Understanding Dog Body Language

What’s Your Dog Telling You?

Understanding Dog Body Language by Lisa Lyle Waggoner

Ignorance is bliss. That commonly used phrase certainly applied to me years ago as it relates to dog body language. What I didn’t know about, I didn’t worry about. Before I became a professional dog trainer, I knew nothing about canine communication and I’m sure I put my dogs into more than a few situations where they were not only uncomfortable, but perhaps quite fearful. I’ve looked back at photos from those early years and it’s evident that had I been more knowledgeable I could have helped my dogs feel much more comfortable. All living beings seek to feel comfortable and confident. Humans do. Dogs do.

When you bring a dog into your home, you’re committing to a 10 to 15 year relationship with a living, breathing, emotional being and one that doesn’t come with an English software package installed. Dogs are unable to verbally tell us what they’re feeling; but if you know what to look for, you’ll realize your dog is speaking to you every moment of the day. Taking the time to learn and understand the frequent, specific signals dogs display will help you insure your dog is comfortable and stress free. I’d bet that’s what you want for your dog at home or afar.

Dog language is all about ritualization – a very fluent and sophisticated language of ritualized behaviors they use in communicating with each other and with other species. Dogs desire a peaceful and accurate resolution to any given situation. Though not unlike us, if they’re pushed beyond their comfort level and can’t escape an uncomfortable or scary situation, their flight or fight behavior kicks in and they react appropriately.

It’s important to learn the nuances of your dog’s language, especially as it relates to stress signals. Stress develops from an inability to cope with the current situation. If a dog is frequently experiencing stress and going over his “stress threshold” his stress hormones are spiking way too often and in reality he may be living in a chronic state of stress. Chronic stress can cause serious physiological complications which may present in a variety of ways, such as gastrointestinal, auto-immune or allergy issues. It’s important to hone your observation skills so that you can accurately read your dog’s body language and then draw a conclusion as to what he’s feeling.

There are a variety of types of signals dogs display which range from very subtle to extremely noticeable signals: deferral or deference, appeasement, play, stress, fear and early warning signals.

Here’s one way to think about the meaning of each individual group of signals:

  • Deference
    • Hey man, I’m not a threat to you
  • Appeasement
    • I come in peace
  • Displacement
    • I’m not sure what to do, so I’ll do this instead
  • Stress Signals
    • I’m not feeling comfortable
  • Play signals
    • Let’s frolic!
  • Fear Signals
    • I’m afraid
  • Early Warning Signals
    • Likelihood of being willing to fight

Deference and appeasement signals are used by dogs to communicate and keep peace in social settings and aren’t always indicators of stress, though could be if combined with other behaviors. Lip licking (licking the lips of another more confident dog), tongue flick, a head turn (also called) look away, yawning, curving or lowering the body, and lowered tail are a few examples of deference and appeasement signals. The photo below shows a “head turn” from Cody, the dog on the right. Willow, the dog on the left, was likely overextending her puppy license and had given him one too many nose to nose punches. He politely looks away instead of getting fussy with her.

Cody Willow head turn

I think of displacement signals as the variety of things a dog does when he’s unsure of what he should do next (not unlike when we scratch our heads wondering what our next move or thought will be). These signals are also used to avoid confrontation. Examples of displacement signals are sniffing, scratching, bowing, sneezing and yawning. In this video of Willow and Daisy you’ll see quite a variety of dog body language displayed by each dog, concluding with Daisy scratching her neck. It’s likely the tension of protecting the toy ­­that causes her to scratch.

The term “stress signals” is an umbrella term that includes a variety of the above signals that, when combined with other individual types of signals, suggest your dog may be feeling some degree of stress. Do remember to look at the dog’s entire body and take environmental context into consideration. A dog stretching when playing with another dog is likely a play signal, though a dog stretching (resembling a play bow) during the middle of a training session may mean the dog just doesn’t quite understand what you’re attempting to teach and the confusion is a bit stressful for him. His behavior is a signal to you to be clearer in the training exercise. Other examples of stress signals are a tongue flick, yawning, head turn/lowered head, paw lift, shaking off (when the dog isn’t wet), panting, and ears held back. In the video below you’ll see Jill, the Yellow Lab, display several stress yawns. When this was filmed, she had recently been adopted, was uncomfortable around new, unknown people and she wasn’t yet comfortable being on leash with the man of the household.

This photo was taken at Paws in the Park, a festival celebrating dogs. This dog is very uncomfortable in the festival environment, as evidenced by his body language (lowered body posture, furrowed brow, lowered ear carriage and foaminDogs at paws in the parkg at the mouth). Not only is the dog very uncomfortable, but the dog’s handler is paying no attention to him. If this handler understood dog body language and stress signals, she could have moved the dog to the outskirts of the festival to work on helping the dog become more comfortable or removed the dog from the environment altogether.


