How to speak to dogs

Are you curious about how to talk to your dog? Have you ever found yourself talking with your dog, telling him how your day went? Or asking what he thinks about your new outfit? 

You aren’t alone! Most dog parents talk with their dogs. Our dogs are the least judgmental beings in our lives, right? 

You should be talking to your dog because your dog is talking to you too! He is learning your words and your body language. So isn’t it fair that we learn how to speak dog language

Once you learn your dog’s body language, your bond with your dog will grow exponentially.  

Dog looking with titled head. How To Speak Dog Language

Talking to dogs 

Do you know when your dog is happy, sad, scared, or being aggressive? 

Dogs speak with their bodies, tail, ears, eyes, and mouth. Think about dog language as a form of sign language. 

Dogs also speak by barking. We go into the meaning of different type of barks in another post. 

As a foster family for dogs, we have been blessed with so many different dog personalities. We’ve had dogs from every end of the spectrum, from dominant to scared. 

When we adopted our dog, Ginger, we realized she has resource guarding issues. By watching and learning her body language we have been able to help her tremendously.

These experiences have gifted us with the understanding of how important talking with our dogs and learning their body language truly is. And now I want to pass that gift on to you and your dog. 


Rescue Dogs 101's Natural Remedies Reference Guide

Rescue Dogs 101's
Natural Remedies Reference Guide

Here are just a few natural remedy ideas you'll find inside:

  • Allergies
  • Diarrhea
  • Minor wounds
  • Anxiety
  • Fleas and ticks

Understanding your dog’s body language

Dogs come in different shapes, sizes and builds, ears and tails vary greatly. Each part of your dog’s body provides a signal to you, and yes sometimes they are hard to read. 

It’s also important to note that some dogs will show only one or two of these signs, and some will exhibit all signs. 

Some signals by themselves may be misleading if not looking at his full body and considering the situation. Remember each dog and situation is unique!

When reading your dog’s body language, it is critical to look at the entire picture. Ask what is the dog doing? What is the dog’s body language? And what is going on around the dog?

The below dog body language information and chart is meant only to be a guideline for learning how to talk to your dog in their language. 

three dog tails

Why do dogs wag their tails? 

Most people know when a dog’s tail is tucked between his legs, he’s scared. But do you know a wagging tail doesn’t always mean the dog is happy or friendly? 

The position of the dog’s tail is one of the easier ways of understanding what they are feeling. A relaxed dog will have its tail in a neutral position. This will vary depending on the breed of dog. Watch your dog when you know he is relaxed, where does his tail hang? 

If he has a tail that curls up naturally, then obviously it isn’t going to hang low like say a labrador retriever dog would. 

The majority of the time when a dog is wagging their tail from side to side in a fast motion, this means happiness and excitement. 

How to read a dog tail 

Use these key points as a guide. Again, every dog is unique, so it’s important to watch your dog closely and assess the entire picture, not just one piece of the puzzle. 

  • A wagging tail does NOT always mean a friendly dog! Dogs will wag their tail even when they are aggressive.
  • Dogs with no or very short tails or tails that curl over their backs are much harder to read. If your dog has a tail like this, it is even more important that you pay close attention to his other body parts.
  • wide, sweeping, or circular tail wag is a calm and happy greeting.
  • lowered tail that wags back and forth quickly is usually a sign of a happy, relaxed, or even an uncertain dog.
  • tucked tail, especially if it is tucked all the way under the dog, is a sign of fear, anxiety, or discomfort.
  • A dog will hold his tail up high when he is alert or curious. For example, if he spots a rabbit or another dog entering his territory. 
  • When the body and the base of the tail are stiff or tense, possibly even wagging, is a sign of an alert, dominant or aggressive dog.
Scared Dog with whale eyes. How To Speak Dog Language Chart

Dog eyes

You look into those deep brown puppy eyes and it’s love at first sight. But did you know your dog’s eyes are speaking to you too!  

  • relaxed dog will turn his head to look at something else and have relaxed eyes with small pupils at the center.
  • Dilated pupils are a signal that your dog is either very aroused, or incredibly frightened.
  • frightened dog will stiffen his body and widen his eyes, enabling you to see the white of his eye

Dog side-eye (whale eye)

When you see a large amount of the white of a dog’s eye it is referred to as “whale eye”. What does it mean when your dog gives you the side-eye? Usually, the whale eye is communicating that your dog wants you to back off. He may be frightened, protecting a bone, or simply stressed in the current situation. 

Dog licking lips and yawning. Calming signals and How To Speak Dog Language Chart

Dog mouth

  • A cautious or scared dog might pull his lips taught, yawn, or lick his lips quickly, both yawning and lip licking are “calming signals”.
  • Dog yawning meaning he is stressed, or trying to calm the current situation.
  • The most obvious is when a dog pulls his lips back and growls or bares his teeth in a snarlGrowls and snarls are a warning that a dog shows before he decides he needs to bite or attack.
  • It’s important NOT to punish your dog for using this warning. Your dog is talking to you and you need to listen. If you do not allow him to offer you this warning, he may go immediately into the bite or attack mode next time.

