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Dogs are always trying to communicate with us. While we may not understand their barks and growls, canine body language can help us get a rough idea of what they are feeling or if they want to tell us something.

Bonding with your pet dog builds a relationship with them. It almost feels like you can read each other’s minds. One look, a soft whimper, rapid tail wags, and paw raises already let you know what your pup is trying to say.

However, it’s not always the same for other people’s dogs or stray hounds. It can be dangerous to approach them, especially if you’re a stranger or if they see you as a threat.

This blog serves as a guide for knowing common canine body language ideas and their meanings to our canine companions.

Be fluent in understanding these nonverbal actions to protect your pet in various situations, such as meeting people, being in a new environment, and encountering other dogs.

Understanding Dog Body Language

The body language of dogs can be broken down into separate parts. It is essential to study how dogs use each of their body parts to communicate. The subtleties in these actions can easily be misinterpreted and confuse pet owners if they’re not observed properly.

Eyes

a black puppy

The eyes of dogs can say a lot about what they’re currently feeling. We often associate this with “puppy dog eyes,” wherein our pets are either remorseful or looking to get something from us.

For example, tense dogs have rounder eyes and may show more of the sclerae or the white part of the eye. Dog trainers call this “whale eye.”

Dilated pupils make dog eyes look “glassy” and are an indication of fear or arousal. Meanwhile, relaxed dogs will often squint, which causes their eyes to become almond-shaped with no sclera showing at all.

You can also consider observing how your dog focuses their eyes and how intense their gaze is. Direct staring means it is threatened or wants to assert its dominance.

Meanwhile, dogs that avert their gaze are more likely to be submissive. This can also mean that they are cautious or worried about interacting with you.

As a general rule, you shouldn’t make eye contact with dogs you’ve just met, as they can interpret your presence as a threat. Instead, get to know the pooch first to gain their trust slowly.

Mouth, Teeth, and Tongue

a man petting a brown dog

Relaxed dogs will feature different mouth appearances depending on the weather. If it is hot, they will have their mouths closed or slightly opened, as if grinning.

Dogs will pant with the corners of their eyes turned upward slightly to cool themselves down since they don’t have sweat glands.

Tense dogs will keep their mouths shut and may even pull their lips back at the corners. Dog trainers called it “long lip.” You can also observe how your dog breathes or pants.

If it suddenly closes its mouth, it responds to changes in its environment and indicates increased stress.

If a dog wrinkles the top of its muzzle and pulls its lips vertically to display its front teeth, you better take a step back. This pose is called an “offensive pucker” and often comes with a growl, tense forehead, and hard eyes.

It’s as if they are saying, “look at my weapons.” These are all clear warnings of an aggressive hound.

However, showing teeth isn’t always a sign of aggression. In fact, some dogs, like the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, do it when they are happy or smiling.

It is essential to look at the whole body of your dog to understand what they’re trying to show us.

a yawning dog

Dogs also yawn as a sign of being tired like humans. It’s also contagious since your dog will most likely yawn if you do it in front of them.

However, pet owners should note that yawning can also mean that your dog is relieving their tension from stress and confusion.

Lastly, lip-licking can mean multiple things. It can be a calming signal to show other pups they mean no harm, but it can also indicate fear or nervousness.

Uncomfortable environments or situations can make a dog lick its lips continuously.

Ears

Dogs have different ear types. For example, Siberian huskies and Pomeranians have prick ears, French Bulldogs have large, blunt-tipped ears, and Basenjis have hooded ears that curve inward.

It can be difficult to distinguish their emotions because of these differences.

a black puppy running on the grass

However, you can always look at the base of their ears to gauge what they’re feeling. Relaxed dogs will have ears that are slightly back or out to the sides.

Their ears will move forward and point towards their subject of interest.  Erect or tense ears mean that the pooch feels aggressive or dominant, while ears pulled flat against their head can indicate that the dog is worried or fearful.

Tail

There are two things to consider about a dog’s tail: its base and how it’s moving. Relaxed dogs have their tail in a neutral position that extends out from their spine.

It will raise the more they get excited or aroused. Cautious and nervous dogs also wag their tail but more slowly and steadily.

The dog’s tail may wag loosely from side to side or sweep in a circular motion. It can move more rapidly as the dog becomes more excited.

On the other hand, a weary and fearful dog will tuck its tail between its rear legs, hold it against its belly, or wag stiffly.

Hair

Dogs are like humans because they also get “goosebumps.” The fur on their back can rise when they become upset, aroused, or cold.

The bristling of hairs due to contraction of small muscles is known as piloerection and is also called “raised hackles.” This phenomenon can happen anywhere, from their shoulders, spine, and above the tail.

Posture and Stance

a german shepherd looking at the camera

The posture of dogs can also say a lot about their emotions. Apart from body parts, a dog’s posture can also say a lot about its emotions. For example, crouching or cowering is a sign of fear and stress.

This stance makes them look smaller and could mean they are harmless. Some dogs will even roll on their back and expose their belly.

While it may appear almost as if they’re inviting you to give them a rub, it can be a symptom of stress and anxiety.

When a dog shifts its weight forward to make itself look bigger, it can mean that something has sparked its interest or it’s readying to attack.

However, when it stretches its front legs, leans down on its elbows, brings its chest low to the ground, and raises its rear end in the air, it usually initiates playtime with people and other dogs. This position is called the “play bow.”

Raising the paw is an easily misunderstood dog pose. For pointing breeds like the English and Gordon Setter, it indicates nearby prey, but it means uncertainty and insecurity for other species.

Decipher Your Dog’s Body Language

This general overview of canine body language can go a long way in understanding the emotions and actions of your canine companion. It’s impossible to know what your dog is trying to say if you only look at one action.

You should look at other aspects, from their eyes and facial expressions to how they’re moving or acting.

Even though humans can’t directly understand what dogs are saying, knowing their emotions and thoughts can help you predict their behavior and prevent problems before they happen.

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