A New Dog Parent's Guide to Dog Body Language
Body language can tell you a lot about how your dog is feeling. We'll explain what body language is, what it isn't, and how to evaluate it in your pup and other dogs.18 minute read
They say more than 70 percent of face-to-face communication with a person is the non-verbal stuff. Think about a friend who says “I’m fine” but whose body language screams the opposite. Now imagine they can’t even talk at all when you ask follow up questions. That’s how important reading your dog’s body language is! Learning how to read your puppy’s body language well is akin to hearing them speak more clearly—and clearer communication is the bedrock of any relationship.
Here’s everything you need to know about your dog’s body language. How will learning to read his cues improve your life together? What do common emotions usually look like? And how should you handle it if your dog displays mixed signals?
- Learning your puppy’s body language helps you avoid situations that make him uncomfortable. Responding to your dog’s stress signals also keeps you and everyone around your dog safe, makes training easier, and helps deepen your bond.
- Dog body language can be nuanced. You can identify how your puppy feels by looking at the whole picture of his body language: tail, posture, muscle tension, facial expressions, ears, eyes, and hackles (raised hair).
- Fearful dogs are usually low to the ground with rigid movements. They might also show appeasement behaviors, like a quickly wagging tail, that can be mistaken for outright friendliness.
- A truly happy dog has a wiggly body and relaxed mouth. His ears and facial expression might be alert, but his movements are loose.
- Calm dogs show neutral posture with soft eyes. They have soft bodies with no muscle tension.
- An aggressive dog is stiff with a forward-leaning posture and furrowed brow. His eyes are hard and focused, and he may pull his lips back tightly.
- Puppies tend to have looser movements than adult dogs. He might also need time—and help from you as his dog parent—to learn how to read other dogs’ cues, especially requests for space.
- Domestic dogs usually display similar body language signals, bot all breeds are built the same way. Variations in size, structure, and the shape of different body parts adds a layer of complexity to reading canine body language.
- Neotenized dog breeds show fewer submissive behaviors than wolves do. This can make them more prone to conflict in large social groups.
- Dogs can experience conflicting emotions just like us. When in doubt, err on the side of caution when reading your puppy’s body language signals.
- Remember that each dog is an individual. As you grow with your puppy, you’ll come to understand his unique cues.
Why do I need to know how my puppy feels?
Learning your puppy’s body language helps you avoid situations that make him uncomfortable. You can notice signs of stress before they escalate and gradually equip him to handle more challenging environments. Responding to your dog’s subtle signals also keeps you and everyone around your dog safe. When your puppy knows you have his back, he won’t feel the need to take things into his own hands by growling, lunging, or snapping. Ultimately, showing your puppy you’ll listen to his cues makes training easier and deepens your bond.
Paying attention to your dog’s body language helps you be fair to him
Puppies can’t verbally tell us how they feel. Many of our dog’s body language signals are subtle—they’re easy to misinterpret or ignore altogether. This can result in your puppy being forced into uncomfortable experiences. Not only is this harmful for your dog—chronic stress can decrease appetite, cause intestinal upset, and drain his mental resources—but particularly bad exposures can also create permanent negative associations.
Advocating for your dog is a key part of supportive socialization. When you know what body language cues to watch out for, you’re equipped to guide your puppy through the world around him! You become a trusted caretaker and source of security.
Responding to body language cues keeps everyone around your dog safe
If pushed far enough past the point of discomfort, any dog can bite. It’s natural for canines to communicate through a series of warning growls and eventually their teeth. Even incredibly social, friendly dogs have their limits.
You can prevent your puppy from feeling the need to take things into his own hands by stepping in at his first sign of stress. (More on that below.) This keeps everyone around him safe! It also ensures his own long-term wellbeing:
- Dogs don’t enjoy feeling forced to defend themselves. High adrenaline, fight-or-flight experiences hurt your pup’s mental health. The fallout from these situations can have lasting impacts on his quality of life (and on yours).
- As more states adopt “strict liability” dog bite laws, it’s increasingly important to protect your dog from situations where he feels threatened.
Knowing how your puppy feels makes training easier
Understanding your dog’s body language makes it easier to train him. By paying attention to your puppy’s subtle signals, you can:
- Learn his likes and dislikes to help guide your long-term training goals. Nature and nurture both play a role in who your dog grows up to be!
- Better troubleshoot issues in your training. A stressed or scared dog might appear stubborn to the uneducated eye. Recognizing that he’s really just confused, uncertain, or uncomfortable enables you to minimize frustration on both ends of the leash. The less conflict you feel, the better your bond.
