Dogs are expressive, and their social nature makes them strong communicators. But are you catching everything your pup is putting out there? While some of communication is vocal, most meaning is shared through your dog’s body language.
As a dog owner, it’s important to understand these non-verbal cues. What does it mean if your dog rolls on their back and wiggles? What about side-eye or a tucked tail? We’ve decoded all these basic body language signals to give you a better idea of what your dog is feeling.
Keep in mind that, like people, dogs all express themselves differently, so you may see just one or several of the following signs in any dog. Use the context to help guide your understanding of the meaning.
Happy Dog Body Language
Sometimes, all your dog wants to say is, "I'm happy!" A dog with this posture is most likely feeling confident, comfortable, and full of joy.
- Tail: wagging or relaxed tail
- Eyes: soft, non-staring eyes, but still making relaxed eye contact
- Ears: ears are up or in a neutral position for their ear shape
- Mouth: relaxed or open mouth with tongue out
- Body: tilted head, relaxed, loose body, bouncy body, bowing posture, wiggling, prancing around with toys, or they might lean on you
A wagging tail doesn't always mean a dog is happy, so don't use that just that behavior as a telltail (pun intended) sign that a dog is approachable.
Example: Playful Rolling on Back With Wiggles
If you see a dog roll on their back and wiggle or kick their legs, and their overall body language looks loose and relaxed, this is a dog that is feeling happy and playful. You may also see dogs do this when they are playing with each other. Rolling onto the back is a natural play behavior that actually helps a dog to avoid playful bites from the other dog, or dogs, while getting in some of their own.
Responding to Happy Body Language
When your dog shows signs they're happy, like the play bow or rolling over and wiggling, it's usually safe to assume they want to play and get attention from you. You can reciprocate by joining in a play session or giving them some gentle pets. Just watch for any changes in their posture, which could signal that they're becoming stressed.
Nervous Dog Body Language
Dogs can become nervous or anxious, just like us. The signs of stress in dogs are often incredibly subtle, so you'll have to keep a close eye out for these cues. This isn't too tricky if it's your own dog because you'll be familiar with their natural, relaxed posture, but it can be much more challenging with a dog you don't know very well.
- Tail: low tail or tail tucked between their legs
- Eyes: dilated pupils and wide eyes with the whites of the eyes visible
- Ears: ears flattened against their head
- Mouth: licking their lips, yawning, panting, or drooling
- Body: turning head away, trembling, crouching low to the ground, tense body posture, hiding, or a raised front paw
Example: Licking Lips and Looking "Side-Eyed"
A dog that's unsure will often signal this by turning their heads or bodies slightly away, licking lips and looking back at you. This makes the whites of their eyes show and makes them look "side-eyed." This is also called "whale eyes" with dog behaviorists and trainers.
Responding to Nervous Body Language
If your dog is trying to tell you they're nervous, respect their wishes and don't push them to do or experience anything they're frightened by. Remove them from the situation, then try to identify what exactly triggered their stress. There are plenty of things you can do to calm your dog's nerves at home, but in cases of intense fear, consult with a qualified behavior professional who can help you develop a behavior modification plan to work with your dog's fears.
Relaxed Dog Body Language
A relaxed pooch is one that's simply content with life. They're not necessarily super excited and ready to play, but they're also not nervous. They're just chillin'.
- Tail: tail is parallel with the ground or softly wagging
- Eyes: soft, relaxed gaze or blinking slowly
- Ears: ears are neutral
- Mouth: loose mouth, might be panting with their mouth open or breathing through their nose
- Body: tilted head, relaxed, loose body, sleeping on their back with their belly up
Example: Dog Sleeping or Relaxing on Back
If your dog is laying on their back and napping, this means your dog feels safe and relaxed in his environment. A dog willing to sleep with his belly up feels confident and secure. This doesn't mean a dog sleeping in different positions is not relaxed. Dogs are just like people and everyone enjoys different sleeping styles.
Responding to Relaxed Body Language
Positive reinforcement is the best way to train dogs, so don't hesitate to reward your dog whenever they're relaxed and calm. This is especially important if they return to this relaxed state after doing something unfavorable that you want to train them out. For example, after your dog is barking, or if they have separation anxiety and you want to reward them for remaining calm when you return from being away.
Submissive Dog Body Language
Submissive dogs use these non-verbal cues as a way to alert other dogs that they come in peace and are not a threat.
- Tail: tucked or low wagging tail
- Eyes: avoiding direct eye contact or looking away
- Ears: ears back
- Mouth: smiling, sniffing, appeasement sneezing, or licking you or another dog
- Body: low body posture, turning away, rolling onto their back, or dribbling urine
Example: Rolling on Back and Peeing During Greeting
If you greet a dog and they immediately roll on their back, or you see a dog do this to another dog, this dog is saying, "hey, I'm not a threat!" to diffuse any possible tension. A fearful dog may also release some urine in this posture.
Responding to Submissive Body Language
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, unless it affects their quality of life. In that case, you can help build their confidence through training, trust, and controlled socialization.
Aggressive Dog Body Language
Dogs can show aggressive non-verbal signals out of fear, pain, or protection. Whatever the root cause, the signs are all very similar.
- Tail: tail held high
- Eyes: direct eye contact and wide eyes with the whites showing
- Ears: ears up and forward or flattened back
- Mouth: curled lip or baring teeth
- Body: stiff body, leaning forward, and hair standing up
Example: Stiff, Frozen and Forward-Focused Stance
If a dog's body posture is stiff with their ears are forward, lips pushed to the front of the mouth and you hear growling, this is a dog that is an aggressive, warning posture. The dog may appear stiff or "frozen in place."
Responding to Aggressive Body Language
A dog that is using aggressive body language, either in an offensive or defensive posture, is letting you know that they're uncomfortable. Pushing them further could lead to a bite. Don't approach a dog showing any signs of aggression. If it's your own dog that's displaying them, it's best to remove them from the situation and avoid chastising them. Work with a behaviorist to address it so it doesn't become a problem.
Never scold a dog for growling, because this isn't a "bad" behavior. Growling is a warning sign before the bite, which is your dog's way of letting you or someone else know that they're not comfortable with the situation. That's a good thing!
Learning to Speak "Dog"
Dogs rely heavily on body language to communicate with other dogs and people. Understanding what your dog's body language signals mean can help you learn more about their mental and physical needs. And the more you know about what your dog is trying to say, the better you'll be able to ensure your dog is comfortable and happy.