Why does my dog yawn 

Believe it or not when your dog yawns, it doesn’t mean he’s tired and ready for a nap. A yawn is considered a calming signal. 

Your dog may yawn if he is stressed or anxious. He will yawn to avoid conflict, communicating that he means no harm and would rather be left alone. 

Have you ever noticed how yawning is contagious? If your friend yawns, you can’t help but yawn too? What’s even more interesting is that your dog may also yawn in response to you or another dog yawning. It’s been shown that response yawning is a sign of empathy. 

Dog ears meaning 

Dog ears come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some types of ears are harder to read than others. Large floppy ears or cropped ears are usually hard to read. Short, floppy, or prick ears make it easier to detect their position.

Remember to watch your dog’s entire body language, not just one part. Every piece will paint the full picture of what your dog is saying. 

  • Ears held forward and high on the head indicate interest or confidence.
  • Ears that are tilted backward or held flat against the head indicate worry or submission.
  • A dog that is very worried or fearful will often pin his ears back.
  • Ears that are relaxed and floppy reflect a relaxed and happy dog. 
dog hackles on a yellow Labrador Retriever

Dog raised hackles

  • Dog hair standing up on the spine and tail or the raised fur is commonly known as “hackles.” When you see a dog’s hackles, it does NOT mean the dog is aggressive.
  • Different dogs raise their hackles for different reasons. It is usually a sign of a heightened emotional state. The most common causes are excitement/arousal, surprise, fear, or defensive behavior.
  • A dog in a state of arousal or distress may raise the fur on his shoulders or at the base of his tail or even both.

Download our dog body language chart in PDF format below.

Your dogs calming signals

Calming signals” are signals that dogs give to humans and other dogs to announce stress and to avoid conflict. They include things like turning away, walking in a curve, shaking it off, yawning, and lip licking

This can happen when your dog is put in a new or uncomfortable situation, whether that be entering a new environment, meeting a new dog, or feeling trapped in a situation. Your dog is telling you he needs a break from the current situation, so give it to him.

Most calming signals happen very quickly, and you may not even notice them unless you are looking for it. 

Here are five calming signals to watch for in your dog:

  • Turning his head away from the situation
  • Shaking it off, shaking his head, or entire body
  • Yawning
  • Licking his lips
  • Walking in a curve
  • Walking slowly or even freezing

Common mistakes when communicating with your dog

DON’T: Standing above and reaching over or petting the dogs head
DO: kneel or sit next to your dog and rub under his chin or chest

DON’T: Moving or running too fast toward the dog
DO: Walk slowly to the dog or even better, allow the dog to approach you

DON’T: Direct eye contact or staring at dogs eyes
DO: Looking off to the side slightly will feel like less pressure

DON’T: Hugging and kissing
DO: Some dogs like to snuggle, but most don’t. They prefer a good butt scratch or belly rub

If you are interested in discovering more about how to talk with your dog, the Rescue Dogs 101 Dog Body Language 101 ebook and flashcards are a great way to dig even deeper. Learn more by clicking here: Dog Body Language 101

Dog Body Language Chart

How To Speak Dog Language Chart - Calm Dog

Calm and Relaxed

Body: Relaxed posture
Tail: Relaxed, wide sweeping or circular wag
Ears: Relaxed
Eyes: Relaxed, small pupils at the center
Mouth: Relaxed, mouth closed or opened slightly

How To Speak Dog Language Chart - Dog in play bow


Body: Play bow, front legs on the ground with butt up
Tail: Up and wagging
Ears: Up
Eyes: Pupils dilated
Mouth: Open or closed

How To Speak Dog Language Chart - Dog on high Alert


Body: Standing tall posture, hackles up
Tail: Horizontal
Ears: Perked up, forward and high on the head
Eyes: Wide open
Mouth: Closed and quite

How To Speak Dog Language Chart - Dominant Dog


Body: Stiff posture, hackles may be raised, mounting
Tail: High and stiff or wagging
Ears: Perked up, high on the head
Eyes: Wide open
Mouth: Closed or possible growling

How To Speak Dog Language Chart - Aggressive Dog


Body: Stiff posture, hackles may be raised
Tail: High and stiff wagging
Ears: Held up and back
Eyes: Wide, whites of eyes visible (whale eye)
Mouth: Growling, lips curled, teeth visible

How To Speak Dog Language Chart - Scared Dog

Fearful or Anxious

Body: Trembling or cowering
Tail: Tucked or low and slowly wagging
Ears: Tilted back or flattened
Eyes: Avoidance, whites of eyes may be visible
Mouth: Yawning, licking lips

I recommend that you read Why Do Family Dogs Bite … as part of learning our dogs body language, teaching your entire family, including kids of all ages is super important.

Want to learn more? Have an entire conversation with your dog by learning everything about his body language today! It’s going to change your relationship 10x over…

Dog Body Language 101 Book Cover

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About the Author Debi@RescueDogs101

Debi McKee is a mom of three kids, three dogs and the creator of Rescue Dogs 101... where she guides you in your journey of adopting and raising a rescue dog every step of the way. She also volunteers for a local dog rescue and Humane Society.

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