Understanding Dog Language and Signals

The language of dogs, body language. Complex, subtle, and often misread by us humans. Unneeded risky situations and incidents happen again and again, because we misread our dogs and put them in situations where they feel uncomfortable, scared, or get agitated. Most incidents that happen with dogs could be avoided if we understood the language of them better and react accordingly. 

The subject of body language is complex, too complex to fully cover in an article. But through this article we hope to make you aware of the subtle signs your dog is sending you. And that you will ask yourself more often, “what is my dog really trying to tell me”?

Tail (wagging) and ears

Some of the more obvious communications through body language is tail wagging and the stance of the ears. Also one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to dog language belongs to this category, which is a”dogs that wag their tails are happy”. Before we dive into several topics of body language, it’s important to know that body language signals come as a package. A dog’s intention can never be concluded on a single signal alone. 

The communication through the tail is complex. Different studies show that due to the way the brain operates the side the wag happens, matters. Observed from the rear, happy and confident dogs will wag to the right, while scared dogs will wag to the left. When looking at the language the dog is trying to convey through the tail, we have to keep in mind that the natural position of the tail might vary depending on breed or mix breed. For example, some dogs naturally have a curly tail, or carry their tail arched over their back. So what can the tail tell us?


The dog will pull the tail between the legs. The ears are often completely flat against the sides of the head. Very scared dogs may display defensive aggressive body language signals, like baring teeth.


A dog that is feeling insecure will lower the tail from the neutral position. Most of the time the tail will wag slightly. The dog will hunch its legs towards the ground, lower the head to the ground, and bend their ears slightly backward. An example of when dogs show these signals but are often misread is when they have a potty incident inside. Owners will scold the dog, which in turn might make the dog insecure and show these signal. Owners will interpret this as thinking the dog is feeling apologetic and/or guilty, which is not the case. Dogs that feel poorly will often also carry their tails low.


The tail is either slightly raised or in a neutral position. The tail might wag at a slow and relaxed pace. The ears are up in a neutral position.


Tail wag speed varies from slow to fast, the faster the wag, the more excited the dog. The ears are up. 


Tails and ears are raised higher than the neutral position. The dog is watching and ready to take action if needed.

Aggressive offensive threat/warning: 

The tail is put in a high position, either arched over the back or almost vertical. Often the dog will wag its tail in fast and tiny movements in a very stiff way. The higher the tail, the more warning the dog is sending out. Ears will be up and pointing forward. 

Body posture

Another obvious part of the body language is body posture. We can read a lot about a dogs intention by looking at their body posture.

A clear sign of stress or fear is when a dog makes itself small. The dog will cower and hunches towards the ground. A dog might even roll all the way on their back exposing their belly. They are telling you, don’t hurt me, I mean no harm. 

A dog that wants to get closer to something will shift its weight forward. This body posture is often seen in alert dogs. It’s important to look at the other body language signals your dog is sending you to determine the intention of your dog.

The play bow is a very well known signal. The dog will lower the front of the body to the floor while his rear stays in the air. They are usually inviting you, or another dog to play.  The play bow can also be used as a calming signal by your dog.

Less known amongst dog owners is the paw raise. We can see a raised paw in situations where the dog is feeling insecure. In pointing breeds the paw raise is pointing behavior that indicates the dog has smelled or sighted a prey. 

Another body posture signal dogs use is freezing. Ever seen your dog suddenly stop wagging and freeze while a stranger is trying to pet them? Your dog is telling you they don’t want to be petted and are trying to divert without having to resort to intenser body language signals.

Facial expression and eyes

A calm and happy dog will have a soft expression. The eyelids are relaxed and it may even look like they are squinting. A hard and intense look is usually a warning. A stressed or insecure dog usually has a tense face with a furrowed brow. Dogs that are feeling stressed and/or fearful often show the white of their eyes, also called “Whale eye”. The head of the dog will avert slightly, but the eyes are staying fixated on that they are keeping track of. Due to this, the white of the eyes becomes visible like 2 half moons. When a dog is unsure or nervous, the eyes can also be wide open. 

Making or breaking eye contact are also important body languages signals that dogs use. The breaking of eye contact is seen as polite and is done when the dog wants to avoid confrontation. On the other side, staring can be seen as a challenge and might be a warning or threat.


In most cases bared teeth are a warning signal from the dog. Often this is accompanied by a growling sound. An example of when this behavior is seen, is when dogs are really scared or are guarding an item or food. In some cases, we see teeth baring as a calming signal and is often referred to as a smile or grin. This smile is usually seen in combination with other non-threatening body language signals such as a relaxed posture, slightly flattened ears, and lip licking. A grin can also indicate stress and anxiety. 

Understanding Dog Language and Signals

Lip licking

One of the lesser known, and less obvious body language signals your dog is sending, is lip licking. Often dog owners think that their dog is licking their lips because they smelled something tasty, but this is not necessarily the case. Lip licking can also be a sign that your dog is feeling insecure, nervous, or anxious. In this case the lip licking is a calming signal. When a dog is sending calming signals they are trying to tell you:

  •  I’m calming myself down
  • Let’s go, I’m feeling scared and/or stressed
  • Get me out of this situation please
  • Don’t hurt me, I’m not a threat

Lip licking can be very subtle and is often missed by dog owners. An example would be when you spot your dog lip licking during a training session. This could mean that your dog is confused or worried about what is happening. A way to help your dog in this situation would be to set him up for success by giving him a task you know he will easily complete. Another option would be stopping the training for the day, or to try and communicate differently what you want. Lip licking can turn into a nervous habit. It can also indicate a medical issue like nausea, bloat, or oral issues. 

Shaking (it off)

Another calming signal that is often missed is shaking. Have you ever wondered why your dog is shaking itself off like they are wet, though they are fully dry? Most likely, they are shaking off stress or excitement. This behavior we often see after the dog experienced a stressful or exciting situation, like meeting new dogs, or after a human interaction. 


Another calming signal is yawning. Often people think their dog is tired when they yawn. Besides tiredness, yawns can also be seen when dogs are confused, feel discomfort, or to relieve stress.

Other calming signals

Besides the calming signals named above, there are several more. So next time when you see your dog displaying one of these, try and be observant to what your dog wants to tell you and act accordingly. A few more calming signals are:

  • Scratching: Dogs sometimes try to de-escalate situations by scratching. Often this is a sudden scratch around the neck.
  • Suddenly sniffing the floor. Some dogs will, in scary situations, look away and suddenly become very interested in smelling the ground.
  • Stretching. When accompanied by other calming signals, this can mean your dog wants space or to be left alone.
  • Moving slowly and/or not approaching or leaving in a straight line, but in a curve. Approaching head on can be seen as a confrontation. 
  •  Turning the head aside

The language of dogs

One that will take time and practice to learn but will be well worth the effort. By learning the language of your dog, you will understand more of what they are trying to tell you and can make better choices when it comes to helping your dog navigate situations. By noticing and listening to the subtle signs your dog is sending you, you can avoid more intense body language like lunging and barking. Some of the body language signals you can also use yourself in your interaction with dogs, like avoiding eye contact and moving in an arc when meeting insecure dogs. All our pet sitters and dog walkers are experienced in reading dog body language and will react accordingly while ensuring that all their interactions are also force free, fear free, and pain free. Would you like to know more about our dog walking, dog sitting, or dog training services, feel free to contact us.

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