Understanding Dog Body Language

A brown dog being petted

Dogs are able to express themselves in the most simple and effective ways, which makes them great communicators. As pet owners, we understand dog body language and can tell that our dog running to the door when we come home means that they are happy to see us. We know that a lethargic walk can mean that he’s feeling sick. And we can tell that our dog wants a snack if he’s staring longingly at the treat drawer in the kitchen.

Just as dogs are able to express themselves to us, they can read us with ease. The average dog understands up to 165 words, signs and signals and some breeds can even comprehend up to 250 words, signals, and sounds.

As you share your life with your dog, experiencing everything from cozy nights in to road trips, you can learn to better understand dog body language with these tips. After all, your dog does talk to you (in his own way) and understanding what he means can make your relationship even more special.

Decoding dog body language

In typical conversation, there are verbal and visual cues, a situation and a context. This all works together to help you interpret a message. When it comes to your dog however, the key to understanding the message he’s sending you is to look at the situation you are in and to look at his body language.

For instance, when your dog is happy, his tail will be mid-level and relaxed, with his mouth most likely open. Akin to happiness is confidence. Your dog will demonstrate confidence by standing tall with his ears up and tail slowly wagging, his eyes alert and making direct contact. And when your dog sticks up his tail and rear end and lowers his front legs as if he's bowing, he’s telling you it’s time to play.


Barking is another direct way your dog communicates with you. Some dogs bark during play to express their pride and happiness. Alternatively, dogs bark when a stranger is near. In this situation, he’s warning you and letting you know that he’s protecting you.

Expressing fear

Just like humans, dogs experience fear and insecurity in different situations. Take the time to understand the situations that make your dog feel insecure or afraid – like meeting new people or hearing the vacuum cleaner running. Once you understand which situations upset your dog, you can work to ease the fear.

How to tell if your dog is feeling insecure or afraid:

  • He licks his nose when you speak to him. Make sure to also look at the context of the situation to make sure he’s actually licking his nose out of fear.
  • His tails and ears are down, his head is lowered, and his back is arched.
  • He is showing his teeth, growling, whining or his body is trembling.
  • He is trying to hide under a table, bed or between your legs.

It’s best to not pet or praise your dog in these situations, because it only encourages the fearful behaviour. Instead, try to distract your dog with a fun activity and pet or praise him when he is displaying positive behaviour. Make sure to remain calm when your dog is showing you signs of fear, as he looks to you for guidance on how to react.

Tail wags

Most people associate a tail wag with happiness. However, this is not always the case. Dog tail wags are like smiles, but humans don’t always smile when they are happy. The same goes for dogs. A smile in humans can be a sign of nervousness, just as a tail wag can be a sign of nervousness or a desire to appease conflict.

Different types of wags:

  • Broad wags at a moderate pace means your dog is happy and he's showing you he likes you.
  • Small side-by-side wags at a fast pace means your dog is excited.
  • Slow wags with the head lowered means your dog feels insecure or is trying to comprehend a situation.


Another way to understand what your dog is telling you is by looking at his hackles – the hair on the back of his neck. When a dog is on alert, the hair stands up. Having raised hackles doesn’t always mean your dog is mad or afraid, it can also mean he’s being extra attentive to a person or a situation. If your dog’s hackles are raised, look at the rest of his body and his behaviour to figure out what he’s feeling.


Dogs have a keen sense of smell, and it’s one of the best ways for them to learn about their environment. If you see your dog sniffing, he’s very curious and interested in making sense of an object, whether that’s to find it, identify it, or to tell if someone (or another dog) has been in the area.


Whether you see your dog grin at you while playing a game of fetch or notice a pleased smirk when he’s enjoying some belly rubs, seeing your best friend smile warms your heart without a doubt.

Compared to humans, dogs are quite limited in their facial expressions. However, there is definitely emotion being communicated when your dog’s mouth is open, his tongue is hanging out, and he’s panting. Dogs smile when they’re happy and pleased.

Take the time to communicate with your dog

The best way to form a strong bond with your dog and understand him better is to spend as much time with him as you can. Watch him and engage him in a variety of different situations, whether it’s playing games together or going on walks.

Make sure to speak to your dog frequently. Dogs are able to understand your tone of voice and volume. Give him plenty of smiles because he will learn to understand that it’s a positive expression. As you progress in your time together, you’ll learn how to understand dog body language. Very soon, you’ll be able to tell the difference from one bark and tail wag to the other.

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