- Create the focused, positive mindset that’s best for learning. Your puppy learns best in a “goldilocks zone” of alertness. You want to find the sweet spot between boredom (he shouldn’t be too calm) and overarousal (he shouldn’t be overly stressed or feel fear).
Ultimately, listening to your dog deepens your bond
The more you listen to your puppy, the more he grows to trust you. This trust becomes the foundation of your lifelong relationship! There’s nothing like looking at your dog across the room and knowing how he feels about the situation at hand.
What body parts show me how my dog feels?
Dog body language can be nuanced. You can identify how your puppy feels by looking at the whole picture of his body language: tail, posture, muscle tension, facial expressions, ears, eyes, and hackles. Remember that not all signs of arousal mean the same thing! Sometimes a dog with a wagging tail is happy—other times he’s nervous or on edge. Sometimes a still dog is calm—other times he’s frozen under stress. Taking all his signals together will help you reach the right conclusion.
Canine body language basics
A wagging tail suggests emotional arousal. Your dog’s tail motion could show excitement, frustration, or even nervousness. Slow, sweeping wags typically mean he’s feeling comfortable. Fast wags indicate more intense emotions.
The direction your dog wags his tail might matter, too. Movement to the right is correlated with positive emotions (like being pleased to see a familiar friend) while movement to the left is associated with anxiety (like feeling uncertain about a stranger).
You should also pay attention to tail position. Your puppy is likely feeling alert or dominant if he holds his tail up high—this releases more scent from his glands, which can help mark his territory. If he hangs it low, he could be afraid, submissive, or simply relaxed.
Much like humans, dogs “make themselves small” by cowering when scared. If your puppy is particularly afraid, he’s likely to completely duck his head. He’ll hold himself forward, leaning his weight over his front paws, when he’s interested in something or facing up to a potential threat.
Loose movements are associated with comfort, play, and relaxation. Tension suggests more intense feelings that might be positive or negative. While rigidity often indicates undesirable emotions like fear or aggression, your puppy might also tense up before chasing something like a toy or prey animal.
Relaxed features, especially paired with an open mouth, mean your dog is content. Tightly pulled back lips, short pants, lip licks, or a furrowed brow can indicate stress. Your puppy might yawn to calm himself down—this can be a sign of anxiety or simply relaxing after play. (Yawns are also contagious between dogs and humans!)
A dog’s neutral ear position is usually slightly back or out to the sides. Tightly pinned ears suggest anxiety, discomfort, or submission. If your puppy’s ears are pulled back but relaxed, though, he’s likely feeling happy. (Many dogs greet their family members in this way.) Erect, forward ears (often paired with forehead wrinkles) show interest or fixation.
While all dogs can adjust their ear position, it might be harder for dog parents of floppy-eared breeds to notice subtle shifts.
It can be tough to notice at first, but the intensity of your dog’s gaze—as well as where he’s looking—is one of the best signs of how he feels. Soft eyes suggest comfort or calmness, while hard stares are often a cause for concern. Watching one specific thing for a prolonged period can show that your puppy feels uncertain about or interested in it, while frantically scanning the environment suggests he’s anxious overall. Wide eyes might indicate alarm, fear, or just excitement to play. When your dog shows the whites around his pupils (commonly called “whale eye” or “side eye”) it typically means he’s uncomfortable.
Raised hair (hackles)
When the fur along your dog’s neck, shoulders, or back stands up, it’s called piloerection. This is akin to goosebumps in people! Hackles are an involuntary reaction that signals arousal.
Piloerection can indicate negative or positive emotions—but it’s most commonly associated with aggressive or fearful dogs. The pattern of your puppy’s hackles can help you understand what he’s feeling. A thin line from shoulders to tail correlates with confidence (aggression) while a broad patch over the neck or shoulders might be linked to uncertainty (fear).
How do dogs express common emotions?
Fearful dogs are usually low to the ground with rigid movements. They might also show appeasement behaviors, like a quickly wagging tail, that can be mistaken for outright friendliness. A truly happy dog, on the other hand, has a wiggly body and relaxed mouth. His ears and facial expression might be alert, but his movements are loose. Calm dogs show neutral posture with soft eyes. They have soft bodies with no muscle tension. A dog who is feeling aggressive is often stiff with a forward-leaning posture and furrowed brow. His eyes are hard and focused, and he may pull his lips back tightly.
What does fearful dog body language look like?
- Tail: Nervous dogs often have low tails. He might tuck it all the way beneath his belly. Sometimes he’ll wag it quickly back and forth in a tense, short motion.
