Understanding Dog Body Language

How much do we really know about how dogs communicate?  Did you know, dog body language comes in many different forms?

It’s a common belief that a dog’s tail position tells us everything we need to know. The reality is dogs, much like other animals, mostly communicate via their body language. And it goes well beyond the positioning of their tail. 

They use a variety of communication signals that can provide us with information on how they are feeling.  Including noises like barking, whining, and growling. 

Understanding Dog Body Language PetWell dog smiling

Why is it Important to Understand how Dogs Communicate? 

As a dog owner, it’s important to have a strong bond with your dog, to understand how they are feeling. Are they anxious, happy, in pain, or fearful?  Importantly, by identifying their state of mind, we can provide them with the appropriate care.  In some cases, it can prevent attacks and conflict with other dogs and humans. And to really understand them we need to look at the combination of signals. 

Dogs use a variety of unusual body language cues to express their feelings and intentions. Below is a table that outlines some of the emotions and signals that relate to them. 

Dog Body Language Chart

Understanding Dog Body Language PetWell chart
Graphic references: ACS Distance Learning

Let’s take a deeper look at some of the dog’s communication methods.

Tail communication

Almost identical actions of the tail can have different meanings. Hence, it is important to take note of the dog’s overall posture and body language.

As a rule of thumb,
the higher the tail the more assertive.
A lower tail indicates a range of emotions

from relaxed to fearful.

Understanding Dog Body Language PetWell Tail chart

As a rule of thumb, the higher the tail the more assertive. The lower the tail, the more it indicates a range of emotions from relaxed to fearful if it’s all the way between its legs. 

The faster the tail is wagging, the more the dog is aroused with emotions.  This can range from aggressive to friendly based on where the tail is positioned.


Aggressive When a dog is focused on a situation, whether it’s aggressively defending, alert or dominant, it will stand tall, with its heckles up. 

Relaxed – relaxed, happy dogs will have a normal or relaxed posture with a possible wriggle of their back end. 

Fearful – fearful and submissive dogs will carry their heads and body low to the ground making themselves smaller.  Additionally, they may roll on their backs to expose their belly – a clear sign of surrender. 


Understanding Dog Body Language PetWell dogs eyes

A dog’s eyes are very expressive based on their emotions.  

When relaxed, their eyes look soft due to their eyelids dropping slightly, almost as if they are squinting.  This is a good indication that the dog is feeling safe, calm, and relaxed.

An aggressive dog has a focused, narrowed gaze with an intimidating, cold stare.

Unlike when in a state of anxiousness or stress when their eyes are wide open with the whites showing.


Understanding Dog Body Language PetWell dog barking

There are many ways in which dogs communicate via sound.  

Barking – Dogs bark for many reasons. Including to guard their territory, or are bored due to lack of exercise and interaction. Also, they can bark when scared, frustrated, want attention, or due to separation anxiety.  

Growling – For example, when a dog is feeling threatened or it wants to warn off potential intruders from their or other dogs, it will growl.  The more threatened they are, the louder the growl, and it’s often combined with loud barking. 

Whining and whimpering – If a dog is being submissive, feeling bored, lonely and/or suffering separation anxiety, they may whine and whimper.  Also, it’s a great technique used to seek attention. 

Dogs whine when they are experiencing pain.

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It should be noted that dogs whine when they are experiencing pain. If your dog is whining excessively, we highly recommend you take them for an examination with your vet. 


Understanding Dog Body Language PetWell aggressive dog

A dog’s mouth, lips, and teeth can signal various meanings. 

Mouth – For example, when the mouth is closed or slightly opened, it can indicate the dog is asserting dominance, is alert and focused, or is anxious if accompanied by panting. 

Friendly dogs tend to have a relaxed, slightly opened mouth, almost like a smile.  Mouth wide open means the dog is excited and in a playful mood.

Lip licking and panting – a dog who is stressed or suffering from anxiety.

Teeth – dogs who are feeling fear and aggression will pull their lips back to expose their teeth, generally accompanied by a growl.  

On the other hand, a playful, happy dog may pull its lips back slightly with its mouth wide open showing its teeth.


Understanding Dog Body Language PetWell dogs ears

It’s important to take into consideration that reading a dog’s emotion based on the ears is not always possible because of some breed’s unique characteristics. For example, breeds that have long floppy eras do not have the ability to stand straight up. Again, enforcing the importance in understanding their body luggage as a whole. 

When a dog is feeling aggressive, its ears will typically be up and forward.  However, it could also pull them back close to their head.   A dominant and guarding dog will hold their ears straight up and forward. As does a curious and excited dog.

Fearful and submissive dogs will have their ears pulled back to the head.  

In Summary

Remember, none of these dog body language signals act alone.

They come together as a whole. So, when interpreting a dog’s signals, pay attention to everything the dog does. From the height of its tail to the shape of its eyes, your dog is always “speaking” to you. You will establish a closer link of trust and respect if you can understand what your dog is saying. Additionally, the improved comprehension of your dog’s emotional state will aid in behaviour prediction and problem prevention.

Also, it’s crucial to have regular wellness checks for your dog with the Vet.  Some of the communication signals we spoke about can derive from illness and pain. 

Disclaimer: The entire contents of this email and website are not to be taken as medical advice. The team at Pet Squad Pty Ltd trading as PetWell encourages you to make your own pet healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified pet healthcare professional.

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About the author

Ayda Hornak

Trained in canine psychology and studying natural animal nutrition, Ayda has a passion for natural health and wanted to provide the same for her dog Archie who was born with genetic anxiety. As a result, PetWell® was born. All-natural supplements and treats that help in preventing and managing pet health issues.

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