Dog Body Language

by Dr. Noelle Weeks, Veterinary Resource Center Veterinarian 

What is your dog thinking?  Wouldn’t it be great if we knew what was going on in our dog’s head!  While we will never know what our dogs are thinking, there are some ways we can use a dog’s body language to try to interpret what they are feeling at the moment.

The tail.  A dog’s tail can convey some of what your dog is feeling. It is a misconception that dogs wag their tail because they are happy.   In fact, a dog could be wagging his tail and be seconds away from biting you!  A lowered tail could indicate your dog is uncertain or fearful.  A tail held straight out could indicate curiosity about something.  Whereas, a tail held higher than normal usually means your dog is in a heightened state of interest in something; this can be a happy or aggressive state.  There has been research that shows if your dog’s tail wags more to the right, your dog has positive emotions; if the tail wags more to the left, your dog has more negative or stressed emotions.

The ears.  A relaxed dog holds their ears in a neutral position.  Some dogs have floppy ears and some dogs have ears that stand up.  The neutral position depends on the type of ears your dog has.  What is universal is that a stressed or scared dog will pull their ears back and/or to the side.  Ears which are pulled back or to the side mean you should interact with this dog with caution.

The mouth.  A relaxed dog has relaxed lips.  A stressed or scared dog will pull their lips back, lick their lips frequently, pant and even yawn.  These are all signs of negative emotions.

The eyes.  A relaxed dog has a relaxed brow and eyes.  As dogs get more stressed or nervous, they will furrow their brow.  A stressed dog will also show more of the whites of their eyes.  This is called “whale eye”.  A stressed dog will also avoid looking at what is causing the stress.  It is good to remember that some dogs do not like direct eye contact; other dogs can be OK with direct eye contact.

It is important to look at all parts of the dog’s body to interpret all of these different features.   Here is a helpful poster that helps to display dog body language. 

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