How to Read Dog Body Language, According to a Dog Trainer

Spoiler: Yawning doesn't mean she's tired

McKenzie Cordell

Some days, it feels like dogs can read our minds. They nuzzle us when we’re sad or grab a toy to throw for them when they see we're bored. Other days, the language barrier between our species is starker than ever. We say, “Come inside,” and they refuse. Or we say, “No chewing,” and they dig into our shoes anyway. In an effort to better understand our canine family members, we’ve rounded up 40 ways your dog is actually communicating with you. Understanding dog body language is the first step in knowing how to respond. Our advice? Be observant and patient—you’re not a mind reader either.

Meet the Dog Trainer

Tom Davis is a canine educator, dog trainer and We Feed Raw ambassador. He is founder of the sought-after Upstate Canine Academy in New York that specializes in behavior-based dog training. Known for tackling challenging behavior modification cases, he logs breakthroughs in reactivity and disobedience.

Why It's Important to Understand Dog Body Language

"Knowing what your dog's behavior means is important because that’s how dogs communicate their feelings," Davis says. "You might not pick up what they're communicating if you can’t read dog body language well. Dogs communicate with their bodies first. For example, if a dog is excited, you will see its body change, and it will take action, and run toward what it is excited about," he says.

While navigating this extensive list, remember your goal is to be a translator for your pup (and to listen to them when they signal that you're engaging in bad dog owner behavior). To do this, you have to look at your dog’s entire body and listen to all the sounds they make. This advice comes from the Center for Shelter Dogs at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. They break down dog communication (both verbal and physical) into five categories: fearful, aggressive, anxious, relaxed and excited. Most canine communication combines more than one of these categories. So, to understand what’s really going on with Sadie, look at the whole picture, including the context of the situation.

Context is almost more important than what your dog is doing. If you’re playing tug-of-war and she growls, it’s probably playful (excited). If you’re walking in a new neighborhood and she growls, she may sense something dangerous (fearful). Always factor context into your interpretation of your dog’s communication.

Types of Dog Communication

  • Physical communication: According to experts at VCA Ark Animal Hospitals, canines express emotions through physicality. Physical communication can include anything from a stance or movement to an action Sadie takes. Again, look at the whole dog to understand what she’s telling you. Key spots include the ears, tail, eyes and mouth. Be on the lookout for changes in physicality, too. A fearful physical response can swiftly turn into an aggressive one.
  • Actions: As with people, sometimes actions speak louder than words. These actions, unlike physicalizations, may take place when you’re not looking. Staying in tune with your dog’s actions, even when you’re not home by using a monitor, say, or by analyzing the products of chewing or other destructive behavior, for example, is difficult but key to understanding what she’s telling you.
  • Vocal communication: Just like physical communication, a dog’s vocalizations clue us in to how they feel. Again, it’s imperative you take the entire picture into consideration. What is Sadie’s body doing when she barks? Is she whining right before mealtime or because a stranger is approaching her? These extra clues will help you understand what she’s saying. Remember to regard the context of the body language, since it's important to consider (i.e., growling when playing vs. when meeting a new dog).

How Do You Know If Your Dog Loves You?

"Most dogs find a companion in their life. Not all dogs are lovey and cuddly on the couch, but they are loyal. If you sleep around a dog, feed them and give them some playtime and attention, it’s only a matter of time before a dog grows fond of you!" says Davis. So, while you may need some time or additional insight to parse the signs your dog loves you, you can be sure they do.

12 Happy and Relaxed Dog Body Language Examples

"Relaxed or calm body language is universal in breeds," says Davis. "Their tail will fall mid-way, while wagging side to side, and their ears are typically flopped with their head down just a little bit. This is a calm, excited or loving greeting for almost all dogs." The dog expert says that some breeds present different body language and cues due to their body types. "For example, some dog breeds don’t have long tails, so you’d have to know the breed to pick up what they are putting down," he says. "Another example is a pointer, which is a breed that will point their nose and put one leg up when they have found a bird."

downward dog
McKenzie Cordell

1. Downward Dog

When pups lean into the yoga position named after them (butt in the air, chest and front legs stretched out in front), it typically means they’re ready for playtime. Prepare thy Frisbee.

2. Relaxed Open Mouth

A relaxed, happy dog’s mouth hangs open. A tightly closed, clenched jaw means she’s wary or distrusts something nearby.

3. Licking Humans

Wondering why do dogs lick you? Dogs licking their humans is a sign of affection. Just like cats (gasp!), dogs lick to groom themselves and each other. So, either they consider you one of their pack or you just gave them a treat and they can smell the crumbs on you.

rolling over exposing belly
McKenzie Cordell

4. Rolling Over, Exposing the Belly

Take a good look at the situation and your dog’s temperament if she does this. This is a very submissive move. It could mean she’s afraid, or it could mean she trusts you and is looking for a generous tummy rub.

