Guide to Reading Canine Body Language


[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


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


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


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


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


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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