As a veterinarian who visits pets in their homes, it is important to recognize a dog's body language. Pet parents also become skilled at reading their furry friend’s physical cues - they tell us when they are hungry or thirsty and whether they are comfortable or in pain. Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and being able to read and interpret this language can help you better understand your pet's emotions, behavior, and health needs.
Read on to learn more about the many different dog body language cues that our furry companions use to communicate and what they might mean.
The position of a dog's tail can tell us a lot about how they're feeling. A relaxed, neutral tail position indicates that your dog is calm and comfortable.
A tail that is held high and stiff, however, may tell that your dog is feeling tense or even aggressive. A tail that is tucked between the legs may mean fear or submission. A wagging tail can show happiness or excitement, but it can also indicate stress.
A tail held high with fast wagging is usually a sign of excitement, while a low tail with a slow wag can be a sign of fear or aggression. To know how your dog is feeling, it is helpful to look at the whole picture of your dog’s behavior.
The position of a dog's ears can tell you a lot about their mood. Ears that are perked up and forward indicate alertness and interest. Ears pulled back against the head may indicate fear, anxiety, or submission. A dog with relaxed, floppy ears is generally comfortable and at ease.
The eyes are referred to as the windows to the soul, which can also be true for dogs. A dog that is relaxed and comfortable will have soft, relaxed eyes. A dog feeling threatened or aggressive is likely to have wide, staring eyes with dilated pupils.
A dog's body posture can also tell you a lot about their emotional state. A dog that is standing tall, with their head held high and chest out is likely feeling confident and assertive. A dog that is hunched over, with their tail tucked and their body tense, is likely feeling fearful or submissive. A dog that is lying down on their back with their belly exposed may be indicating submission, or they may simply be looking for attention or affection (belly rubs)!
A dog's mouth is also an indicator of your dog’s mood. A relaxed, open mouth (with or without the tongue out) may indicate that your dog feels happy, calm, and comfortable. Similarly, panting may be a sign that your pet is hot, or could mean they are anxious or uncomfortable.
A closed mouth with tightly pressed lips may indicate anxiety or tension. A dog that is showing their teeth or snarling is likely feeling aggressive or threatened and caution should be exercised when your dog is approaching people and other pets.
Lastly, a dog's vocalizations, while a form of verbal communication and not body language per se, can also yield important clues as to what’s going on in their mind.
Barking, growling, grunting, and howling can all indicate different emotions, from playfulness to aggression. Pay attention to the tone of your dog's vocalizations as well as the volume and frequency. Your dog may bark to warn you of danger or to show excitement. They may growl to communicate that they are hungry or need to go outside, but also as a sign of aggression. They may grunt to indicate contentment or to beg for food or attention.
Finally, a dog may howl when they are missing you, are in pain, or to communicate with other dogs. If your dog is howling or vocalizing more than usual and is showing other signs of physical discomfort, you should schedule a behavioral consultation with your veterinarian.
The Importance of Reading Your Dog’s Body Language
Here are some common scenarios where understanding your dog's body language can be especially helpful:
1. Meeting New People or Animals
Introducing your dog to new people or animals can be stressful for them, especially if they are not used to socializing. By watching your dog's body language during these introductions, you can get a sense of how they're feeling and intervene if necessary.
If your dog's tail is tucked or their ears are pulled back, for example, they may be feeling fearful or threatened and may need some extra reassurance from you. Growling and showing their teeth tells you that you should remove your dog from the situation immediately.
2. Getting a Vet Checkup
Many dogs find vet visits and exams to be stressful or scary. By watching your dog's body language before a vet visit, you can help them feel more comfortable and calm. Mobile veterinary care is a great option for dogs who are fearful of car rides, carriers, and vet clinics. Our veterinarians are Fear Free certified and experts in reading your pet’s body language.
3. Playing With Other Dogs
Dogs love to play and interact with other dogs, but it's important to monitor their body language during playtime. Sometimes, what may seem like playful behavior to humans may actually be a sign of aggression or discomfort in dogs.
For example, if you are at a dog park and your dog is growling or showing their teeth while playing, it may indicate that they are feeling overwhelmed or threatened. Another red flag is if your or another dog is crouched low onto the ground, as it may be a warning sign that they are ready to charge or attack. Paying attention to your dog's body language during playtime can help prevent fights or injuries.
If your dog seems stressed or is showing signs of aggression with other dogs, you should leave immediately. For help with behavior strategies, a consultation with your veterinarian can be a big help.
4. During Training
Training your dog can be a useful and rewarding experience, but it's important to be mindful of their body language during the sessions. If your dog seems anxious or stressed, it may indicate that they are not comfortable with the training method or are feeling overwhelmed.
On the other hand, if your dog seems relaxed and responsive during training, it may indicate that they are enjoying the process and are ready to learn.
By paying attention to your dog's body language during training, you can adjust your approach as needed to ensure that your dog is happy and engaged.
If you have questions or concerns about your dog’s behavior, schedule a behavior consultation or a telemedicine video consultation with one of our veterinarians.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do dogs turn around in circles before lying down?
Called “trampling,’ this behavior is thought to be an instinctual carryover from when dogs lived in the wild, and was a way to beat down the grass to make sure there aren’t any snakes or dangerous insects in their sleeping area.
Why does my dog stare at me?
It is generally thought that eye contact is a learned behavior from living with humans (aww) and a way to connect, ask for attention, or to express affection. Sometimes, a dog may stare at you when they feel threatened or are ready to attack, so it’s important to read a dog’s other cues as well.
Why does my dog chase their tail?
Tail chasing is a common puppy behavior and is a way to play, burn off that puppy energy, or practice their motor skills. Older dogs also chase their tails too, often in a playful manner.
However, if your adult dog is chasing its tail, in a frenzied way, they may be uncomfortable and trying to reach their rear end. They may be suffering from flea or tick bites or may need their anal glands expressed. Tail chasing as an adult can also be a sign of anxiety.
Reach out to your veterinarian if you think your dog’s tail chasing is a symptom that something is going on with their health.
What is Your Pet’s Love Language?Let’s Find Out!
1. How does your pet greet you when you come home?
2. What is your pet’s favorite reward?
3. Where would your pet choose to go?
4. If your pet could talk, what would they say to you?
Your Pet's Love Language is
As pet parents, you know your dog's body language better than anyone, but it’s never an exact science. Every dog is unique, and some dogs may exhibit certain behaviors or postures for reasons only they know for sure. A dog's body language can also be influenced by their environment, past trauma or experiences, and their personality. That being said, paying attention to your dog's body language can give us important insights into their emotions and needs as veterinarians and you as the pet parent.