5. Relaxed, Wagging Tail

Your dog is feeling happy or excited.

6. Tall, Erect Stance (Relaxed)

A dog who stands tall but appears relaxed, or has his mouth hanging open and tail wagging, is happy to see you.

7. High Growl

The more high-pitched the growl, the less threatening. Now, this doesn’t mean a Chihuahua’s growl is less aggressive than a German shepherd’s. It’s important to learn what low growls and high growls sound like from your dog. High-pitched growls tend to be more playful and often come out during games like tug-of-war.

mouth hanging open
McKenzie Cordell

8. Mouth Open With Upturned Corners

Some dogs almost look like they’re smiling in this relaxed pose. It definitely means Sadie is chill and in a positive headspace.

9. High-Pitched Bark

I’m happy to see you! I’m excited to play! Let’s go outside so I can pee!

10. Purr

Hello, canine purrs! Fancy seeing you here! Dogs purr—sometimes called rumbling—to let you know they’re content as can be. It may sound a bit like a growl, so check out the context to see if you’ve got a dog that purrs.

11. Circling Before Lying Down

Dogs will circle a comfy spot before actually lying down because their ancestors did the same thing before turning in for the night. Sure, wolves had to do it to prep their bed of leaves for a good night’s rest, but your dog doesn’t know the difference.

12. Sighs and Groans

Honestly, this noise is as straightforward as it gets. You’ll often hear it as a dog plops down onto her bed just after you’ve told her to lie down. She’s a little annoyed but settling in nonetheless.

12 Stressed or Scared Dog Body Language Examples

Scared body language usually makes the dog look like they want to duck out of the situation, according to Davis. "Ears are pinned back and eyes are looking for an escape. Dogs try to get low and scurry away," says Davis. He says that stresses could come in waves, depending on the breed. Some dogs might put their hackles up when they are unsure or nervous of something; others might bark and react when they are scared. "A dog being scared or nervous is inevitable but it’s typically short-lived," Davis says.

13. Nose and Lip Licking

During mealtime (or just after), licking the nose and lips is a grooming behavior. All other instances signal anxiety, fear or caution.

14. Raised Fur

Hair prickling on the back of our neck usually means “beware.” The same goes for dogs. When the fur on their back and hind quarters stands on end or bristles, they’re on high alert and easily excitable.

15. Pacing

A dog who paces back and forth is one full of anxiety. (If this only happens right before you leave the house, your dog may suffer from separation anxiety.)

16. Panting

Yes, dogs pant to cool themselves down on hot days. They also use it as a stress reliever. A constantly panting dog is a dog full of worry.

17. Yawning

Oddly enough, yawning is considered a fearful response to stimuli and it's a sign that Sadie is a bored or tired dog. It means she is eager for a threat to go away, not that she wants to nap.

18. Cowered or Lowered Body

If Sadie looks like she’s trying to make herself smaller or lower, she’s likely anxious, afraid or stressed out.

19. Licking Paws Excessively

Focused licking on paws or paw pads could signal a skin condition like atopic dermatitis. Sadie might also be suffering from extreme boredom.

20. Wet Footprints

The sight of damp paw prints in your house (when it hasn’t been raining) could mean your dog is really stressed out. Canines sweat through their paw pads. If Sadie is sweating so much she’s leaving a trail, check in on her anxiety levels.

21. Shutting Down

Refusing to eat, pulling away when you reach out to her and growing lethargic are all signs your dog is anxious, fearful or ill. Shutting down like this requires a lot of observation on your part to figure out the cause, so be aware of other vocal and physical signs.

22. Destructive Behavior

Dogs who destroy stuff while you’re out of the house (and only while you’re out of the house) are likely suffering from separation anxiety. They’re lashing out because they’re afraid and in need of attention.

23. Spinning

This is a heightened version of pacing. Yes, some dogs spin slowly before finding the right spot to lie down. But rapid pacing combined with whining or panting is a sure sign your dog is worried or anxious.

24. Whining with Specific Behaviors

If your dog constantly whines when you leave the house, she could be trying to tell you she’s afraid to be alone. If she stops eating her food and whines at dinnertime, she may have internal health issues.

6 Curious Dog Body Language Examples

"I can’t think of any breed that isn’t curious and younger dogs are commonly more curious than adults," Davis says. "Like parenting, you want to encourage them to explore, but you must ensure it’s safe." The dog trainer says that it’s important to know where you are and what environmental factors might threaten your dog. "For example, if you are in an area where there are rattlesnakes or bears, you may not want your dog poking around with their nose. If you're walking around a normal neighborhood, the worst-case scenario might be rabbit poop!" he says.

25. Nose in the Air Sniffing

This is called air scenting, and it's a dog using their nose to try and figure something out without getting too close.

