Dogs use an eloquent range of body language to communicate with both humans and other dogs. This is a guide to some of the most common ways in which dogs express themselves physically and explains what they are telling you by each particular behavior.
Pawing is an appeasing gesture.
Licking another dog’s face is an invitation to play or a sign of deference.
Play bowing (front legs extended, rump up, tail wagging) is an invitation to play and a sign of happiness.
Draping the head over another dog’s shoulders is a social challenge.
Freezing in place means a dog is frightened.
Relaxed ears mean that a dog is calm.
Erect ears show that a dog is alert and attentive.
Ears that are up and forward mean a dog is challenging or being assertive or-aggressive Ears that area laid
back indicate that a dog is worried or scared.
Direct eye contact means that a dog is feeling bold and confident.
Casual eye contact means he’s contented.
An averted gaze means deference.
Dilated pupils indicate fear.
HACKLES (the hair on the shoulders and hips).
Raised hackles indicate arousal, either because a dog is frightened Or is challenging another dog.
Smooth hackles show a dog is calm.
There’s often sexual intent in this behavior, even if the dog doing the humping is neutered, or even
female. You can let dogs interact this way, as long as the dog being humped isn’t trying to escape (and, of
course, providing the humping dog is not an unneutered male and the other dog a female in season). If a
dog does it to a person, break his focus suddenly by making a loud noise to stop him in his tracks.
Dogs are very tactile and don’t always respect personal space. It’s common for them to lean against
people’s legs. Dogs who merely lean, as opposed to a cat-like rubbing back and forth, may be attempting to
expand their personal space by taking over yours. Conversely, some dogs lean to express an affectionate
kind of possession, or to prevent you from going somewhere else. If your dog rubs against your legs, he is
probably just trying to scratch a hard-to-reach spot.
When your dog either mounts another dog or stands above another dog by putting his front paws on the
other dog’s back, he is asserting his dominance over the other dog. Mounting other dogs isn’t just a male
characteristic. High-ranking females do it, too. Owners wonder why male dogs mount other males or why
females mount at all, but mounting is more often related to social status than to sex.
MOUTH AND LIPS
Panting means that a dog is feeling playful, excited or stressed, or he may simply be hot.
A dog with the mouth and lips closed is uncertain or appeasing.
Licking the lips is a sign that a dog is worried or is trying to appease a person or another dog. A relaxed
mouth means a dog is calm.
Lips pulled back are a challenging or warning sign, especially when combined with a snarl
Dogs love to push people with their noses. Most of the time it just means they want affection or attention.
If you are reading the newspaper, for example, your dog may nudge your hand to try to get your attention
away from the paper and back to him. Or perhaps the chair that you’re in is his favourite place and he
wants you to move out of the way so he can take possession.
If his lifted paw is accompanied by a relaxed, happy expression and a neutral position, your dog just wants
attention. Maybe he has been taught how to shake hands and knows he can get positive attention that way.
While paw lifting is most likely an invitation to play, your dog might be telling you something else.
When your dog is play bowing, his rear end goes up, his front end goes down, his tail wags and his eyes
light up. He’s saying, “I want to play,” whether it’s to another dog or to a human. He may perform this
friendly, attention-seeking trick when you’re serious and he wants to change your tone. Accept his
invitation to play if you’re in the mood.
When a dog rolls over on his back with his belly exposed and his legs in the air, he’s being submissive. If
done in front of another dog, he’s saying, “You’re the boss and I don’t want to fight.” When your dog rolls
over for you, it could have more than one meaning. If done in anticipation of a scolding, it means, “I don’t
know how to please you and I’m afraid you’re angry. Please accept my apology.” Or your dog may be
trying to avoid something he doesn’t want to do. More often, rolling over is a sign that your dog is happy,
trusts you and has a pleasant, low-key nature. It just means, “Please pet my belly.”
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are known for curling their upper lips whenever they feel happy.
Alaskan Malamutes and Samoyeds are also well known for their smiling expressions. Dogs sometimes
exhibit what is known as a “submissive grin,” which is a type of appeasement gesture. This behaviour is
particularly common in Dalmatians. Most dogs, however, don’t smile in the same way people do. If
anything, they tend to assume a grin-like expression when they’re feeling threatened or aggressive and
want people to see their teeth.
A relaxed tail means that a dog is calm and at peace.
A tail held straight out, wagging rhythmically and slowly, means that a dog is cautious or on guard.
Tail down indicates worry or uncertainty.
Tail held up and wagging fast indicates excitement.
An erect tail is a sign of alertness.
A tail held between the legs is a sign of fear.
TAIL TUCKED AND EARS BACK
If your dog tucks his tail, lays his ears back, takes a few steps backward or hides behind you, you can be
sure he’s feeling uncertain. It could be a person or an object that he’s not sure of, and you’ll need to lessen
his fear by introducing him slowly and unthreateningly to whatever he’s apprehensive about.
You’re usually right if you assume that tail wagging indicates a friendly dog, but it’s not always the case.
Dogs also wag their tails when they are frightened, agitated or unsure. A scared dog may wag his tail low
and between his legs as he weighs up his next move and wonders whether he should fight, flee or go belly
up. An aggressive, angry dog may wag his tail high while he chases or even attacks. Look at what else is
going on is the dog’s best friend just getting off the school bus, or is another dog eating out of his dish?
Also check how the dog has distributed his weight, before being certain that the tail wagging is
welcoming. If he’s feeling aggressive, his body will be tense and his weight will be mainly on the front legs.
If your dog repeatedly flicks his tongue up to lick his nose, he’s uneasy. He may be assessing a new
situation or wondering if he should approach a stranger. Or he may be concentrating hard, trying to
master a new obedience command. While a tongue-flicking dog may be friendly, don’t approach a strange
tongue flicker, the dog is obviously tense. Tongue flicking sometimes precedes biting.
Yawning in dogs isn’t always a sign of tiredness. It may indicate anticipation or stress. Yawning causes
instantaneous changes in the body, increasing heart rate and blood flow to the brain, filling the lungs with
oxygen and removing carbon dioxide. In short, a yawn helps a dog energize his body, gather his wits.
Your dog may yawn repeatedly when he’s waiting in the vet’s office, as a way of dealing with nervousness.
In training classes, he may yawn to deal with frustration and give himself a mental break. A dog who
yawns in anticipation of something enjoyable, such as a walk, is doing so both to boost his energy and to
control his eagerness.