Play signals mean just that, “Let’s play!” Most play signals such as a play bow, soft open mouth, paw raises, bouncy/inefficient movement and tail wagging are readily understood by the general dog population. When one dogs play bow to another it’s like saying “Hey, Bud, Whatever comes after this is all fun and games – no harm meant.” Behaviors that occur at other times in a dog’s life, can also present during play, so you’ll also see humping, growling and barking (which are often misconstrued as anything but play). Our two dogs take turns humping frequently during play sessions and the behavior, in this situation, isn’t related to social hierarchy. They’re great at give and take with this behavior and humping isn’t prolonged. Here’s a bit of humping during a play session between three dogs. Cody, the dog who is humping, is frustrated that he doesn’t get to join in the fun of the two other dogs and is attempting to hump Daisy (the Yellow Lab) who is engaged in play with Willow (the Australian Shepherd).

But guess what?

Jim Schowalter of Left Gate Photography

Jim Schowalter of Left Gate Photography

Humping can be attention seeking and even a stress signal. My former Australian Shepherd, Gibson, used to hump my leg  when I ended a fun game of Frisbee with him – an attention seeking behavior. My good friend’s dog (Cosmo, the adorable dog of Tiffany Lovell of Cold Nose College Space Coast) humps her leg when he’s inadvertently put into situations with more than one or two dogs. It’s his sign he’s not comfortable and she honors him by removing Cosmo from the stressful situation.

I have such a soft spot in my heart for fearful dogs. I want so much for them to understand that a situation I feel is safe for them is no cause for concern. Oh if it were as easy as that! Examples of fear signals are panting, lowered body, ears folded back, head lowered (or dropped), lip curl (or snarling), tucked tail, whale eye, body position back of center, as well as barking/snapping/growling/lunging (which are distance increasing behaviors – the dogs wants the perceived threat to move away). This video shows a recently rescued dog that is quite fearful and is displaying multiple fear signals.

Early warning signals are displayed when a dog has been pushed beyond the limits of what’s comfortable for that specific dog or because the dog has been repeatedly put into an uncomfortable situation and the dog has learned to display threatening behavior in order to protect themselves from the perceived threat. These signals include eyes wide with dilated pupils, overall stiff body language, mouth closed tight (and breathing slowed), freezing, flag tail (tail held high, twitchy and stiff). All these signs are cause for you to respond quickly so the immediate situation doesn’t tip over into a scuffle, a fight or a bite. In this video, you’ll see our two dogs, Willow (then a puppy) and Cody. Willow was an over exuberant pup and her play was becoming a bit too much for Cody. You’ll see his dilated eyes, see him look away, freeze and even throw a lip curl in an attempt to stop Willow. Remember dogs do want a peaceful resolution to their interactions. We’re filming, watching closely and as his behavior begins to escalate, we interrupt and stop the play session. Anytime you bring a puppy into a home with an older dog, supervision is necessary to insure the new little one doesn’t cause undue stress on the older dog.

  • In the below photo this dog is definitely telling us that she’s not at all comfortable with the child’s tight hug (as evidenced by the snarl, furrowed brow, squinted eyes and position of the ears). Interrupting the child and dog in a happy tone of voice (and redirecting each to create distance between the two) is advised so that dog’s behavior doechild dog snarlsn’t escalate to a snap or bite. Supervision of dogs and children is always highly recommended. A great resource for parents and grandparents is www.doggonesafe.com

Please do remember that it’s very important to look at the entire dog’s body in order to interpret what the dog is feeling as many of the individual signals have different meanings depending on the context of the situation. Begin first by observing and noting each individual signal you see the dog display. Once you’ve noted the signals, you’re better able to draw a conclusion as to whether it’s a stressful situation for the dog. Breed characteristics can complicate the dog’s message, as can docking of tails and/or ears, so please also take these into consideration.

By understanding and observing your dog’s body language, you’ll know when to intervene or how to change the environment to set your dog up to lessen or eliminate that stress. Here are six things you can do if your dog is feeling stress in a specific situation:

  • Embrace the situation. Don’t be embarrassed.
  • Assess the situation. Look around and attempt to determine the stressor that’s causing your dog to feel uncomfortable.
  • Increase distance between your dog and the perceived threat. Sometimes distance alone will help your dog become more comfortable.
  • Be prepared to remove your dog from the situation if increasing distance didn’t help. Don’t be tempted to make the dog endure an uncomfortable environment. Doing so can increase stress and also exacerbate the dog’s behavior.
  • Change your dog’s opinion about the thing that made him uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s a small child and the dog hasn’t been around children. Instead of a dog thinking “child = bad thing!” you want them to think “child = good thing!” Counter conditioning and desensitization is the appropriate way to accomplish this and is very effective when implemented slowly and consistently over time.
  • If you feel you’re in over your head, call in the help of a professional dog trainer who uses positive techniques and who is also skilled in behavior modification.

The signals mentioned above are by no means all the body language signals in a dog’s repertoire; however, you can use this list as a resource to learn to identify what your dog is feeling by listening with your eyes. Your dog will thank you for it.

Lisa Bio:

A passionate advocate for humane, science-based dog training, Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2, a dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Faculty Member for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior. She is the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina, with an additional location in the Space Coast of Florida. She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering distance consults and educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. www.coldnosecollege.com

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Dog/human relationship, Educational, Misc, Positive Animal Training
One comment on “Understanding Dog Body Language
  1. Interestingly, a new study found that our ability to understand dogs depends on our cultural upbringing. Being a dog owner didn’t make any difference!

    Read about the study in this blog post:

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