- Posture: Leans away from the scary thing. He might crouch, tremble, lower his body and head, or roll onto his side or back. (This is sometimes mistaken for an “I want belly rubs” pose.)
- Body tension: A fearful dog might move slowly or even freeze completely in place. His features will be rigid.
- Facial expressions: Might show avoidance behaviors like looking away, or display calming signals like lip licking and yawning.
- Ears: Pulled back or pinned ears. They might also swivel quickly to hear the sounds around him, particularly if he’s worried about something out of sight.
- Eyes: Eyes will often be fully open with large pupils. A fearful dog will likely show whale eye.
- Hackles: Fearful dogs may or may not show hackles. It’s not uncommon for different patches of hair to stand up along his back.
An extremely fearful dog might also urinate or defecate when approached. Sometimes scared dogs display aggressive body language (more on that below) when experiencing a fight-or-flight response without the ability to flee. This is a common cause of fear-based leash reactivity.
How should I respond if my puppy shows fearful body language?
First things first: You can’t reinforce an emotion like fear. If you’ve ever heard that you shouldn’t comfort your puppy when he’s scared because it will teach him to be even more afraid, that’s a myth! It’s key your dog knows you have his back.
That said: It is important you stay calm yourself. You want to project confident comfort—not panic of your own. There’s a difference between steadily petting or speaking to your puppy (this should help him calm down) and acting in a way that actually increases his arousal.
If your puppy seems afraid of something or someone in the environment:
- Keep your voice upbeat and steady.
- Don’t make any sudden movements. Take a deep breath to calm yourself if needed.
- Interrupt the interaction that’s making your puppy uncomfortable. You might do this by giving instructions to someone petting him (”he seems overwhelmed, can you take a break?”) or calling him over to you. You can also use treats, toys, or other objects in the environment as a distraction.
- If you can’t tell what your dog is afraid of, offer him calm comfort while examining your surroundings. Are there any strange sounds or sights? When you identify your puppy’s trigger, you can develop a plan to help him build new positive associations.
If your puppy seems nervous of you or something you’ve done:
- Turn your body so you aren’t squaring up to your dog, and avert your gaze slightly to the side. In general, direct eye contact can be seen as threatening in the canine world. The more straight on you approach a dog from the front or back, the more intense it can feel to them. When in doubt, go in at an angle.
- Stop petting him. If you aren’t sure if he’s enjoying your affection, you can try a technique called “pet pet pause”. It’s simple: Pet your puppy for a few seconds at a time, then remove your hand for a moment or two. If he nudges you, shows wiggly body language, or seems otherwise content, continue petting with intermittent breaks. If he moves away or seems nervously frozen, give him space.
Some advice on two common situations new dog parents face
If your puppy shows fearful body language as another on-leash dog approaches on a walk, remember that his trust in you matters more than making the other person happy. (Easier said than done, we know.) On-leash greetings aren’t a requirement! You can do a few things to get through the experience:
- Step off the side of the path and redirect your dog’s attention onto some treats or a favorite toy.
- Cheerily greet the other person and let them know your puppy is feeling a little nervous before their dog gets all the way up to you. (Variations of ”he’s shy” or “he doesn’t want to say hi right now” often do the trick.)
- Cross to the other side of the street if you aren’t sure the other dog parent will be able to give you space. Remember it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to socialization! This distance can be key if your puppy is having a hard time disengaging, too. Watching from a few dozen feet away is a positive, passive experience without the stress of feeling trapped.
- If you’re walking with another person, you might consider having them hold your puppy’s leash while you greet the approaching dog yourself. This can show your dog that there’s no need to be afraid—you’re happy to interact with this new friend—while reinforcing that you won’t force him into anything he’s uncomfortable with.
Similar concepts apply if your puppy is afraid of another off-leash dog. Whenever you’re at a dog park, it’s important to pay attention to each dog’s body language to make sure everyone is enjoying the interactions. If you don’t feel comfortable with what you see, you can:
- Distract the dogs with an interesting noise to create space where you can step in.
- Call your puppy over to you. Recall can be particularly tough in these situations—make sure you practice at home in low-distraction settings first before asking your dog to “come” in a busy environment.
- Ask the other dog parents to help you by calling their own dogs.
- Leave the dog park entirely. Depending on the vibe, some days just might not be the right fit for your puppy to play off leash. There are plenty of other ways to provide exercise and fulfillment!
What does excited or playful dog body language look like?
- Tail: Excited dogs often have quickly wagging tails. It should move in a wide, sweeping motion or even a complete circle (sometimes called “helicopter tail”).
