiff, it is often on alert. If the tail is held high, the dog should be approached carefully. This dog is often over-stimulated and determining his next move. If held straight out, the dog is usually paying attention to something in it’s environment, but usually not feeling threatened.



Q. When a dog is showing signs of fear, how can you best comfort them?

A. It is not possible to reinforce an emotional state, such as fear. When a dog I am working with shows signs of fear, I will often remove them from the situation and reward them where they are feeling comfortable again.


Q. What are some little-known body language signs owners should look for in their pets that can tell them what’s going on with their dog?

A. One of the most common behavior that I see all the time in dogs but that I find many people do not know is the look away. This is where the dog will look away from something it is engaged with in an attempt to say, “please stop that now,” such as someone kissing them, or “I am not a threat,” such as when another dog is staring at them.


Photo: jisu lee on Unsplash

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Maureen Dempsey

Maureen Dempsey is a freelance writer living in New York with an ancient, 14-year-old chihuahua and a feisty, young dachshund.

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