Understanding the dog language

Have you ever wish you could understand your dog’s language and understand what your dog is trying to tell you?

You would be able to understand how people are feeling just by judging their facial expressions, tone of voice, and of course the words coming out from the mouth.

How would you be able to understand your 4 legged friends?

The dog definitely does have a way to tell how they feel about everything around them.

What would they use to send their message to others?

Sound (barking, whining, growling etc..), signals (tail position and its movement), facial expression, and posture and more: body language.

If you could understand how they are feeling at the very moment, it would be very useful in terms of building stronger bond between you and your dog, training, and being able to predict what would happen next such as snapping at someone and more.

If you could predict/sense what would happen next and if the prediction was negative ones such as snapping at someone, then, you could stop that from happening by removing from the trigger.

When it comes to dog’s language, you must look at the whole pictures,not just facial expression, but everything and read their body language, judge and act accordingly.

Sometimes, dog body language are very subtle.

However, especially if you have a little ones, being able to read your dog’s language is a lot of help in terms of managing the little one and a dog together.

This can ultimately becomes something that could use for bite prevention for little kid’s safety as well.

Little one cannot read the dog’s language so you must be the one who could read the dog body language and when you think the dog is under stressed or something, you should act right away before something happens.

Many dog bites involving little kids could be prevented if parents and children were aware of the subtle signs that dogs send when they are anxious or under stressed.

Recently, I came across well known positive dog trainer Victoria Stilwell’s blog entry on body language and I found it interesting to read.

In it, she writes that often, gestures or actions that we assume mean one thing are actually the dog telling us the exact opposite, and determining what that wagging tail or exposed tummy really means can sometimes be the difference between a belly rub and a bite.

According to her blog entry, here are several useful body language characteristics associated with specific emotion.

Appeasement & Displacement

  • muzzle and/or ear licking
  • jumping up
  • lowering and curving the body
  • blinking
  • clacking or exposing the teeth “(“smiling”)
  • lip licking
  • lowering the head and ears
  • play bowing

She also write that passive submission such as cowering and body freezing seems to be done in response to escalating fear in the presence of a perceived threat.

In addition to appeasement, dogs also commonly use displacement signals to avoid confrontation. These body signals are used to provide a distraction – a way of covering up what the dog is actually feeling. Yawning, sniffing, scratching, sneezing, and licking are all active behaviors that keep the dog calm and provide a distraction to refocus the attention of others away from him.

Victoria writes similar signals have different meanings in different situations, so read the position of the body and understand other vocal signals so you can understand a dog’s intent and emotional state.


When dogs are stressed and nervous they exhibit behavior that either help relieve the stress they are feeling or appease a perceived threat.

  • Yawning can be a sign that a dog is tired, but it also signals stress
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking. Dogs lick their lips when nervous
  • Brief body freezing – the dog is still for a few seconds before reacting
  • Body freezing – the dog freezes until the threat goes away or he decides to use fight or flight
  • ‘Whale Eye’ – the dog turns his head away but keeps looking at the perceived threat, showing the whites of his eyes
  • Head turn – the dog will turn his head away from a fear source as a gesture of appeasement
  • Furrowed brow, curved eyebrows – caused by facial tension
  • Tense jaw – the mouth is closed, and the dog is preparing for action
  • Hugging – a dog will gain comfort by holding onto his owner
  • Low tail carriage – indicates discomfort and uncertainty
  • Curved tongue – the tongue is curved at the edges from tension
  • Raspy, dry-sounding panting –   nervousness reduces saliva production
  • Twitching whiskers – caused by facial tension
  • Shaking – caused by adrenaline release
  • Drooling – stress can also cause excessive salivation
  • Lack of focus – an anxious dog finds learning difficult
  • Sweaty paws – dogs sweat through their foot pads
  • Piloerection – the hair on a dog’s neck and spine stands on end (like human goose bumps), making the dog appear bigger while releasing odor from the glands contained in the dog’s hair follicles


Deference language is designed to appease a perceived threat, avoid injury and is crucial for survival.

