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Dog Body Language 101—How to read your pup’s eyes, ears, and more!

Key Takeaways

  • According to experts dogs communicate a mix of these feelings: fearful, aggressive, anxious, relaxed, and excited.
  • A dog uses eyes, nose, mouth, jaw, tail, ears, legs, paws, stance, and vocalization to form dog body language signals in different situations.
  • Pet parents must learn to how to read dog body language depending on a given situation and mixed physical and vocal cues.

Some days, you and your pup are like two peas in a pod, speaking the same language. But on other days? The communication gap is wider than the Grand Canyon. You’re like, “Oh, you wanna play?” and your dog’s like, “I was just stretching, Karen!” And this is precisely why every pet parent should learn a dog’s body language.

So fear not, dear human! Today, we’re all gonna become dog interpreters. We’re cracking the canine code and diving into the ways your dog tries to talk to you. It’s like Rosetta Stone but for barks and tail wags.

I’ve rounded up all the known ways experts have cracked the code on how your four-legged family member is trying to chat with you. Now, unless you know what little Charlie or Lucy is actually saying, how do you know how to respond? 

According to the smarty-pants at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, dogs have their own linguistic nuances. There are 5 types of doggy dialects, each with its own accent:

  • Fearful (the “We’re not really going to the vet, right?” look)
  • Aggressive (the “Back off my bone, buddy!” stance)
  • Anxious (the “Is that thunder or just a truck?” shiver)
  • Relaxed (the “Life’s good when you have a chew toy” sigh)
  • Excited (the “Walk? Did you say walk? WALK!” dance)

Dogs communicate a mixtape of more than one of these feelings. So, to understand what’s really cooking in Bailey’s brain, you gotta look at the whole recipe, including and ESPECIALLY the situation.

8 Physical and Vocal Signs Dogs Use to Communicate

Now, in the grand symphony of canine communication, we have two key players: physical and vocal. Shocker, I know!

Physical isn’t just about that wagging tail. It’s a full-body experience! 

We’re talking eyes, nose, mouth, jaw, tail, ears, legs, paws, stance—the whole package of dog body language signals. And what’s fascinating here is that our furry friends aren’t necessarily spelling out their master plan to take over the world. Nah, they’re just telling us how they feel in a given situation. 

Keep an eye out for changes in physicality. A dog’s fearful response can switch gears real fast into aggression. Why? Because, as with many humans, fear often drives aggression. You ever karate chop the spider in your bathtub?

Now, vocal communication—that includes whining, barking, and the occasional doggy ballad. They work hand-in-paw with canine body language. Ask yourself, “What’s Cooper’s body doing when he barks?” Is it the “Feed me, human!” whine or the “Who’s that at the door?” alarm? 

And what’s with that tantalizing doggy belly that turns into a furry bear trap? Why the mixed signals? Is it a trap? Is it a sign of love? Stick around till the end, and we’ll unravel this fuzzy mystery together!

1. Eyes

A close up of a dog's eyes.

Alright, let’s dive into the windows of the canine soul…those big, beautiful doggy eyes! What messages are our furry friends sending with those soulful gazes? 

Direct eye contact from Ollie here could mean aggression if you see lots of white showing. But it could also be submission if his body’s lowered and ears are back. Ollie’s like, “Yeah, I’m the boss…or maybe not!” 

Now when Sadie avoids eye contact, she’s saying, “Hey, I ain’t looking for trouble! I ain’t even looking!” It’s her way of playing it cool at the dog park when dodgy Chihuahuas are about.  

And get this—studies show dogs evolved special eyebrow muscles just to give us killer puppy dog eyes. Not found in wolves, but all over your Pomeranian’s face when it’s treat time! Gotta admire that shameless evolutionary manipulation.

When Rex blinks slowly at you, he ain’t flirting—it’s his way of saying, “I trust you, pal.” Give him a wink back to say, “Right back at ya, bud!” 

And dilated pupils are Sammy’s party lights! It signals excitement, anxiety, or being geared up to chase squirrels. Brace yourself when those pupils expand!

2. Nose

A closeup of a dog's nose and texts describing its uses: GPS, Intel agency, and Chemical analysis unit.

Alright, time to tackle the ultimate doggy weapon—the doggy schnoz! That nose isn’t just for digging up bones; it’s also little Penny’s personal GPS, intel agency, and chemical analysis unit all in one.  

When your pup is sniffing your behind, she isn’t being weird—Penny’s conducting an investigation! She wants to know where you’ve been, who you’ve met, and if you pet other dogs. Nothing gets past that nose!

