Sometimes when we look into a dog’s eyes, we can tell they’re trying to tell us something, but we just don’t understand — if only they could open their mouths and talk! The good news is that you aren’t crazy; your dog communicates with you through their body language every day.
Learning how to read a dog’s body language is critical to training them and enriching your relationship. Here are a few common body language cues that will help you understand your best friend a little better.
It’s a common misconception that dogs wag their tails because they’re happy. While this isn’t untrue, their cute tails can tell us a lot more than just happiness! For example, one recent study found that dogs wag their tails to the right or left when they see something positive or negative, respectively.³
Watch what direction your pal’s tail wags next time you see them; it may be to the right! The speed of the wagging seems to matter, too. Is their tail spinning like a helicopter?⁴ Then they’re definitely happy to see you — or their food bowl.
The position of the tail also matters; think of the phrase, “tail between your legs,” which means that someone is backing down or scared. The same is true for dogs!
Other tail positions communicate a lot, such as:⁵
- Preparation and agitation: A dog’s ears are up and their tails raised to hear what’s coming and confront it.
- Negotiation: A pup stops wagging or freezes up, meaning they don’t like the attention they’re getting but don’t feel like fighting.
- Aggression: Look for a tail that’s neutral to vertical or arched over back; the higher the tail, the greater the perceived threat.
- Curiosity: Look for a straight tail in a horizontal position.
Keep in mind that a dog’s breed matters here. Some dogs have very short tails (like pugs) or curled tails (like chow chows) — which limits the movement of their tails — while beagles tend to hold their tails higher. In cases like these, watch your dog for additional cues to how they feel.⁵
Raised hackles in dogs are when the hairs on their backs stand up, similar to goosebumps in humans. This response — called piloerection — is an involuntary mammalian response that doesn’t always mean your dog is scared. It simply means your pup is aroused by something and is on high alert: from a smell, a feeling on their paw, or even the temperature changing.⁶
A dog’s hair standing on end is a normal reaction to stress or arousal, so pay attention! They may have noticed something you haven’t.
Another good cue that your pup is reacting to something is trembling. Dog shivers usually indicate an adrenal rush from fear, excitement, or anxiety. Chat with your vet if your dog is shaking all the time, for no real reason (like cold weather). It could be an early sign of a seizure, ear infection, pain, or other neurological issues.⁷
There are dozens of postures a dog takes to indicate they want to eat, play, or tell us someone’s at the door. Some of the most common postures will improve how you and your pup interact every day, like:⁴
- The Play Bow: Front haunches down with butt in the air, with their tail wagging as if to say “Let’s play!”
- Alert: Leaned forward, tail down, ears are forward with the mouth open or closed.
- Frightened: Ears flattened, tail tucked in, while crouching towards the ground.
- Submissive: On their back with their paws and tails tucked in to say “I am not a threat!”
Learning your dog’s body postures will help you train them better, instead of them training you.
If eyes are the portal to the soul, then a dog’s eyes are a door to their heart. Our dogs watch us all day long to learn our routines and how we’re feeling. Sometimes, dogs make eye contact to express emotion.
For example, soft eyes (with droopy or squinty eyes) are a good indicator of a calm and happy dog; hard eyes are cold and are usually a sign the dog is feeling aggressive or territorial.⁸ There are many reasons pups stare at us, like begging or learning our behavior, so learn your pal well! They’re certainly watching you.
Dogs are some of the few domesticated animals that have distinct facial expressions, thanks to their cute eyebrow ridges.9 Our dogs are trying to tell us something when they raise or scrunch their eyebrows, such as “I’m listening” or “What are you doing?”
One confusing facial expression is smiling. Unlike the soft eyes, your dog’s smile isn’t always a happy expression. Rather, it can be a warning sign if they feel threatened and a way to show their teeth telling someone to back off.⁴ On the other hand, if your dog’s body is relaxed and wiggly with their smile, they’re telling us or another dog “I come in peace.”⁴
Talking and communicating with a dog is half the joy of having them in the family. Taking care of them is the other half, despite how expensive it seems to get. Consider adding MetLife Pet Insurance to support your pet parenting to start saving thousands on veterinary care. Our dog insurance policies cover illnesses treated by your favorite veterinarian.¹’²