Dog Body Language

Just like humans, dogs have their own way of communicating their feelings, wants and needs using body language. Dogs don’t use verbal language like we do, but they speak loudly with their bodies. Understanding canine body language means that, as a pet owner, you will be able to respond to your dog’s needs more quickly and help them navigate the world. Dog communication can include a variety of signs from tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, pupil size, body movement, muscle tension and facial expressions.

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Understanding your dog: Insights from Dr. Elle Parker, Behaviour Veterinarian

Learn how to read your dog’s body language to identify how they are feeling, including the 5 F’s of anxious dogs: Fight, flight, freeze, fiddle and flirt.

Dog Body Language Chart

While it isn’t a perfect science, you will find that many dogs exhibit similar movements and postures to communicate what they are feeling or experiencing. Further information on dog body language, including a dog body language chart, can be found here.

Signs of Anxiety of Dogs

Anxiety isn’t just reserved for humans. It is very common in dogs, especially when they are unable to control their situation, fix things themselves or find comfort from their family members. Be sure to look out for common signs of separation anxiety in dogs, such as destructive behaviours (scratching door frames, digging, excessive chewing, barking or howling), ignoring food or enrichment, excessive drooling, or urinating or defecating around the house (this can be a sign of panic or severe distress). You may even notice prolonged restlessness, compulsive and repetitive behaviours, and in certain cases, signs of anxiety in dogs can escalate into aggression.

Dog Stress Signals

Dogs are known universally to be happy and playful, but they can just as easily feel stressed when presented with certain situations. Some tell-tale stressed dog body language or behaviour may include tucked ears and tail, avoiding eye contact or showing the whites of the eyes, panting heavily, whining, yawning, or a tense or lowered body position. This can further progress into warning barking, lunging or growling if the threat is not removed - many dogs have a hard time controlling their behaviour when stressed or feeling threatened. Some dogs may attempt to escape, while others may freeze or roll over. Some dogs may appear excited or boisterous (e.g. jumping, mouthing, scrambling and having difficulty controlling impulses or calming themselves down). The context and personality of your dog will be the determining factors to help you interpret their signals.

Signs of Depression in Dogs

Whether it be due to moving home or introducing a new animal to the family, dogs can also experience depression. Apart from the typical ‘sad faced dog’ expression we all know, there are some other signs of depression in dogs to be mindful of. They will mirror those in humans, largely around withdrawn behaviour, such as prolonged periods of inactivity, a lack of enthusiasm for activities they once enjoyed, and changes in eating and sleeping habits. There is the potential that these are related to a medical condition, so always ensure your ‘sad dog’ is checked by a vet.

Signs Your Dog Loves You

Every smitten owner wants to know their pet shares the same feelings of affection. There are a range of signs your dog may exhibit when they are excited to see you, which can also be signs your dog trusts you. They may include visible excitement such as jumping up when you enter the room, licking you and wagging their tail. Jumping up can also be a way of trying to obtain feedback or more information if they are feeling conflicted or worried. They may also seek physical contact, such as leaning into you, sleeping next to you, or even just a quick nuzzle or cuddle. It’s not uncommon for dogs to ‘check-in’ on their owners too, coming over to see what you are up to and looking for interaction or inviting you to play.

Signs of a Sick Dog

As an owner, one of your primary responsibilities will be caring for your dog’s health, so be vigilant in watching out for any signs of illness. There are some obvious signs of a sick dog, such as vomiting or diarrhoea (especially when there is blood involved). Decreased activity or energy is a common sign of illness and there are many potential causes of lethargy in dogs. Signs of hair loss or itchy skin can be due to anything from fleas, ticks or mites, to immune system or endocrine (hormonal) problems. Dogs with ear problems may start shaking their head or scratching their ears.  Other signs of illness include decreased appetite, heavy breathing and excessive drooling and licking. If you have any concerns about your dog’s health it is important to consult your vet.

Normal Dog Behaviour

In general, most owners will find their dogs to be highly sociable and find great joy playing with other humans, animals, and a selection of toys. Some key factors to consider to meet your dog’s needs include: stick to a routine, ensure appropriate access to safe objects to play with or chew, provide a quiet and comfortable place to rest, have a regular exercise regimen and provide a consistent supply of fresh water and an appropriate quantity of high quality food. When these needs are all met you will hopefully have a happy, healthy and well-balanced dog. If your dog is struggling, seems unhappy, unwell or manifesting problematic behaviours despite you trying to meet all of their physical and mental needs, this can be a sign they are suffering from a medical or mental health disorder and they should be seen by a veterinarian.

Puppy Body Language

Puppies are still finding their feet in this new world, so they need closer attention from owners, similar to a human child and their parents. In the realm of puppy body language, there are a few things to look out for that are very similar to those behaviours described in adult dogs above. Play biting is something they would normally do with their littermates and they need to learn this is not appropriate to do with humans. Never punish a puppy for this, simply redirect them to a safe chew toy or funnel the energy into a short training session. They will likely grow out of this after 3 to 5 months. Firmer, more aggressive puppy biting or nipping can be a defensive behaviour as a result of fear, or they may nip or snap to communicate a warning. Don’t confuse this with mouthing or gentle nibbling motions where they are usually simply exploring with their mouths (just like babies).
A sad puppy may be suffering from an illness and it is important to consult your vet if you have any concerns about their health.


  • How do I read dog body language?

    Canine communication does not just revolve around barks, growls and whines - they also speak volumes through their body language. As an owner, it is important to review some of the signs that are unique to dogs, such as wagging, pointed or tucked tail positions, pricked or flattened ears, and panting (whether relaxed or heavy). In addition, we need to understand that other universal behaviours like yawning, ‘smiling’, making or avoiding eye contact or rolling over can mean completely different things in different contexts.

  • How do I train my dog with body language?

    Dogs can interpret human body language, too. They can often perceive and respond to our hand signals and body language better than verbal signals or voice cues. If you want to empathise with your dog or show an understanding of what they are telling you, you can reciprocate positive body signals, as well as offering support, comfort or safety when your dog is showing displacement behaviours or body language indicating stress. If they are overactive and you wish for them to calm down, try to redirect their energy into exercise, enrichment, relaxation or a quick training or play session. You can then build on these foundations to train your dog to behave in the desired ways by performing physical actions they recognise.

  • What is ‘distance increasing’ dog body language?


    There will be times when your dog needs space from people or dogs that they are not comfortable around. If they are unable to move themselves away from the situation (for example when on a lead or confined in a space), their body language will change in an attempt to try to disengage or repel the offending character (thereby increasing the distance between themselves and the potential threat). Some dogs may show displacement behaviours such as looking away, turning their head away, showing the whites of their eyes, licking their lips, yawning, making their body seem small or low to the ground or rolling onto their backs to diffuse tension. Other dogs may demonstrate more assertive behaviours such as barking, growling, staring or lunging in a show of aggression, even if they are nervous or terrified on the inside. These are usually the last resorts in a dog’s repertoire before progressing to snapping or biting. If a dog is showing these behaviours from the outset, they have likely been forced to escalate their response in the past due to previous, more subtle signs being repeatedly ignored. Over time, a dog will learn which behaviours are most successful at increasing distance and warding off perceived threats and may learn to revert to these automatically. This is why it is so important to recognise and read the subtle signs of dog body language to be able to see when they are uncomfortable and intervene before they need to use the “fight” response to be heard.



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