Do you ever mimic your dog’s voice when no one is around? Or spend hours watching dogs talking on YouTube and wonder how to get your pooch to say “I love you”? Then it’s high time to learn to speak doggo.
Canine language is not all about woofs and ruffs. Even though dogs use a variety of different sounds and noises to communicate, dog body language plays a bigger part in how our furballs talk to us.
If you want to finally get to the bottom of what that wagging tail really means and stop asking yourself "why does my dog stare at me," here are answers to all of your questions:
- How Can I Understand My Dog? Body Language Definition
- Dog Tail & Ears: Communicating Emotions
- Understanding Dog Body Language
- Translating Woofs to Words
- The Science of Speaking Canine
- Final Thoughts
How Do I Understand My Dog? Body Language Definition
Most people can intuitively understand the basics of dog body language and recognize when their pooch is happy, scared or angry. After all, dogs are very expressive, both verbally and nonverbally!
However, human and dog body language are very different. Postures, facial expressions, and movements that we interpret as one thing can mean something else to your pooch. By definition, dog body language consists of various different aspects, including:
- Facial expressions
- Ear position
- Tail position and movement
These aspects of dog body language should always be interpreted together, as it is the only way to accurately decipher your dog’s feelings!
Dog Tail & Ears: Communicating Emotions
As I’ve already mentioned, a dog signals its emotions and intentions by communicating with their whole body, whether it’s their general demeanor or specific body part used. However, your dog’s tail and ears are the two canine body parts most commonly used for understanding body language meanings.
Here’s how to read the body language of your pooch through their tail and ears.
As is often the case with animals, each dog tail tells a tale of its own. Some pooches have big, fluffy tails, some flaunt a curled tail that rests on their backs, and some have tiny bobtails that don’t say much. Breeds like whippet, Irish wolfhound or the Borzoi naturally hold their tail between the legs, which means that they won’t express their anxiety by tucking away their tails like most breeds. It’s important to always consider context and an individual dog’s character and breed when trying to interpret their tell-tail signals!
Dog Tail Wagging
One of the most widely acknowledged facts is that a wagging tail means a dog is happy. But, in reality, tail wagging is not a sure sign of a dog’s happiness. This only means that the dog is interested in interaction, and, only in combination with other body language signs, it can be interpreted as a happy or anxious signal.
The speed at which the dog tail is wagging can also be a cue to their emotions. For example, fast, excited wagging is usually a good, friendly sign, whereas slow wagging can be an indicator that a dog is wary and nervous.
Stiff Tail Wagging
If your pooch is tense and their tail moves stiffly from side to side, it might be a sign of aggressive dog behavior or anxiety. This is sometimes called a “flag tail”- not to be mistaken for “flagging tail”, which is a symptom of heat in female dogs.
Tail Between Legs
When a dog’s tail is tucked in between their hind legs, it signifies that they’re anxious or scared. Depending on the context and their overall posture and body language, this can escalate to defensive aggression, so it’s important to approach them calmly and with caution.
Uncomfortable and slightly nervous dogs keep their tail between their legs when they’re in an unknown environment or meeting new people or pets. This is usually a sign of their uncertainty and vulnerability. A submissive dog will keep its tail between its legs more often, especially when in contact with other dogs or when they want to communicate “surrender” - like when they’re at the vet for a checkup or just after they’ve chewed up your new shoes.
Same as it is with dog tails, the shape and the type of your dog’s ears will play a part in how they use them for communication. I mean, you can’t expect a basset hound to keep its ears upright like breeds of dogs with pointy ears, can you? But, regardless of their shape, size, and type, you can learn a lot about a dog’s feelings or objectives by learning how to read ear body language.
Dog Ears Back
If a dog’s ears are gently pulled back, accompanied by happy tail wag, it means they’re feeling friendly and up for some cuddles! But, if their ears are flat and pinned back or to the sides, your pooch is definitely signaling fear. Depending on the overall body language followed by flattened ears, it might be a submissive gesture or a precursor to an attack. If the dog is growling, barking or looks like they’re preparing to pounce, you should approach with caution.
Ears Pointed Up
Whenever a dog is curious or on alert from something, they’ll point their ears up, often followed by an adorable cocked head. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that dogs slightly tip their ears in the direction of the object or person that piqued their curiosity. When it comes to my dogs, they usually point their ears at the silly person babbling at them. (Can you guess who that silly person is? Yup, you’re right.)
