Dog body language: Learn how to read your canine's moods

Boston Terrier dog with head cocked is an example of dog body language
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Understanding dog body language is an absolute must for any owner who really wants to bond with their pooch. Dogs may not be able to speak, but with a bit of practice you can read their moods and communicate with them much more effectively.

Luckily for dog owners, dogs are much more of an open book than cats when it comes to body language. While it's certainly possible to understand cat body language, cats on the whole are a lot more inscrutable than dogs and it's easy to misinterpret their moods.

With any dog, however, there are loads of signs you can look out for in order to accurately gauge what sort of mood it's in; just like with cats, most of a dog's body parts can be really helpful indicators when it comes to judging its state of mind at any moment. 

If you're having trouble telling the difference between your dog being in a playful mood and being aggressive, read on to learn about all the tell-tale signs (and if necessary, see our tips on how to tackle dog aggression).

How do dogs communicate with humans?

There's a big difference between how dogs and cats communicate with people. Cats treat people and other cats as distinctly different entities, and while there are some commonalities in how they communicate with them both, some of their techniques – such as meowing – are reserved strictly for humans. 

Dogs, on the other hand, tend to treat their people as big, hairless alpha dogs, and they'll telegraph their moods to both humans and other dogs in much the same way.

So what signs should you look out for? In general you should be looking at your dog's entire body, as there are various bits of it that'll part-signal its mood, and by putting them together you'll be able to get a strong idea of how it's feeling.

Looking at your dog's head, its mouth, eyes, ears and even its whiskers will all give you a strong sense of its mood. And back at the other end, its tail is of course another powerful indicator of its current state of mind. 

You can also tell a lot about your dog's mood from its body posture, and even from whether its fur is flat and smooth or upright and spiky. And finally there are its unmistakable vocalizations, from barking and growling through to whining and even panting.

A dog demonstrating distressed body language

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How do dogs communicate with other dogs?

While most dog body language is universal, there are some aspects of it that are largely reserved for communicating with other dogs. While a dog may howl to get its human's attention, howling's mainly a way to communicate with other dogs in the neighborhood.

And then there's the whole messy business of scent communication. Just about everything your dog secretes is loaded with pheromones, and these can carry a lot of information for other dogs, including its age, social status, sexual status and even its emotional and physiological state; that's why they spend so much time sniffing each other's butts. 

Your dog's moods and how to spot them

Thankfully all that canine pheromone data goes completely over our human heads, but if you want to get a good fix on what sort of mood your mutt's in right now, here's a run-down of the five main doggy moods, and how to identify them through its body language.

Happy and relaxed body language

A dog demonstrating relaxed body language

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A dog that's in a relaxed and happy mood should be a familiar sight for most owners, and the signs will be visible across its entire body. Look out for:

  • Body posture: relaxed with a loose stance, with its weight distributed between all four paws. Fur flat and smooth.
  • Head: held high, with an interested and alert face, a slightly open mouth with perhaps the tongue slightly out. Ears up (but not pointing forward) and eyes in their normal shape.
  • Tail: Either down and relaxed, or wagging from side to side.

Playful and excited body language

Two dogs demonstrating playful body language

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Spotting a dog that's in a playful and excited mood can be just a little tricky, because its body language could be misinterpreted as being either happy or aggressive. 

But if you look for all the signs then you should find it easy to conclude when your pooch is up for a game.

  • Body posture: front end down and rear end raised, with forepaws flat on the ground. Fur flat and smooth.
  • Head: down, with an open mouth and maybe the tongue hanging out, possibly barking excitedly. Ears up, and wide eyes with dilated pupils.
  • Tail: up, and probably wagging.

Aggressive body language

A dog demonstrating aggressive body language

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The type of aggressive body language you may see in a dog will depend on how confident it feels in a threatening situation; a more dominant dog will behave differently to a fearful dog. 

In both cases, however, they're readying themselves to attack if necessary, so watch out for the signs:

  • Body posture: a dominant dog will stand straight, leaning slightly forward, with a very stiff-legged stance, while a fearful dog will hold its body much closer to the ground. In both cases, though, their hackles – the fur around their shoulders and down towards the base of the tail, will be visibly raised.
  • Head: in a dominant dog its head will looking straight forward, with its lips curled and its teeth (and maybe its gums) bared, and its ears forward and alert. With a submissive dog you'll see its head down and its lips slightly curled, perhaps showing some teeth, and its ears will be right back. Both dogs, however, will have dilated pupils and a wrinkled nose (and possibly forehead too).
  • Tail: a dominant dog that's ready to fight will have a tail that's raised and stiff (and potentially quivering), with bristled fur. A fearful dog, on the other hand, will have its tail tucked firmly between its legs.

Fearful body language

A dog demonstrating submissive body language

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Your dog's behavior when it's feeling fearful will depend on just how scared it is, and on whether it's scared enough to become completely submissive. 

A scared or worried dog will hold itself close to the ground, while a submissive dog is more likely to roll completely on its back with its belly and throat exposed. Here's what else to look out for:

  • Tail: a scared dog's tail will be down, but may wag slightly as a non-threatening sign in order to avoid a fight. A terrified, submissive dog will have its tail completely tucked.
  • Body posture: lowered or flat on the ground, as mentioned. A merely scared dog may have a front paw raised as a sign of submission, and it may leave sweaty pawprints on the floor. A terrified and submissive dog, on the other hand, might squirt out a bit of pee as a submissive sign.
  • Head: scared dogs will tend to avoid eye contact and maybe keep their eyes partly closed. Similarly they'll keep their mouths mostly closed with the corner of the mouth back. Their noses and foreheads will be flat, not wrinkled, and in both cases ears will be back, but in a terrified and submissive dog the ears will be completely flat.

Anxious body language

A dog demonstrating anxious body language

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An anxious dog is one that's feeling stressed, either for social or environmental reasons, and the signs you may see in an anxious dog aren't aimed at any particular individual; rather they're a general indicator of its current state of mind, and on the whole they'd rather be left alone right now.

  • Body posture: low to the ground, either standing, sitting or lying down.
  • Head: likely lowered and avoiding eye contact or completely looking away, with ears back. The mouth may be closed, or the dog may be nervously licking its lips or even yawning.
  • Tail: either low or tucked completely away.
Jim McCauley

Jim is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler based in Bath, who last year adopted a pair of sibling rescue cats who turned out to be effectively feral, and has spent a lot of time since then trying to get them accustomed to people (some success) and each other (ongoing project).