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Dog Body Language

by Lex Fredricks

Understanding basic canine behavior is our passport into mutually terrific relationships with our dogs. Knowing how to identify basic canine body language, is step one in removing the hindrance of misunderstanding. Different breeds have different body language. For example, Akitas hold their tails high and always look confident, Greyhounds tuck their tail between their legs and always look fearful and Boxers have no tails!

The same goes for ears and how they can differ in each breed. This why it’s important to learn to identify all indicators of canine emotion and try to get a general idea of overall body language and not be thwarted by your Malamute’s high tail or you’re the fact that you can’t see your Sheepdog’s eyes or ears!


A relaxed dog has his mouth slightly open and his tongue lolling. His ears are not pushed forward or flattened back, they are in a neutral position The tail is also held at a neutral position and his body is relaxed and not bristling, stiff or recoiling in any way. This is your dog’s standard position and you know it better then me!


An alert dog Holds his ears are forward and they may twitch a little. The mouth is pursed and the rest of the face are smooth. The tail is held horizontally but is not stiff or bristling and may wag slowly from side to side. The eyes are wide and focused on the interesting thing.


Smiling Dog

A confidently aggressive dog Is stiff and his whole body is shifted forwards. The tail is stiff, bristled and held high and may quiver or vibrate slightly. His hackles are raised, ears are pushed forward and his eyes are dilated and staring. Forehead and nose are wrinkled and lips are curled to form a tall snarl. The mouth is C-shaped and the corners of the mouth are forward displaying his teeth.


A fearfully aggressive dog lowers his body, raises his hackles and tucks in his tail, holding it stiff and still. His ears are flattened and the eyes are dilated. The nose is wrinkled and the teeth may be bared, But the corners of the mouth are pulled back into a grimace.


A fearful and/or submissive dog has his body lowered and may have a paw raised. His tail is down and may wag slightly, his ears are back and forehead is smooth. Eye contact is short and indirect and dog may lick at air or the perceived threat. If fear or submission escalate, the dog may roll into his back and expose his throat and belly. Submission can occur without fear and a submissive dog is not always fearful.


A playful dog has his bum up in the air and front paws on the ground! This is called a play bow and is unmistakable. The tail is up and wagging broadly, the ears are up and the mouth is relaxed and possibly opened wide and smiling. Many dogs bark or growl in this position and all vocalizations made whilst in a play bow are friendly and an invitation to play.

In the case of different breeds having different attributes, We can piece together the dogs message by learning their visual signals Independently and piecing them together.



  • Pulled back or flattened are either expressing fear or submission
  • Ears held at side of head in an “airplane” position are expressing confusion and uncertainty
  • Ears alternately flicking and slightly forwards and then flattened indicate investigation and interest
  • Ears forward signify interest or confidence
  • Ears in the neutral position are relaxed


  • A direct stare indicates a challenge. Dominance and confidence
  • Eyes averted signify fear, evasion or submission
  • Blinking is a “calming signal” which I will go more into below
  • Looking at you through a corner of the eye is often a coy invitation to play or solicit your attention without being rude.
  • When pupils are large, this indicates arousal


  • Relaxed and panting is neutral
  • A C-shaped tall snarl is offensive aggression
  • Corners of mouth pulled back indicates fear or submission
  • Corners of mouth pulled back and teeth exposed indicates fearful aggression and or defensiveness
  • Mouth pursed and possibly a “round” vocalization expresses playfulnessNot Happy
  • Mouth pursed with silence or a low growl equals investigation, uncertainty or possible defensiveness
  • Front teeth bared in a “smile” with wrinkled nose accompanied by sneezing or head bowing is submission and friendliness


  • Tail up and curved around back-dominance
  • Tail horizontal but not stiff-relaxed investigation
  • Tail horizontal and slightly stiff- caution
  • Tail held relaxed- neutral
  • Tail pulled sharply down and possibly wagging slightly- distress or discomfort
  • Tail pulled down- insecurity
  • Tail tucked between legs- fear or submission
  • Bristling hair on tail- threatening
  • Bristling hair on only tip of tail- stress
  • A sharp bend in tail- dominance and/or aggression
  • A slight wag-a pacifying submissive gesture
  • A broad wag- friendliness or play
  • A wild wagging of the tail- I like you or I’m interested
  • A broad wag that actually moves the hips- respective submission
  • A slow wag- confusion or uncertainty

Full body language:

  • Stiffness, bristling and shifting forward signifies dominance and/or aggression
  • Hair bristling only on shoulders indicates nervousness
  • Muzzle nudging- a request from beta to alpha, often with licking
  • Dog sits and allows other dog to sniff- a calming signal. A request for peaceful behavior
  • Exposing throat and belly- fear and/or submission.
  • Standing over another dog, putting paw or head on other dog’s back- assertion of dominance
  • Shoulder bumping- dominancePlaying Dogs
  • Turning side to other dog- admission of beta status
  • Circling indicates a conflict.
  • Freezing signifies a conflict, fear, concern or worry.
  • Raising one paw- anxiety and insecurity
  • ting- dominance. Mounting is nonsexual unless between an unaltered male and female.
  • Rolling on back and rubbing with nose or shoulders- I’m enjoying myself!
  • Crouching with front legs out and rear and tail up- let’s play!

Calming Signals:

Calming signals are a dog’s way of saying “I’m sensing some disarray here, but I don’t want any trouble. Let’s just be peaceful.” Calming signals include yawning, turning away, blinking, sniffing the ground, grooming, sitting, urinating, licking, sniffing air, lifting a paw, scratching, Play bow, stretching, sneezing or other casual behaviors. If your dog exhibits calming signals while you’re training her, she’s saying she’s had enough and wants you to relent.

Play Behavior:

Hiding Dog

Barking, growling, nipping, chasing, stalking, grabbing around the neck, jaw wrestling, body slamming, grabbing ears and tails, falling and rolling, somersaults, “keep away” are all normal play/mock-fighting behaviors for dogs. While play occurs, dogs temporarily become equals and even dominant dogs will sometimes lie belly up over and allow submissive dogs to shoulder them, nibble them, wrestle them and behave in a way that wouldn’t typically be tolerated in an alpha/beta relationship.

Sometimes the dominant dog will get fed up a disagreement may ensue. If playing stops and dogs becomes stiff and circle each other, freeze or “face off”, play may have stopped and there may be conflict until the breech of etiquette is resolved. Dog play is mock-fighting and hunting. Keep that in mind and do not assume dogs are fighting when they are only playing.


  • Dogs making themselves look taller, larger and pointing at the target are dominance signals
  • Dogs making themselves look smaller and turning away are exhibiting submission signals
  • A play bow always means play!
  • Frightened dogs are more prone to inflicting serious bites than confident dogs
  • Do not console a frightened dog, this reinforces fear. Issue a command and praise the dog for executing it correctly

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Last Modified: 24 March 2020

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