Features August 2011 Issue

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

Forward ears, tight mouths, high tails and hard stares warn that these three junkyard dogs take their guarding job seriously.

alert dog body language

Forward posture and tail above horizontal suggest this dog is curious or on alert. The halfway-recumbant ear position signals that her arousal level is not high.


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

All three of these dogs have relaxed ears, they just look very different in dogs with different ear types.


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

She's the picture of appeasement: soft eyes, ears flattened, corners of mouth pulled back, body curved, and tail in neutral position.


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

This could be trouble; the Cavalier King Charles is giving a very tense, hard stare at the Boxer, who calmly averts his eyes to avoid triggering a 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

Don't be fooled! This Husky's erect tail is normal tail-carriage position for the breed. His relaxed eyes, mouth, and ears tell us he is not aroused.


dog tension

There is tension between these two (note the direct eye contact and raised tails) but it could be play tension. The Pointer's lowered hindquarters, raised front paw, and relaxed mouth suggest that he may be about to do a play-bounce, inviting the Viszla to romp. Shock and pinch collars are aversive, pain-causing tools, and are not recommended by WDJ. They are also safety hazards at a dog park.

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

This Jack Russell is offering a play bow - an invitation for the Pomeranian to play. The Pomeranian is politely declining by avoiding eye contact and hiding under the stool.

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