What You can Learn from Your Dog's Body Language


Since our dogs can't talk to us, we need to rely on the other ways they communicate. Body language is an important communication tool but it requires paying attention and understanding the meaning behind those actions. We're using the photos below to identify some common ways dog's demonstrate emotions with their body language. Since we aren't there in the moment, we can't truly know what each dog was experiencing. However, with some basic understanding of typical dog body language signs and taking in the current situation, we can start to identify how our dog attempts to communicate with us about their needs.

What Did I Hear You Say?

This is a head tilt!

Why do dogs do this? Researchers found that head tilting occurs more frequently when dogs hear words they are familiar with. Studies have also suggested that this behavior could helps dogs pay attention and remember words and sounds better somehow by facilitating how it is processed in their brains. Researchers also believe that dogs have a side preference for head tilt!

So, when you see this know that you have your dog's full attention!

Sommese, A., Miklósi, Á., Pogány, Á., Temesi, A., Dror, S., & Fugazza, C. (2021). An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs. Animal cognition, 1-5.

Is That Peanut Butter on Your Lips Or Are You Trying to Tell Me Something?

Lip licking can occur for a variety of reasons:

Practical: Your dog has something yummy stuck on their lips or they are licking off some drool.

Medical: Their nose is dry or something is making them uncomfortable.

Behavioral. Dogs often lick their lips when they are nervous.

To know if it is due to nervousness look at the rest of the dogs face and body as well as their environment. Is their face tense, is their body language still, is there something in the environment making them nervous?

Is it Naptime Yet?

Yawning can mean your dog is sleepy but it can so be a sign of nervousness and stress. Behaviorists think that yawning is a way for dogs to cope with a stressful situation. So, check out your dogs environment to see if that might be the case.

Nope, No Thank You!

A tucked tail almost always means your dog is nervous and afraid.

Sometimes, our dogs use multiple body parts to express something. We can look at their eyes, head, ears, tail, body and more and put together all those puzzle pieces to figure out what they are feeling and communicating.

I Don't Think I Like This Very Much

Here's what we see in this image:

Ears are pinned back.

Eyes are looking down and away creating a "whale eye" situation. While dilated pupils can also occur when your dog is playing, if it occurs with the whites of the eyes showing (the schelra), it is a classic whale eye. This happens when your dog is trying not to look at what’s scaring him but also doesn’t feel safe to look away.

This dog's mouth is tense and the tongue is not relaxed. It may be difficult to tell with brachycephalic, or short-muzzled dogs, like this one, but this is a "nervous lip lick."

This dog is likely uncomfortable  and uncertain with what is happening between all the people and being grabbed by his collar.

Most dogs do enjoy getting pet but probably not all the time and perhaps not by multiple people at once. Check in with your dog during petting time by watching their body language to ensure it is what they want. You can also practice asking for your dog's consent by stepping back for a moment. If they re-engage with you continue the fun! If they walk away, give them a break. With strangers, allow your dog to approach them for a pet, rather than letting them pet your dog who may not be ready or into it. Afterall, we don't want people touching us all the time, especially if we don't know them!

Get Me Outta Here!

Pupils dilated, whites are showing = “whale eye”.

Ears are down and tucked back.

Mouth is tense and slightly puckered.

Body is compressed and leaning away (note the paw raised).

Taken together, the whale eyes with the tucked ears and tense body, we can tell this dog is afraid. The raised paw and how his body is leaning back suggests uncertainty.

Your own dog, with these expressions, may need some comforting or to be removed from the situation that is causing the fear. If you try to approach someone else's dog, it is best to read these types of signs as "please stay away, I am not ready to say hello to you!"


Most of us have had it happen. We left our dogs alone and came back to a mess or something destroyed. Our first reaction is to get mad at our dogs. When we do, our dog's may give us a response that we interpret as "guilty as charged!" But a closer look at their body language tells a different story.

In this picture, it appears that the dog has chewed up the remote and the owner is reprimanding him. But what is this dog's body language really saying:

Ears: Pulled back and crinkled

Eyes: Squinty

Mouth: Tense and pulled back, almost looks like a "smile"

These are all signs of submission in a dog. Together, they tell us that this dog is most likely trying to appease its owner. That face does not mean they are "guilty" (it was my brother!) More importantly, even if they did do the "crime", they don't connect your anger with something they did hours ago. Their body is all pulling away from the situation like they are trying to get away from the situation. Think about when your eat a lemon and your face scrunches up - that's your body trying to get away from an aversive stimuli.

Dogs are social creatures and know how to keep the peace in their relationships. If they sense they are in trouble, even if they don't know why, many will back down and pull away. While it's tempting to yell at our dogs for the damage done while we were away, it's not an effective training strategy and unfair to interpret this body language as learning a lesson.

When we start paying attention to all the ways our dogs communicate with us using their bodies, we can learn to understand them better. Remember to take in the entire enviornment and situation! And, be aware of interpreting their language as an expression of human emotions such as guilt.

Body Language
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