Unfortunately, dogs do not speak English, so we can never know exactly how they feel about their matching family sweaters. It also means we have to learn their body language to understand how they are feeling. Reading your dog’s body language can help you avoid dangerous reactions, and it can also build trust when you realize that they want alone time. 

How to Interpret Dog Body Language

We all know when dogs love us—they tend to jump and lick and act goofy and silly. While knowing that your dog loves you is wonderful, it is also important to know when they are feeling stressed, especially if you have children or other pets

Depending on the placement of a dog’s eyes, ears and tail, you can decipher some of what your dog might be feeling. Taking note of what your dog looks like when they are content can help you identify when their mood changes. And knowing how your dog is feeling can help you keep your dog, yourself, and others safe and happy. 

Tail Language

  • The tail position is essential for many reasons, but most often it tells you how happy they are. Tall tails are a sign of happiness, while low or tucked tails are a sign of stress or fear.
  • Tail wags are another way to tell a dog’s mood. One study has even suggested that which side they wag on has its own meaning. Fast, full-body wagging however is a sign of happiness, while swishing tails convey concentration. It is important to distinguish between swishing and wagging—just because a dog’s tail is moving does not always mean they are feeling friendly. 

Head Signals (Face, Ears, Eyes) 

  • A low head, with eyes looking up and ears down, can be a warning look. This look is often used when dogs are guarding something on the ground.
  • Large wide eyes, watching you from the side (known as whale eyes), are either a look of appeasement or fear. This look means, I do not want to fight, but I want you to back up, or leave me (or my toy or treat) alone. 
  • Yawns are a dog’s way of expressing stress. If your dog is yawning at you they are feeling stressed about a situation.
  • Lip licking is another sign of stress that many people interpret incorrectly. If you notice a dog licking their lips, they are not looking for kisses. They are letting you know that they are uncomfortable. 
  • Intense eye contact is often a sign of guarding or aggression. It is most often a warning to back down. 
  • Snarling, growling, or baring teeth are all signs of aggression and stress. Give your dog space when they are exhibiting these signs.

Body Language

  • The term “hackles” refers to the fur along the spine, at the back of a dog’s neck, and at the base of their tail. When these hairs stand on end, it can indicate intense interest, stress, fear, and even aggression. However, it is an involuntary reaction for most dogs when they are surprised. If you notice raised hackles as well as growling, giving your dog space is the best course of action. 
  • Holding their body low to the ground or rolling over onto their back can be signs of fear or submission. Dogs that do this are trying to appear smaller or weaker. 
  • A tall, high head and slow-swishing tail can show interest, or be the beginnings of defensive behavior. 
  • One paw in the air often is a sign that a dog feels uncertain. 
  • A play bow, when both legs are out front and the dog puts their chest low or on the ground is a sign that they want to play. 
  • Some dogs may back away or even dodge touches they do not want. It is important to respect your dog’s boundaries, to help build respect and trust. 

Listen to Your Dog’s Body Language 

Like humans, sometimes dogs need space. Knowing when to leave your dog alone is important. If your dog is giving you the whale eye, growling, or backing away, give them space. This will ensure that neither you nor your dog gets hurt. If you notice your dog making these behaviors towards other people or animals, try to remove them as safely as possible. 

If you notice that your dog is starting to act more distant or more aggressive than normal, consider making an appointment with your veterinarian. Taking note of behavioral changes and getting an examination from a vet could reveal injuries or illnesses you didn’t know about. 

Veterinary Care for All Dogs in Gilbert, Arizona

Reading the body language of your dog will help you be able to care for them and understand them better. Extraordinary veterinary care will keep them by your side for years to come. At East Valley Animal Hospital we are committed to providing the very best care for your dog. Big or small, we want to make sure all dogs are healthy. Call us today to schedule an appointment—we look forward to meeting you and your four-legged friend.


Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (1/27/23). Photo by Michelle Tresemer on Unsplash.