Now, licking her lips and nose after dinner is just clean-up time for Lucy. But any other occasion means she’s feeling anxious or cautious about the situation. If the neighbor’s cat is involved, it’s your cue to take her back home! 

And when Ollie wrinkles his nose, he isn’t judging your life choices—it means he’s hot on the trail of something! Could be a hidden bone or a squirrel’s secret stash. That wrinkled snout means he’s locked into canine concentration mode.

3. Mouth & Jaw

A chihuahua growling and baring its teeth.

Now onto the mouth and jaw—the conversation hub for our pups! 

When Sadie bares those pearly whites, pay attention! Tail wagging plus a toothy grin says, “Let’s play!” But teeth plus a growl? She’s saying, “Back off, bro!” Understanding dog body language such as this prevents a park trip from going wrong.

Growling is like sophisticated cursive writing for dogs—it conveys so much meaning! Max’s growl at another dog shows his grumpy side. But Lucy’s anxious growl around strangers pleads, “Can we go home now?”

If Daisy’s snapping those chops, take it seriously! That sharp click is her way of yelling, “I need some space, people!” She’s drawing a boundary.

Now when Ollie yawns and avoids eye contact, he may be quietly saying, “I’m not loving this vet visit.” But Sadie’s relaxed afternoon yawn just means she’s in her happy place.

And lip licking usually signals nervousness or anticipation, like waiting to meet a new dog. It’s the subtle tell that Rex is a bit uneasy about something.  

Finally, that wagging tongue is the tail’s happy dance equivalent! Sammy’s living his best life on that hike with you. His way of begging for more fun adventures together.

4. Tail

A closeup of a brown dog's tail.

Now, let’s unravel the mystery of the doggie tail.

When Rex’s tail sticks straight up, he’s strutting his stuff! He’s feeling confident, maybe even a bit dominant in that moment. 

Meanwhile, a low tail on George signals he’s nervous or anxious about something. Maybe you’ve brought him somewhere unfamiliar.

If Baxter tucks his tail between his legs, he’s screaming, “I’m SO not okay!” He feels threatened and insecure. Time to get this scaredy cat away from the fireworks! A tail tucked should be easy to spot.

But Lulu’s sweeping wag says, “I’m just happy to be here!” when she’s relaxing in your lap. And her excited wiggle means, “Walk? Walk! WALK? WALKKKK!”

When Max’s tail curls above his back, he’s saying, “I’m in charge around here!” Marking his territory when new dogs are around. 

Now, a tail whip from Chloe could be her super pumped to play at the park. But it might also be an aggressive dog body language if it seems more intense. Gotta read the context.

Lucy’s adorable tail thump while she waits for you is her drumroll greeting, so cute! 

And Benny’s stiff tail means he’s feeling insecure. Maybe some rowdy kids are nearby, and he needs some reassurance that you have got his back.

When Daisy’s tail twitches, she’s anxious but also excited about something looming like a storm. She’s bracing herself!

So next time, read your dog’s tail wag language carefully. It reveals so much about what’s going on in their fuzzy little heads!

5. Ear

A dog with its ear being inspected by a human hand.

Okay, those ears aren’t just floppy for looks—they’re the antenna picking up signals from Planet Doggo!

When Sammy’s ears perk up, he’s catching the latest gossip on Doggy FM. “The neighbor’s cat did WHAT??” He’s always tuning in!

Meanwhile, flat ears against her head mean Bella is NOT having it. Whether it’s your music or the vacuum, she wants that noise GONE.

And one ear cocked to the side is Oliver’s “I have no idea what you just said, human” look. He’s trying hard to puzzle out your words!

When Rocky pins his ears back, he’s showing his alpha side. Like telling the trespassing squirrel, “This yard ain’t big enough for both of us!”

Ear twitching means Lucy’s senses are on high alert! She’s anxious but ready to spring into action. Utmost concentration for her.

Wiggling ears are Max’s happy dance when you get home. He’s saying, “You’re here and (hopefully) bearing treats!”

Flapping those ears helps Toby pick up signals, like the treat jar opening. It’s his way of investigating those intriguing noises.

And when Daisy turns her ears, she’s locked in on a sound with laser focus. “Wait, did you say walk? I’m listening!”

Finally, Milo pins his ears back to look tough. He’s channeling his inner Wolverine by trying to act macho around other dogs. 

So keep your eyes on their ears when communicating with your pup! They’re always tuning in to what you have to say.

6. Paws

A closeup of a dog's paws.

