Guide to Reading Canine Body Language

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[Updated December 3, 2018]

Despite conventional wisdom, a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog. The following abridged guide to canine communications will help you become a skilled translator.

Remember that breed characteristics can complicate the message; the relaxed ears and tail of an Akita (prick-eared, tail curled over the back) look very different from the relaxed ears and tail of a Golden Retriever (drop-eared; long, low tail).

Also note that if body language vacillates back and forth it can indicate ambivalence or conflict, which may precede a choice toward aggression.

junkyard dogs

alert dog body language

Tail

Tucked under: Submissive/appeasing, deferent, or fearful

Low and still: Calm, relaxed

Low to medium carriage, gently waving: Relaxed, friendly

Low to medium carriage, fast wag: Submissive/appeasing or happy, friendly

High carriage, still/vibrating or fast wag: Tension, arousal, excitement; could be play arousal or aggression arousa 

Relaxed dog ears

Ears

Pinned back: Submissive/appeasing, deferent,  or fearful

Back and relaxed: Calm, relaxed, friendly

Forward and relaxed: Aware, friendly

Pricked forward: Alert, excitement, arousal, assertive; could be play arousal or aggression arousal.

appeasing dog

Eyes

Averted, no eye contact: Submissive/appeasing, deferent, or fearful; may be a subtle flick of the eyes, or may turn entire head away

Squinting, or eyes closed: Submissive/appeasing, happy greeting

Soft, direct eye contact: Calm, relaxed, friendly

Eyes open wide: Confident, assertive. 

dog confrontation

Hard stare: Alert, excitement, arousal; could be play aroused in play or aroused in aggression

Mouth

Lips pulled back: Submissive/appeasing or fearful (may also be lifted in “submissive grin” or “aggressive grin”)

Licking lips, yawning: Stressed, fearful – or tired!

Lips relaxed: Calm, relaxed, friendly

Lips puckered forward, may be lifted (snarl): Assertive, threatening. 

relaxed husky

Hair

dog tension

Piloerection: Also known as “raised hackles,” this is simply a sign of arousal. While it can indicate aggression, dogs may also show piloerection when they are fearful, uncertain, or engaged in excited play.

Body Posture

Behind vertical, lowered; hackles may be raised: Could be submissive and/or appeasing or fearful

Vertical, full height: Confident, relaxed

Ahead of vertical, standing tall; hackles may be raised: Assertive, alert, excitement, arousal; could be play arousal or aggressive arousal

Shoulders lowered, hindquarters elevated: A play bow is a clear invitation to play; the dog is sending a message that behavior that might otherwise look like aggression is intended in play.

READ: Do dog cry tears?

playing dogs

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

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