  • Head bobbing or lowering
  • Head turning
  • Averting eyes
  • Lip licking
  • Low tail carriage
  • Tail tucked between the legs
  • Curved and lowered body
  • Stomach flip – the dog flips over quickly, exposing his stomach; he is not asking for a belly rub, but signaling that he is withdrawing from interaction


  • Head cocked to one side or the other
  • Front paw lifted – anticipating what will happen and what the dog should do next
  • Mouth closed – sizing up the situation in preparation for action


Displacement language helps the dog to self-calm and refocus attention away from them and onto something else.

  • Sneezing
  • Shaking
  • Sniffing
  • Nose licking
  • Yawning
  • Spinning
  • Pacing
  • Chattering teeth
  • Shake off – dog will release stress and tension by shaking their bodies as if trying to get water off their backs.

Defensive and Offensive

When a dog has to defend herself from an actual or perceived threat she will demonstrate defensive or offensive language in order to keep herself safe.

If the threat does not back away and the dog has nowhere to go, defensive behavior will turn offensive and the dog will bite.  

  • Body leaning forward
  • Tense mouth
  • Lips pushed forward and vibrating as the dog growls
  • Air snapping – the dog snaps in the air to warn something to back away
  • Snapping with skin contact – also a warning to back away
  • Fast nip – an immediate bite and release with bruising or slight wound, telling a threat to back off
  • Deeper bite – a dog that bites with more intensity is intending to harm
  • Bite and hold – intent to harm
  • Bite, hold, and shake – intent to harm and potentially to kill. Some dogs will bite, hold, shake, and disembowel stuffed toys, simulating the killing of prey; while this is prevalent among dogs with high prey drive, even dogs with low drive can indulge in behavior of this type. If your dog likes to disembowel stuffed toys, this doesn’t mean he wants to do the same with people or other animals. Sadie loves to disembowel toys, but she is incredibly gentle with people, especially children.
  • Wagging tail – again, a wagging tail does not always mean a happy dog
  • Hard, staring eyes


The body is fluid and relaxed, the mouth is slightly open with tongue hanging to the side and all the signals a dog gives off communicate joy, confidence and a desire to invite play and attention.

  • Mouth slightly open, tongue relaxed and lolling to one side.
  • Small body freezes during play.
  • Play bow – this signal invites play and tells others that whatever action comes next is still just play.
  • Turning over, inviting belly rub – showing trust and enjoying social contact.
  • Relaxed facial expression.
  • Squinty or blinking eyes.
  • Tail wagging fast, either side to side or in a round motion like a helicopter.
  • Wiggling backside.

One of the body language I find it interesting to read is tail wagging.

If you see the dog wagging tail, you would most likely think the dog is happy seeing you.

However, Victoria writes that those interpretation are wrong and this tail wagging gesture is often misunderstood by human.

Victoria write that some dogs also wag their tails when aroused, overstimulated and frustrated.

One other thing about tail wagging, I found interesting to know that the dog has preference in more to which side they would wag depending on who they see.

She writes we can usually tell the difference between being happy and being aroused,overstimulated, frustrated by looking at what the rest of the body is doing:

  • A confident or aroused dog will hold his tail in the air, allowing scent from the anal glands to circulate more freely and advertise his presence.
  • A dog that is wagging his tail but barking with a defensive body posture, tense face, and hard staring eyes is overly aroused and frustrated, which means that he should not be approached.
  • A tail that is held low or between the legs signals a lack of confidence, nervousness, or fear
  • A tail that is held high but wagged more slowly means that the dog is assessing a situation.
  • A tail that is extended and curved means that the dog is tense and ready to take offensive or defensive action.
  • A tail that wags around and around like a helicopter and is accompanied by relaxed fluid body movement and a wiggling bottom signals friendliness and a willingness to engage.
  • Research has shown that when a dog sees someone they like, his tail wags more to the right. When he sees an unfamiliar person, his tail wags more to the left. Subtle body language like this is easy to miss.

Our dog is Corgi and her tail is nub.

If tail got so much meaning in body language, I am guessing that some dogs might/could misinterpret our dog Palette’s body language.

Victoria says that the tail is a prime indicator of mood, and dogs with docked tails are unable to communicate properly using that part of their body, which means that other dogs and people miss vital signals.

To read the full article by Victoria Stilwell on her blog positively, please click here

You can also look at this cute dog body language chart at barkpost website here.

Aug 29, 2016 | Comments are off | Miscellaneous (dogs)

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