Nonverbal communication fascinates most of us animal lovers, and who can blame us for wanting to understand our furry friends? But reading the body language of another species is quite a challenge. Most of us try to translate facial expressions, body postures, tail positions, and other details into signals that make sense in human terms—a strategy that often fails.
Here’s an overview that can help you learn to read your dog’s signals. Look for the clues provided by the look in their eyes, the tone of their voice, the position of her ears and body, and the motion of their tail.
And remember to take into account your dog’s entire body and the situation they’re in—context is everything.
Bark: Territorial call, attention-seeking, anxiety, social needs, or aggression
Whine: Care soliciting, puppies, pain, or frustration
Howl: To some breeds, this may be the vocal equivalent of marking
Growl: Aggression or distance-increasing signal
Pupils dilated: Nervous, playful, aroused
Ears forward*: Alert, interested, happy, relaxed
Ears flat, backward, or sideways: Fearful, frightened, irritable
Swiveling: Attentive, listening to every little sound, alert, vigilant
Mouth closed: Relaxed
Mouth open with relaxed lips: Happy, excited
Mouth open tight and showing teeth: Fearful, aggressive
Lip curl or lifting, vertical or horizontal: Defensive aggression
Submissive grin: Appeasement behavior
*Depends on the breed’s natural ear position
Body Language (posture)
Happy and content: Approaching with relaxed body, sitting or lying down, eyes soft, pupils moderately dilated, tail softly wagging or straight, ears forward.
Playful: Bouncy body movements, might be bowing front body and sticking hind end up (called playbow).
Nervous, insecure, fearful: Ears sideways or back, pupils dilated, tail low or tucked between legs, low body posture, tense, wants to hide, turns away, does not accept treats, lip licking, yawning, hyper vigilant, moving slowly, stalling, panting, or pacing.
Frightened, startled: Stiff or lowered body posture, ears back and flat against head, fur standing straight on back, tail erect or low, hyper vigilant, may growl, bark, or snarl.
Fearful, aggressive: Stands stiff or crouches, leaning body position, ears flattened, tail between legs or up, pupils dilated, panting, lip licking, yawning, may loudly growl, bark, or snarl.
Aggressive, on the offensive: Ears forward, forward-leaning body position, tail hair bristling or fur standing straight on back, hard stare or growl, bark and snarl or snap.