Reading Dog Body Language
Dog body language signs can’t be properly understood if not interpreted in the right context and without considering other dog signals. For example, a grin can be a happy dog face, a sign of submission or a display of aggression - it all depends on the rest of the body language!
To ensure you’re accurately interpreting your furball’s message, you need to know all types of canine nonverbal communication and what they mean when combined. Use this dog body language chart if you’re unsure which body part to pay attention to for signals:
To ensure you’ll recognize each dog body language signal, here are the most common signs explained:
- Dog yawning: A calming signal. Unless your pooch is getting ready to take a nap, yawning might indicate they’re feeling stressed out or feel the need to dampen down their excitement.
- Eyes looking down: Dogs are not big fans of direct eye contact, but, after all that time they spent hanging around humans, they learned that a stare doesn’t necessarily mean a challenge. Pooches that avert their eyes are simply being polite in doggie language!
- Whale Eye (Half-moon Eye): When a dog is looking away, with his gaze fixed on someone or something and their whites (sclera) are showing, it’s a sign of anxiety and agitation. If the dog is displaying other aggressive body language signs, it’s best to give them some space to calm down or check and remove the source of their defensive behavior.
- Open Mouth: This cute derpy look means your doggie is content and relaxed. However, if you notice their mouth is open while you’re eating, they’re actually sending a clever and unmysterious message… Sharing is caring, human.
- Dog Baring Teeth / Dog Showing Teeth: This particular dog body language sign can be interpreted in various ways, depending on the situation. It can be a sign of a submissive dog (typical “guilty dog” face), or, if accompanied by growling, raised hair and a defensive stance, a signal of aggressive intentions.
- Dog Licking Lips: If a dog keeps licking its lips and they’re not looking at a plate of bacon, it’s their way of communicating feelings of fear, stress or nervousness. Your pooch is definitely feeling uncomfortable or scared, and they might be displaying other signals such as panting, tail tucked between their legs or half-moon eyes.
Canine Body Posture
- Relaxed: You’ll recognize a dog at ease by their calm demeanor. Their tail will be in its natural position, their stance neutral and their ears either relaxed or slightly pointed up. They won’t be staring intensely or looking down, and their mouth will be relaxed at the corners, closed or slightly open.
- Excited: An energetic approach to a person or an object, often including jumping, running around and a playful stance. Ears will be alert and upright, and their tail wagging fiercely. If particularly excited about something, your pooch might bark or whine as well.
- Scared: There are many ways a dog signals fear and they all depend on your pooch’s personality. A dog can attack, hide and turn to submissive dog behaviors or seek their owner’s comfort when feeling scared. Most dogs will shiver, lower their whole body, with their tail between their legs.
- Playful: Dogs who are up for some fun are not that hard to spot. The typical playful stance, when the front part of their body drops to the floor, with their hind legs outstretched is the clearest invitation for playtime, either to you or another dog.
- Anxious: If something is making your dog uncomfortable, they will let you know by tensing up and slightly lowering their body, often flattening their ears back as well. Some dogs will accompany the tense body posture with yawning or panting.
- Aggressive: When a dog is getting ready to attack, their whole body language will clearly declare their intentions. Aggressive dogs have a focused or a narrow stare, their body is tense with the hair on the nape of their neck raised up, and their teeth bared in a snarl. Anxious barking and low growling often accompany aggressive dog behavior.
Translating Woofs to Words
Even though a dog’s body language is the biggest part of their communication, they can also rely on vocalizations to get their message across. Variations in barking, whining and a myriad of different, dog-specific sounds also have meaning, even if not paired with body language.
Sure, you don’t need a dog language translator to understand when your furball is trying to tell you they don’t want to be home alone or when it’s time for dinner, but what about everything else?
Here are the meanings of the most common “phrases” of the dog language, ruffly translated to English:
Singular bark: "Yo!" or "What's up, human?"
String of barks: "Hey, look at this pinecone, I can't believe I found it, human, it’s soooo pretty, come and see!" or "Woah, I think I just smelled an intruder, I'm positive it's that nosey neighbor’s cat!"