- Posture: Playful dogs often start with a play bow, where they place their front legs down on the ground while wiggling their rumps. They follow this up with exaggerated movements.
- Body tension: An excited dog will be loose and wiggly. He should show minimal muscle tension and only remain still for short moments at a time.
- Facial expressions: Wide, relaxed open mouth. His brow might be slightly furrowed in focus, but his face should not appear tight.
- Ears: Neutral, forward, or pulled back ears can all be seen in excited dogs. They’ll often change position during different phases of a game.
- Eyes: His eyes might be focused on the object of his excitement (like a favorite person or toy). They’re often wide, but not hard or steely.
- Hackles: Some dogs hackle when excited.
How should I respond if my puppy shows excited body language?
It’s generally not a problem if your dog is excited. After all, one of the reasons we get puppies is to play with them! If you’re in the mood for a game, match your dog’s energy level and have some fun together. Just be mindful of how much time he spends in this hyped up state. While we all love a joyful “helicopter” tail wag, it isn’t healthy for any animal to remain in an aroused mindset for too long—it’s important your puppy also learns how to settle and self regulate.
If it isn’t an appropriate situation for your puppy to show arousal (or if he’s been running in circles for hours on end) help him calm down. You might engage in a “transition activity” that will slow his heart rate, like having him sniff treats out of a snuffle mat or receive a gentle massage from you. These techniques are especially helpful after fast-paced physical play like fetch or tug.
What does calm or content dog body language look like?
- Tail: His tail might move in slow sweeping motions back and forth, held at a neutral height. It can also be completely still or hang loosely.
- Posture: A calm, content dog will usually hold a neutral posture. “Neutral” will vary from dog to dog. Generally, he won’t lean towards or away from any specific stimulus.
- Body tension: His body should be loose. Muscles feel soft to the touch (like when a sleepy puppy melts beneath your hand).
- Facial expressions: A calm dog will have relaxed facial features. His mouth might be open or closed.
- Ears: Held a neutral or slightly pinned position.
- Eyes: Soft, relaxed eyes. He will often squint slightly.
- Hackles: Calm dogs typically do not have raised hackles.
How should I respond if my puppy shows calm body language?
Keep doing what you’re doing! A relaxed companion is one of the greatest gifts a dog parent can ask for. If your puppy seems unusually lethargic, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your vet—otherwise, pat yourself on the back for fulfilling his needs and ensuring his comfort.
What does aggressive dog body language look like?
- Tail: He might wag his tail at a high position in fast, tense movements.
- Posture: Weight either centered over all four feet or leaning slightly forward. He will look large, standing with his head raised above his shoulders.
- Body tension: His body will be rigid. Movements are stiff.
- Facial expressions: A dog displaying aggressive behavior might have a wrinkled muzzle and furrowed brow. He might bare his teeth or pull back his lips.
- Ears: Held pricked in a forward position.
- Eyes: Eyes will often be fully open in a hard stare.
- Hackles: Aggressive dogs often show hackles across their entire backs.
How should I respond if my puppy shows aggressive body language?
Remove your dog from the situation immediately. It’s imperative that you stay calm—spikes in your own energy can easily push your dog to react. If you need to physically intervene, move slowly and steadily. If you’re able, use some sort of distraction or a well-trained cue (like a happy-voiced recall) from afar.
Once you and your dog have both settled down, evaluate the experience. What set him off? Did he feel threatened? Consider how you’ll prevent those emotions in the future. While it’s normal for dogs to occasionally show subtle signs of aggression (the same way we might begin to raise our voice if we feel a friend isn’t listening to us) they should dissipate quickly and make sense in the environment. If you aren’t sure, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional trainer for guidance.
Do age and breed affect my dog’s body language?
Domestic dogs usually display similar body language signals when experiencing the same emotions—but there’s room for variation. Puppies often have looser movements than adult dogs. And not all dog breeds are built the same way! Variations in size, structure, and the shape of different body parts adds a layer of complexity to reading canine body language. Some developed dog breeds also show fewer submissive behaviors than wolves do.
Does a puppy have different body language than an adult dog?
Puppies typically show the same body language as adult dogs do—but you might notice that your young dog has looser movements. He’s still gaining control of his motor functions! As your puppy grows up, it’s normal for his body language to change a little. He’ll be better able to express his emotions as his muscles and joints develop (even though we all know how cute that baby clumsiness is).
