How to Read Dog Body Language

gray cat and black and white dog
By Pet Expert Team
Updated: 5/20/20242-4 minutes
Happy dog

When it comes to reading dog body language, some of your pet’s actions are crystal clear: A beeline for the front door when you come home means they’re happy to see you; staring at the treat jar says they’re craving a snack; and a lethargic walk suggests they may not be feeling well.

Other expressions, though, can be less obvious. As you share your life together, experiencing everything from camping trips to catnaps, you can learn to better understand your best friend—and strengthen your relationship—if you know how to interpret their way of speaking.

Here’s everything you need to know about reading canine body language.

How Much Do Dogs Understand?

Research has established that dogs can understand over 150 cues. Some breeds—Labradors, Border Collies, Poodles, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Golden Retrievers—can comprehend up to 250 words, signals and sounds.

How to Tell What Your Dog Is Feeling

In any communicative exchange, there are verbal and visual cues, a situation, and context; these factors all work together to help you interpret a message.

Here’s how to identify how your dog may be feeling through common forms of body language.

Happiness & Related Feelings

Signs of happiness include:

  • Tail is mid-level and relaxed
  • Open mouth
  • Tongue is dangling over front teeth
  • Relaxed tail wag

Typical signs of confidence:

  • Standing tall
  • Ears up
  • Tail is wagging slowly
  • Eyes are alert and engaged in direct contact

Signs of playfulness:

  • Lifted tail and rear end
  • Lowered front legs (like the downward dog yoga pose)
  • Exaggerated Movements

Fear/Anxiety

Your canine may be afraid if you see any of the following behaviors:

  • Tail and ears are down
  • Lowered head
  • Arched back
  • Teeth showing
  • Growling or whining
  • Trembling
  • Yawning/Lip Licking
  • Whale Eye (dog looks indirectly at things so see the whites of their eyes)
  • Hiding under table, bed or between your legs

When they show anxious behaviors, try distracting your dog with something more fun. Then, offer praise each time they show more positive behavior (like coming out from under the table or bed).

The best thing you can do is remain calm, as you are a source of guidance on how to react.

Insecurity

Your dog might be feeling a bit insecure if they lick their nose when you speak to them. (This cue is tricky because a dog also licks their nose to get it wet and thus capture scent molecules. Note the context of the action to understand its meaning.)

Once you understand the times in which your dog feels insecure (meeting new people) or afraid (fireworks, running vacuum), you can work to mitigate those circumstances and look to build positive associations to help them stay calm.

Other Kinds of Dog Body Language

Barking

Barking is another direct way your dog talks to you. During play, this behavior expresses pride and happiness, as if to state, “Look at me!”

If your pet barks when a stranger is near, they’re giving you a warning that says, “I’m not sure about this person.”

Nuzzling

If you’re asking yourself, “Why does my dog bury his head in me?”, it’s likely a sign of affection. Nuzzling is a way for canines to express love. In some situations, depending on the context, it can also signal anxiety. They may bury their head in you for security.

Tail Wagging

When your dog wags their tail, they’re happy, right? Not all the time, say the experts. “Dogs use tail wagging to express a number of emotions beyond just being happy,” explains Dr. Miles Bensky. “You really need to look at the height at which they carry their tail and the speed of the tail wag to differentiate between various emotions.”

So how can you tell what your dog is saying with a wag? Here’s how to interpret the following wag traits:

  • Broad wags at a moderate pace means your dog is happy and showing they like you.
  • Small side-by-side wags at a fast pace mean your dog is excited.
  • Slow wags with the head lowered mean your dog feels insecure or is trying to comprehend a situation.

For some breeds, holding the tail high or curved over the back with short, fast wags signals they need space. As Dr. Bensky mentioned, it depends on the height and speed of the wag.

Raised Hackles

Another canine body language cue is how their hackles, or hair on the back of the neck, react. When on alert, their hair stands up. Keep in mind that raised hackles don’t necessarily mean your dog is mad or afraid; they’re just being extra attentive to a person or situation.

Sniffing

A dog’s sense of smell is ultra-keen, and it’s one of the main ways they learn about the environment. Sniffing is a sign they’re curious and interested in making sense of an object. They could be trying to find or identify it or tell if another person or dog has been in the vicinity.

Smiling

While dogs are limited in their facial expressions (compared to humans), there’s a definitive emotion being communicated when their mouth is open, tongue hanging out. Dogs smile when they’re happy and pleased.

Take Time to Talk

If you want to better read dog body language, the best way is to spend as much time with your pet as you can. Engage them in a variety of situations, from playing games to taking leisurely walks. In turn, speak frequently—dogs understand tone of voice and volume. Don’t forget to be relaxed and smile often; they know the expression is a positive one.

With time together, you'll learn to better speak each other’s languages. Eventually, you may even be able to identify one bark from another.

 For more dog behavior tips from our experts, visit our Pet Expertise page.

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