Dog Body Language Speaks Volumes10 min read

 In Dogs



Without verbal or non-verbal communication cues it would be very difficult to get your point across to another person.  Eons ago, the earliest humans realized they had to learn how to communicate with one another for the common good.  Language was born.  Communication was needed to keep each other from danger and the skills needed for hunting as a group.  Non-verbal cues developed and are part of “reading between the lines” when talking to another person.  It is these non-verbals cues that are known as body language.  You don’t need to have a person verbally tell you that they are annoyed.  All you have to do is LOOK at them.

Dogs cannot talk but they do display all sorts of emotions by employing body language.  The key to understanding dog behavior is that most of it is subtle. It is not out there in your face like a person smiling and shouting after they hit the lottery.  Animals usually give subtle behavioral cues that announce the plans they have in mind.  Some are happy, some are based on anxiety and others are those where the dog feels threatened.  This post is written about important dog behavioral cues that people need to recognize.




Dog body language is important for all pet owners to understand and interpret correctly.  By understanding and interpreting dog body language you will be able to understand what is going on with your dog plus prevent bite wounds. An important beginning step is just by observing dogs.  Watch your own pet as it lives its life.  If you don’t own a pet observe your neighbor’s pets or those at playgrounds and the like.

This information comes into play in two situations.  If you take your dog to local dog parks or have young children, understanding and reacting to dog body language is crucial.  At dog parks, it is important to always be on guard looking at how the animals react to one another. There will always be dominance issues.  If you have a child it is important to understand the difference between a dog tolerating a child pulling at its ears or one that actually likes it.  It is the dog that just tolerates it that can become explosive.  Like people, dogs reach a point where they can’t take it anymore.  That tolerant behavior could turn aggressive.  This means a possible dog bite.  While the toddler is tugging at a dog’s ears (or via some other behavior) and you start seeing the animal starting to LICK ITS CHOPS this is a precursor to aggression. Immediately separate the child from the dog.  Do not be fooled that bite behavior happens over seconds.  That is a big mistake.  Dogs can bite in a nanosecond!  They are very very quick.  Always respect the nimbleness of a dog.



  • The body is relaxed.
  • The dog is panting but not excessively.
  • The ears are held normally with no forward or backward orientation.
  • The dog’s face looks content.
  • It is often playful.  A play bow where the back end of a dog is elevated and the front end is down with a wagging tail is often present.
  • The tail is wagging back and forth or banging against the floor.
  • An example of a happy dog is the picture of the spaniel playing at the beach.




  • The dog will start guarding everything it has in the house.  This can get out of control rapidly leading to a bite.
  • The dog lunges on or off a leash
  • The dog barks and growls continuously and does not obey commands.
  • Lips are curled up exposing the canines and upper teeth.
  • The body is rigid, tense and the tail is held in a down position with a nervous twitch of the tail.
  • Will literally bite the air.  This has happened to me many times in practice.  It is intentional.  The dog is telling you that it CAN bite.
  • The animal may intentionally soil your possessions or even urinate on house members or guests.




This is perhaps the most dangerous of all.  Dogs that are just a cusp away from biting will:

  • crouch down in a stiff position, tail down and stare intently at YOU.
  • show its teeth with curled gums.

This is a bad situation.  The key is to never ever make eye contact with animals in this state.  In the human mind, making eye contact with someone is a basic proposal to talk to someone or to get to know someone.  In the mind of a dog, even in good times, making direct eye contact with any dog is interpreted as a threat.  If you and a child are close to an animal in this situation SLOWLY remove yourself and the child away from the dog without making eye contact with the dog.  Slowly back away.  If you are holding anything that belongs to the dog, drop the items.

I have mentioned for years that it is too dangerous living with any biting animal.  The risk of disfigurement, pain, suffering and even death is too great for any condition like this to continue.



  • The ears are alert and attentive
  • The mouth is closed and fixed.
  • The dog’s body is tense and not relaxed.
  • A quick, quivering tail movement.
  • The animal is not interested in playing.




