How to Understand Your Dog’s Body Language

Most dog lovers have wished at one point or another that their dog could talk.  Imagine taking all the guesswork out of how your dog is feeling or what they’re thinking, and being able to know for sure.  While dogs can’t communicate verbally the way humans do, they do communicate in a variety of ways, both to humans and to other dogs.  Understanding your dog’s thoughts and feelings is as simple as understanding a dog’s body language, and then paying attention to the all-important signs that can quite clearly show how your dog is feeling.


Let’s go through a few common situations and look at how your dog uses body language to convey their thoughts and feelings.  If you’ve ever wondered what does your dog’s body language mean, read on to find out.


Body Language Around Other Dogs

Not only do dogs communicate with their human owners, but they also communicate with other dogs.  Learning your own dog’s body language could potentially save your dog from being involved in a nasty dispute with another dog at the dog park.  In fact, learning basic dog body language clues is one of the most important dog park dos and don’ts you need to know.


Dog Park Do’s and Don’ts You Need to Know


When two dogs are interacting, the first decision you need to make is whether it’s time for you to intervene or whether you can leave the dogs to their own devices.  The following body language signals from one or both dogs are clear warning signs that the situation is becoming stressful and conflict could soon occur:



  • Snapping or snarling
  • Bared teeth and/or tense facial muscles
  • Tongue flicking
  • Raised heckles
  • Tail raised high and not wagging
  • Ears forward or raised
  • Intense, unbroken staring.


If you observe one or more of the above body language signals, it’s time to intervene.  Doing so can be as simple as redirecting your dog’s attention in a confident, excited manner with your voice, or with a toy.


These body language tips will also come in handy if you decide to add a new dog – whether a puppy or an adult dog – to your family.  Your two dogs may take some time to become used to each other, and you can facilitate this process by learning what your dogs may be communicating with each other through their body language.  This is just one of our top 7 tips for blending furry families.


7 Tips for Blending Furry Families


Body Language Around Unwelcome Strangers

Dogs will often show clear signs of whether they want to be physically handled by strangers or not, yet people either remain oblivious to body language cues or simply choose to ignore them.



A dog who does not want to be petted by a stranger may, for example, duck their head away from the person’s hand, avoid eye contact, and show “whale eye”, which is where the whites of the eyes are visible to an unusual extent.  If the person pets the dog anyway, the dog may perform a brisk shake-off, as if to remove any trace of the stranger’s hand from their body. If the person is lucky, the dog won’t bite or snap at the unwanted affection.


Another example is if a dog is approached by a stranger while eating or while with a treasured item, such as a bone or favorite toy.  The approach of the stranger is likely to make the dog feel fearful and offensive. They are likely to display whale eye again, as described above.  In this instance, this will cause the dog to turn their head towards their food or other valuable item while keeping their eyes fixed on the stranger.  The dog may appear to freeze and stiffen, with legs braced and weight slightly forward. Of course, these physical body language cues may be accompanied with more obvious verbal warnings, such as a growl or snarl.


Such body language around unwelcome strangers could be displayed because the dog doesn’t wish to be approached at that time.  If you have a fearful or anxious dog, learning to read their body language signs can help you keep your dog out of situations that will cause them to feel stress.  Click here for other tips for working with fearful dogs


My Dog is Scared! – Tips for Working with Fearful Dogs


Body Language While Training

During a training session, it is usually pretty clear when a dog has learned a specific command.  Put simply, they go from being relatively clueless about what they’re being asked to do, to eventually being able to do the task asked of them.  But have you ever noticed how your dog’s body language changes when they have started to grasp what it is that is being asked of them?


Until recently, no one had really done any in-depth research into a dog’s body language while training.  A recent study in Japan, however, confirmed what a lot of dog trainers had anecdotally suspected: that a dog’s body language changes in the early stages of mastering a new command.


As extensive research discovered, when a dog has that first “Aha!” moment and comes to understand what is being asked of them, they will display typical dominant body language signs.  Most dogs find training sessions enjoyable and will begin with an open, relaxed mouth and a wagging tail. Once that same dog has begun to master a new task, however, the mouth usually becomes closed: a sure sign of focused attention.  At this stage, the dog’s ears typically rotate forward, and the eyes open slightly wider than normal. The dog’s tail tends to be held in a high position, not wagging, and perhaps displaying small side to side movements.


All of these body language signals are typically associated with dominance, but many trainers believe that, in the context of a training session, a dog who is starting to acquire new knowledge is not showing dominance in the way that it would over another dog, but dominance in the sense of being confident.  You could think of it as a dog displaying dominance over the tricky command they’re just starting to master.


At this point, the dog may also appear to be feeling pushy or impatient.  This has been put down to the dog wanting you to get on with the training so they can show their newfound knowledge, and perhaps earn some treats or praise in the process.



Understanding your dog’s body language is a sure-fire way of strengthening the bond you already share with your pet.  For most people, communication between a human and a dog is entirely one way. Imagine how frustrating it must be for a dog to know that the humans in their lives are basically clueless about how they’re feeling in any given situation.  Do yourself – and your dog – a favor by learning to read their most common body language signals.


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James Woller


James Woller is the co-owner of Jet Pet Resort and Release The Hounds, dog walking and boarding companies in Vancouver, Canada. He is also the International Executive Director for Thrive For Good, a non-profit initiative for sustainable farming in rural countries.

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