26. Ears Forward

Ears that are perked up or facing forward are prepped for action. This means your dog is at attention; she could easily switch gears and get aggressive or playful, depending on the scenario. Note: If you catch her off-guard or scare her in this moment, chances are she’ll escalate into a fear-based response.

27. Crotch Sniffing

We had to address it! Sadie’s sense of smell is 10,000 times more powerful than yours, so naturally she uses it to gather information on you. She may greet you with a sniff in that area as a friendly way of saying, “What’s up?” It’s the same reason dogs greet each other by sniffing butts.

28. Short Growl(s)

A few short growls in a row or several sporadic growls are Sadie’s way of letting you know she’s assessing the situation. She’s scared or uncertain about something; let her feel it out for a minute.

29. Whine

Whining may be the closest thing dogs have to real (human) words. More often than not, it indicates a specific want. Is Sadie pacing and whining around her food bowl? Girl is hungry. Is she whining at the back door? She’s ready to go out.

30. Howl

Breeds that howl are usually trying to communicate with other dogs, according to the American Kennel Club. Sometimes it’s to get their owner’s attention. Other times it’s a response to sounds like sirens or other dogs.

10 Defensive or Aggressive Dog Body Language Examples

"Defensive aggression is usually loud, with whistle barks and hackles up, and the dog alerts, barking and trying to scare the “threat” away," Davis says. "The bark might look more like a howl with the dog's head in the air, alerting you to the threat. Aggressive barking or behavior can be found in any dog, but some dogs are more protective or vocal than others."

tall erect stance
McKenzie Cordell

29. Tall, Erect Stance (Stiff)

A dog who stands this way with a tightly clenched jaw and alert ears or bristled fur could be readying herself for a fight.

30. Curved, Tall Tail

Your dog is feeling threatened and may snap or bite next.

31. Low Growl

Stanley Coren, author of Born to Bark and many more books on canines, tells Psychology Today that the pitch, duration and repetition of a dog’s bark help us interpret what a dog is trying to say. Low growls are associated with aggression and warding off threats.

32. Long, Sustained Growl

Mmm-kay! Sadie has made up her mind and she is deliberately growling at something. The longer the growl, the more serious she is about her decision.

33. Lots of Vocalizations in a Row

When it comes to repetition, the more your pup repeats a sound, the more urgent the need. This could mean she’s super excited to see the UPS lady walking up the driveway or she’s afraid of the new friend you brought home. Either way, she’s entering crisis mode.

34. Baring Teeth

This is usually the next step on the aggression ladder after curling lips and wrinkling noses. It means Sadie’s behavior is escalating.

35. Leash Aggression

Lunging, barking and growling at other dogs while on a leash could be a sign of leash aggression. This has to do with your dog’s relationship to her leash; she likely feels restricted by it or anxious wearing it, so she lashes out at approaching pups.

ears low and back
McKenzie Cordell

36. Ears Low and Back

Paired with a wagging tail, this typically means your dog is happy and calm. If you hear growls or aggressive behavior, it means your pup is ready to pounce. Since some dogs have long, floppy ears, the ASPCA recommends looking at the base of the ear to really understand what your dog is trying to communicate.

37. Low-Pitched Bark

I’m afraid of you and may fight back.

38. Wide Eyes, Direct Stare

Large, open, alert eyes staring at an opponent mean your dog is readying herself for combat. Can you see lots of white around her pupils? Big-time aggression.

39. Stiffening

One of the first indicators your dog is about to get aggressive is a full-body stiffening. It’s often paired with alert ears, tall stance, wide eyes and a closed mouth.

40. Curled Lips and Wrinkled Nose

It’s hard to get one without the other. A canine curling her lips and wrinkling her nose usually precedes some fighting words (deep growling).

Recapping How to Read Dog Body Language

Knowing dog behavior—both common moves that all dogs make as well as specific traits your dog has—can be really helpful in keeping your dog and whole family peaceful, healthy and content. (Looking for validation? Behaviors might be a clue to determining what your dog thinks about you.) Behaviors can be broadly separated into happy, anxious, curious and aggressive, and while the growling and barking that my dog spirals into with every Amazon delivery is tolerable, training can help him pipe down. "Making sure we start training at a early age is a number one priority," Davis says. "Set boundaries and rules alongside love and leadership to create the healthiest relationships. Some of the absolute worst cases of aggression, fear and anxiety I have seen have come from the lack of boundaries and rules. Some dog owners just give their dog love and it ruins a relationship faster than anything." So while it's nice to know your best friend's dog love language, it is equally necessary to know how to whip out a firm "No!" and stand by it.

How to Stop Leash Aggression, According to Experts and Real Dog Owners

SAshley Headshot PureWow

Freelance Writer

Sarah Ashley is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She has covered pets for PureWow for six years and tackles everything from dog training tips to the best litter boxes. Her...

dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...