This is perhaps one of the most common problems that dogs find themselves in.  It is very difficult for them to handle anxious situations.  One of the number one causes of anxiety in dogs is visiting a veterinarian! I have seen anxiety expressed in a million ways but always took it in stride and tried to console or relieve the pet’s nervousness.  Many times, they did not buy my bedside manner!  Clients told me that their dog was showing signs of anxiety miles away from my office way before they could even see the place.  There are many signs of anxiety but here are a few.  The best treatment for anxiety is getting the animal out of the situation, if possible, that is causing the anxious moments.  Sometimes this is not possible.  Try to console the animal and talk softly to it while trying to distract it.  Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.

  • Many dogs will yawn.  This is often interpreted as the dog being tired.  This is far from the truth.  They want to get out of the situation and do not know what to do.  Yawning, in a dog’s world, helps it deal with anxiety.  Shaking like the animal just got a bath, even though it is dry, is another way trying to deal with anxiety.
  • The dog may bite or scratch at itself, relieve anal glands, chew its paws or make strange vocal sounds.  This is behavioral displacement.  They have no clue what to do so they do something else which is out of character for the moment.
  • If a dog is visualizing a juicy steak it will drool, salivate and move its lips.  Remember Pavlov’s experiment?  In an anxious moment the dog moves its lips even when food is not present.  This can be dangerous as mentioned earlier as it can lead to aggression which can lead to a bite.
  • Hiding behind the owner to avoid something that causes anxiety.  This happened many times to me in the supermarket when the owner’s service dog hid behind them when I was present.  I was just wearing my street clothes but still, I made the dog anxious.  Oh well.
  • Dogs will often try to avoid dealing with what is causing them anxiety.  They will pant, their tail drops with only a quick, terse wag.  They are tense.  They will bark and turn their heads away from what is causing them problems.



The problem with writing about specific solutions is that each individual is different and responds differently to threats and anxiety problems in the environment.  The best course of action dealing with anxiety in dogs is to extricate them, if possible, from the source of anxiety.  A simple example is the dog that panics when it walks into my exam room half petrified to death.  For many animals this is normal for THEM.  Other animals walk in happy with a big smile on their face, let the doctor shake their paw, get a kiss and roll over and play dead.  Everyone is different and those differences must be respected.  Once that anxious dog left my office the anxiety disappeared.  The clinic was in the dog’s rear view mirror and all was fine with the world again.  Back home to their favorite sofa!

Many people need time for themselves where they can meditate or be at peace after a hectic work day.  Dogs need time to themselves.  In puppy confinement I wrote about the right way to crate train an animal.  Many animals in distress will disappear to their hideaway:  in this case their crate.  Cover the crate with a blanket to make it feel more secure.  Then leave the dog alone.  It will come out when it is ready.

If a dog still shows signs of anxiety it is important to schedule an exam and a medical workup with your veterinarian.  Physical exams may often lead the veterinarian to investigate a suspected medical condition.  If the animal is healthy and current on all vaccinations, a behavioral veterinary specialist is recommended.  The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) is the first place to stop.  Specialists in veterinary behavior can be found in major cities around the country.  Treatment entails behavioral modification with or without pharmaceutical help.  Anti-depressant therapy is often used such as:  Clomicalm®, tricyclic antidepressants plus drugs such as Prozac®.  The big problem with the old serotonin uptake inhibitors, such as Prozac®, is that they take as long as 3 weeks to take effect.  That may be too long a period in certain situations.  I had success using a derivative of Prozac® known as fluvoxamine (Luvox®).  In many of these cases, the only alternative for many people is putting the dog down.  Giving a therapeutic trial of fluvoxamine has helped many dogs cut their aggression way, way down. Of course, if the animal has not been neutered, get that done immediately.  Neutering calms down most animals, particularly intact male dogs and cats.

Psychotropic drugs combined with behavior modification may allow an animal to lead a satisfying life without the fear of anxiety and aggression that often follows when anxiety is not controlled or terminated.  That aggression than can lead to bite wounds.  It is important to always treat the source.  Understanding dog body language will not only alleviate mental suffering in dogs but will promote public health and safety.

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