Now those paws aren’t just for tracking dirt inside—your dog’s legs and feet are communicating too!

When Charlie’s standing firmly with all paws on the ground, he’s relaxed and neutral. Confidently judging your outfit, as dogs do.

But one raised paw from Bella means, “I’m in charge here!” Her Majesty is marking her territory. 

Max sitting with tucked legs, is him feeling a bit shy and insecure. Like around the scary vacuum cleaner monster.

While fully outstretched legs on Oliver means he’s chillin’ like a villain! Your cozy lap has never looked so comfy to him.

And pat pat pat—that’s Daisy’s happy dance! She’s excited and ready to play with her favorite human. 

When Rocky places a paternal paw on you, it can say “I love you” or “I own you,” depending on his mood! You must interpret.

Meanwhile, Leo kicking leaves is just to mark his domain and practice his ninja moves, of course! Nothing to see here.

And Sammy’s little bow is him saying, “Truce, friend?” No need to fight over the last treat when there’s plenty of love for all!

So next time your dog starts dancing or bouncing those paws, remember—they’re signing to you in canine code!

7. Posture

A dog with a low body posture and a note saying it signals insecurity.

Remember when we spoke about context? Focusing on the behavior of one body part does not give you the full picture. Look at your dog’s entire body. 

Even posture conveys dog’s emotional state.

The lowered posture on Baxter signals insecurity. Did that mop move? He’s spooked. Again.

But a stiff, tall stance from Rex declares, “I’m in charge!” Quick, hide your shoes before he claims them!

Bella standing tall but relaxed is her oozing confidence pose. Almost like the Captain Marvel pose.

Oscar’s trembling means one thing—he’s anxious and unsure. A little reassurance will help him relax! But if it’s really cold, it’s probably that. So, a little blankie or sweater would do.

When Lucy’s fur stands up, she’s feeling pumped! It’s her punk rocker vibe coming out. 

Meanwhile, Molly’s stiffness puts her on edge. She’s ready to defend, anticipating whatever is coming her way.

And Daisy spinning means she’s either excited or letting off anxiety. Clearly, all that spinning made her dizzy!

Rex lunging on walks shows his fear. That butterfly was clearly threatening him. 

Charlie’s pacing reveals stress and boredom need addressing! More playtime will make it better.

Rex destroys pillows when anxious or frustrated. He lacks an outlet, poor guy!

And Lola’s circling is appeasement before settling in. Fluffing up that imaginary doggy bed! 

So next time your pup looks off, check their posture—it talks volumes!

8. Vocalization

A brown dog vocalizing.

Finally, let’s explore the doggie vocal range—from fierce, dramatic low growls to cheerful, silly high barks!

Rufus’ low growl is not him auditioning for “Jaws”—it means, “Back off, I feel threatened!” He’s just setting boundaries.

Toby’s happy high-pitched growl practically says, “Let’s party!” It’s a happy dog’s version of a rave squeaker toy. 

When Daisy vocalizes repeatedly, she’s urgently saying she’s very excited or very freaked out. Probably the former if treats are involved!

Bingo’s high bark doesn’t mean he saw a ghost—it signals excitement or worry. The mailman’s shoes are worthy of alarm!

Butch’s low bark shows dominance and grumpiness. He’s channeling Cartman from South Park—respect his authority! 

Bella whines to convey anxiety, worry, pain or just to say, “Belly rubs, please!” It’s her special request line. If it’s persistent whines, be sure to take her to the vet.

Lucy whining while tucked away is her way of feeling submissive or uneasy. She needs comfort from her human.

Charlie’s howling communicates over distances and expresses emotions. Though howling at the full moon remains scientifically unproven. 

Max’s sighs or groans show contentment or discomfort. Unless he’s reacting to another sad dog movie ending! 

And Daisy purring? Yep, dogs purr too! It means she’s as happy as can be. The cat’s out of the bag on that one!

So next time you hear your pup “singing,” listen closely. Their voice says so much if you speak doggo!

Now, let’s see what’s up with the uninviting belly we spoke about in the beginning.

When your pup is rolling over, exposing the belly, take a good look at the situation and his temperament. This is a very submissive move. 

And it can mean two things. First, as we all suspect, it means he trusts you and is looking for a generous tummy rub. But in other cases, it means he could be scared, and by being submissive, he’s trying to de-escalate the situation. So, if you approach, this fear could escalate to a reaction.

The most important thing I want to leave you with is something else. So here’s the thing: when reading dog body language, 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, always look at the whole picture. Context matters! 

Until next time. Keep those tails wagging!

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