Howl: "Whyyyyyy, humaaan, why did you leave me forever aloneee? It's been 85 years since you went to buy groceries…"
Howl followed by rapid barking: "Attention, human! I just spotted a threat - it can be either the mailman or a robber!"
High-pitched barking: "Are we going outside? Will there be squirrels? Can I bring my toy? Will I meet other dogs?"
Whining: If your pooch is not hurt or in pain, whining often translates to "Gimme, gimme, gimmeeeee just a teensy bite of your sandwich!"
Grumbling: "It’s OK, I’ll just die of hunger while you finish off that last pizza slice without sharing it with me."
The Science of Speaking Canine
Even when you learn to understand your dog, there is one question that will remain on your mind - how do people communicate with dogs?
I mean, we all pour our souls out to our four-legged family members, but how much of that can they understand? After all, they often don’t seem to get the difference between an expensive rug and a lawn.
Scientists have an answer for us. According to a peer-reviewed study, dogs can understand what we are saying, as long as we nail the intonation.
Dogs can remember and react to familiar words, but the way you say it is what gives it all away. So, when you say “who’s a good boy” in that embarrassing, high-pitched tone, your little furball really knows they’re the good boy you’re speaking of. (What a relief, am I right?)
Canine Communication and Training
The fact that dogs are able to remember frequently used words, as well as intention from your intonation, proves that positive reinforcement training is quite efficient.
A no-nonsense tone of voice, combined with short commands such as stop, sit or come, can clearly communicate meaning to your dog. At the same time, praise and a cutesy, baby voice will trigger a response in the reward centers of a dog’s brain.
Read more: How To Train A Dog
Monitor Your Dog’s Body Language Remotely With Petcube
When your dog is anxious about being left alone, the sound of your calm, soothing voice can ease them. Dogs with separation anxiety can have a characteristic body language that can signal an anxiety attack, be a precursor to destructive dog behavior, or simply signify your dog’s fear and nervousness. Monitoring their body language remotely can help you better understand the severity of their disorder and prevent it from worsening.
A pet camera with treats that offers a two-way audio feature, such as Petcube Bites, can be used to treat separation anxiety and encourage positive behavior. Use its features to communicate with your pooch while you’re at work, and help them feel safe and relaxed in your absence. Make sure to focus on intonation and familiar words if you want your dog to understand you - even when you’re not around.
Learning dog body language is a must for every pooch parent. Let’s be honest, it’s only fair to put in the effort to understand our dogs, considering how much time we spend talking their ears off with our stories.
It’s true that each dog has its own personality and little quirks, but the universality of dog behavior makes it possible to easily recognize their emotions - that is, when you know which body language signs to look for.
Even though you might not learn everything there is to know about the way dogs communicate overnight, at least the next time your dog stares at you with an open mouth or lets out a weird woof, you won’t be confused!
Q: Do dogs understand human body language?
A: Yes, dogs are great at noticing and interpreting our body language. Studies have shown that canines are better at deciphering our nonverbal cues than chimpanzees and even young children. It shouldn’t surprise you that your pooch knows when you’re sad and comes offering a comforting snuggle!
Q: Why does my dog look sad?
A: Sometimes, those sad puppy eyes are just a trait of a specific breed, like the case with Basset hounds, Boxers or Pugs. In other cases, dogs figure out that making a specific face gets them what they need - whether it’s attention, extra food or time outside. Unless your dog seems like they’re in pain, it’s highly likely that their sad look is just that - a look.
Q: What does it mean when my dog stares at me while they’re pooping?
A: Most dog owners have, at least once in their lifetime, been in that awkward situation… You know, when your pooch locks their eyes with you, just as they are doing the deed AKA the poop stare. But, don’t worry, it doesn’t mean that your dog is a weirdo. It’s actually quite instinctual. There are a few theories by animal behaviorists, but this is what seems the most plausible: dogs maintain eye contact during pooping either because they want reassurance or approval. So, instead of feeling embarrassed, cheer on your pooch for pooping where they’re supposed to!
Q: Do dogs communicate with each other?
A: We’ve covered different types of communication between dogs and humans, but what about dog to dog language? Not unlike how they communicate with humans, dogs use their body language to signal other dogs about their emotions and intentions. Some recent studies showed that even barking carries meaning to other canines, but, for now, the meaning behind the woofs still remains a secret for us.