It’s also common for puppies to need help learning how to read other dog’s signals, especially if they’re particularly playful. A dog who is unable to respect requests for space can cause serious problems as he gets older—even if he’s perfectly friendly himself—so it’s important to step in if you see him overwhelming a playmate.
How does dog body language vary by breed?
Most dogs give the same body language cues when feeling the same emotions, regardless of breed. There’s still some room for variation, though.
The structure of some dog breeds makes it harder to read their body language signals
Every breed is built differently. Variations in size, structure, and the shape of different body parts can add a layer of complexity to reading canine body language! A few examples include:
- Breeds like the Siberian Husky naturally carry their tails higher than many other dogs. This means that even their neutral posture can look imposing to fellow pets.
- Breeds with naturally short or docked tails aren’t able to show as many wagging patterns as those with the full length. It’s extra important to pay attention to the whole picture of a stumpy-tailed dog’s body language.
- Short-snouted (brachycephalic) breeds like Pugs and Bulldogs are more likely to pant even in mild weather. This can make it more difficult to discern a negative stress pant from simply feeling warm or tired.
- Herding breeds are known for a low, creeping posture or stalk when working livestock. Many dogs bring this motion into play—which can look stiff compared to other more bouncy breeds.
- Dogs with floppy ears are still able to express emotion through their position. Their signals aren’t as clear as in pointy-eared breeds, though.
The “less wolfy” your dog is, the fewer submissive behaviors he might be able to show
Neoteny, also called juvenilization, is the slowing of an animal’s physiological development. Modern humans are neotenized compared to other primates. Compared to other canines, so are our domestic dogs.
Particularly neotenized dog breeds—like Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and French Bulldogs—might struggle to display and interpret calming signals from other dogs, like:
- Muzzle licking (reflecting when young puppies lick their mother’s mouths to be fed)
- Averting eye contact
- Crouching or lying on his back
These submissive behaviors are a key part of de-escalating potentials conflicts. The more juvenile traits your puppy maintains as he grows up, the more likely he might be to struggle in forced social situations. Keep this in mind when socializing your dog.
What if my dog shows mixed body language signals?
Sometimes dogs give “mixed” signals when they feel conflicted. You aren’t crazy if you feel like your puppy’s body language isn’t clear! Gauge all of his cues together in a given context. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. And remember that each dog is an individual—as you grow with your puppy, you’ll learn to read his unique cues.
Dog body language isn’t always straightforward
Have you ever been excited to visit a friend you haven’t seen in a while… but also a little nervous, too? Your puppy can experience similar mixed emotions. This can lead to conflicting body language, especially if you’re a new dog parent.
It’s also possible that your dog displays signals in slightly different ways than other canines you meet. While overall body language themes can be seen in canines across the board, individual dogs might develop their own habits and quirks.
Take all your puppy’s signals together
To get through this murkiness, try to look at your dog’s entire body together. Consider the surrounding context. Is he licking his lips because he’s aroused during play—that is, experiencing some stress, but in a positive way? Is he otherwise loose and wiggly? Has he recently had a meal? Or is he stiff with other warning signals, too?
One of the most common challenges new dog parents face is figuring out if their puppy is playing too rough or being aggressive during a game. The vocalizations can sound almost identical! Here are a few things to watch for:
- Balance of roles during play. Each dog should take turns chasing vs being chased and lying down vs being tackled. If the play seems uneven, it’s a good idea to step in.
- Loose, springy movements. A truly aggressive dog is almost always stiff. While playful dogs do freeze on occasion, their bodies will be loose and wiggly as soon as they start moving again.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution
It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you aren’t sure exactly how your puppy feels—maybe he’s showing some stress signals but doesn’t have rigid muscle tension, or his brow is furrowed but the rest of his body is loose—give him an opportunity to leave the situation.
You can learn from how he responds to better understand his emotions next time. If he licks his lips while you pet him but paws your hand for more attention if you stop? Chances are he was simply moistening his mouth or even feeling a bit sleepy. You might realize he does that every time he’s relaxing during a massage and stop worrying about it. If he leaves as soon as you pull away, on the other hand? Take note that lip licks in that context likely indicated discomfort.
Remember your puppy is an individual
Common body language distinctions are helpful rules of thumb. Just like humans, though, dogs are unique individuals!
One of the most important things you can do with your puppy is spend time getting to know each other. Eventually you’ll be able to pattern match which of his signals (like specific vocalizations, body positions, or facial expressions) typically indicate certain needs (like to use the bathroom or be removed from an uncomfortable situation).
The more you listen to your dog and communicate back in ways he can understand, the more you fill his trust battery—and the better relationship you’ll have.