How to understand your dog’s body language

Sophie Taylor

Whether you’re an experienced dog handler or a little cautious around canines, it can still be difficult to read a dog’s complex language. To work out whether a pooch wants to say hello or is telling you to back off, have a read of our handy dog body language guide.

If they're approachable…

approachable dog body language

A content and relaxed dog will have its ears up (not forward), head high with a loose stance. Although a happy, excited dog will have its tail high and wagging, a content and relaxed dog’s tail will be hanging. The tail will not curl between its legs, however, which denotes fear.

Your relaxed dog’s mouth will be open slightly with tongue exposed. If you are still unsure of whether to approach, go slowly and make no sudden moves. Don’t make too much eye contact and slowly extend the back of your hand for the dog to sniff first before patting.

Nine times out of ten the dog will be happy to say hello and wonder why you seem so cautious.

Read more: How to train your dog

 

If they're alert…

dog showing alert body language

As you approach a content dog, they may become curious about you and their body language may switch up to alert. Their eyes will widen, their tail stretch horizontal and perhaps move from side to side.

As they sniff you they may stand taller on their toes, leaning forwards. Their mouth will likely be closed as they determine the situation and work you out.

Read more: 7 facts you didn't know about your dog

 

If they're feeling playful…

excited dog body language

After this initial welcome sniff, they might then raise their tail and rear end with bent, lowered front paws. This means it's playtime!

This position will be held briefly before rushing off in random directions to get you to chase and to play with them. Their ears will be up and tongue out. This is your chance to have a run about with your pal.

During playtime, this raised rear end / lowered front paws behaviour signals that no ill feeling was meant by previous rough and tumbles or little nips you may have endured. It is often accompanied by short barks as if to say, ‘I’m joking! Play with me!”

 

If they're feeling fearful and worried…

scared dog body language

Alternatively, you might find your dog or another one playing with yours isn’t quite so relaxed and outgoing. You will be able to tell as they become more submissive, with ears back, body lowered and perhaps raising one paw.

They will be quiet until provoked into feeling more distressed. Their tail will be down but may wag slightly. The corner of their mouth might be curled back slightly.

Read more: 5 Ways you're annoying your dog

 

If they're feeling fearful and aggressive…

aggressive dog

If the dog shows the previous signs of worry but starts to show more teeth, growl more loudly and their tail is hidden between their legs they are fearful but not submissive.

They are ready to attack if provoked more so be wary of this body language. These signals are expressed as they directly face their source of ‘threat’.

Move them away from the source and distract with food or toys and new smells.

 

If they're feeling stressed and distressed…

dog massage stressed body language

A dog that is under social or environmental stress will pace about with tail down, body lowered and ears back. They may leave sweat marks from their paws and their panting will be rapid with pupils dilated.

Try to work out the source of their stress. If there is nothing immediate you can to do to change the situation, a calming massage will help. Constant pressure applied to their legs, moving from the tops to their paws and back up can help calm them as well as slow rubbing of their shoulder and back.

Keep your vocalisations low, calm and reassuring. They will start to feel safe. Don’t stand over them or embrace them in a hug as this can add to their stress levels.

 

If they're feeling extreme fear and total submission…

extremely scared dog body language

If a dog rolls onto their back exposing their stomach, throat and genitals they are comfortable with you and the situation and simply want a tummy rub. However, if the dog tucks its tail over its groin and turns their head away from you then they are experiencing extreme fear and are displaying total submission. They may even urinate a small amount.

If it's still unclear as to whether they’re happy or terrified, look to see if their ears are flat and back and whether the corner of their mouth is turned back. Try to leave them alone in this situation and see how they react. A dog just wanting a tummy rub will make it known they want your love and affection.

 

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