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.
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.
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.
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.
- A wide, sweeping, or circular tail wag is a calm and happy greeting.
- A lowered tail that wags back and forth quickly is usually a sign of a happy, relaxed, or even an uncertain dog.
- A 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.
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!
- A 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.
- A 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.
- 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 snarl. Growls 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 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.
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
- 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, check out our Dog Body Language Learning Set — it’s a great way to dig even deeper.
Dog Body Language Chart
Calm and Relaxed
Body: Relaxed posture
Tail: Relaxed, wide sweeping or circular wag
Eyes: Relaxed, small pupils at the center
Mouth: Relaxed, mouth closed or opened slightly
Body: Play bow, front legs on the ground with butt up
Tail: Up and wagging
Eyes: Pupils dilated
Mouth: Open or closed
Body: Standing tall posture, hackles up
Ears: Perked up, forward and high on the head
Eyes: Wide open
Mouth: Closed and quite
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
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
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…
Get information. We rescued a 4 month old pup that never lived outside a shelter. After 4 weeks she has warmed up to my wife. I raised 5 dogs previously and never had major problems. Alice runs from me even though I’m the primary care giver. I realize patience is needed and have looked in books and YouTube to help me adjust. Any suggestions? Thanks
We have a lot of resources right here on this website. I also recommend joining our private Facebook group, it’s a great place to ask questions of others that are going through similar situations. https://www.facebook.com/groups/rescuedogs101community
just watched your article on communicating with your dog. took the quiz, got 5/5 correct. i have always been realy good with dogs. my Loki loves to snuggle up against me and i realy feel like with communicate so good with each other
Yeah! That’s awesome!
This is such a wonderful resource! It’s so important to understand dog body language. If more people understood and cared about this, I’m sure there wouldn’t be as many incidents of dogs biting family members.
I’ve been looking for answers and suggestions to help me better understand how to help our rescue dog adjust to us. She’s 2 yrs. old and we’ve only had her for about 3 months. She’s skittish and fearful and runs away when I get near to her. This article gave very helpful explanations of a dogs’ body language and what they’re trying to communicate to us. We will continue to give her the space she needs as she adjusts to us and her new home.
I just discovered your web site
I can’t wait to sit on my computer to download some most needed help I adopted a one year old (rehomed) and I’m discovering he was the boss in the other house, he is not house trained and the list keeps growing. I need to teach him to come to start with but when I think we are there he becomes deaf again ????
I have just started a dog psychology and training course, whilst in isolation, and your emails are helping tremendously. I sometimes have trouble understanding what they want in some questions. After reading their notes and yours, it all becomes becomes easier. I have always loved dogs, and my Lab /Shep, Evan 15.4yrs, passed away 8wks ago. My other dog, Jackie GSD 13.8yrs, became a little anxious and missed the old boy, and this encouraged me to do this course, to understand and help her and me in recovery. Cheers and Thank you.
Hi I adopted a little black fawn no not really she a long legged chi. She beautiful, she’s been with me 2yrs. She’s probably 95 % at her training. I’ve never had a dog that taken so long to train she’s about 2 1/2 yrs old so We still have lot of time to work out out situations. Can you help! She doesn’t come when I call her , try food training doesn’t work, she still pees on the rug maybe 3 to 4 inches from the pee pads.. the best news is she a least does her other stuff on there pads.I used up to three pads in two places in the apt. I’m kinda running out of ideas for these little but big concerns. If anyone has suggestions please let me know. I’m disabled and can’t get her outside as much as she deserves, considering what condition she was in when we met both body and mind she done great, I still could use some help. Thanks
Hi, I have a gsd rescue I’ve had him 2 years now, he was in Spain in high kill shelter, he is 5-6 years old and a lovely boy who adores people, even tho he has been abused when I got him if you raised your voice or your hand/ arm he would drop to floor and shake, he is just started to play with toys but not really interested in them, food orientated at home but not on walks , he is obedient at home untill he sees something then he ignores mea bit but out on walk in woods I do not exist and if we see another dog he goes mad trying to get to it sometimes crying other time barking and growling, sometimes he just walks past ( a wide berth tho) and cries, in the car he goes nuts 95% of time…he really baffles me he is my 8 th gsd but never had one like him, his prey drive is so high..I have been to trainers and behaviourists, he did improve a bit but then goes backwards after a little time even tho I still do what they have advised. I walk him in a gentle leader, which he hates, I think about prong collar but not sure have read and watched videos bout them,!!! Sorry for long post , any advise would help, thank you Lynn & Kody.
Lynn, there is a lot going on here. But I will say that being consistent is key. If you’ve seen improvement during training times, then something is happening that is making him go backwards. We are actually justing going through an online training program called Recallers by Susan Garrett. The biggest key take away is consistency and making it fun for the dog. Start training him with no distractions, and gradually build up from level 1 distractions to level 10 distractions.
Thank you for telling and showing us what the different things mean. I know people get confused and they may think a dog is friendly but sometimes it is quite the opposite.
Some dogs body signals are so slight, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.
What a fantastic post about dog body language! I do believe it’s super important to be able to read the signals our dogs try to show us. It will make for a more harmonised relationship and home for everyone involved. A lot of the dangerous incidents that happen between dogs and humans are because we’ve missed or ignored early warning signs. So it’s crucial we learn to understand what our dogs are trying to say a little better. Thanks for sharing!
Perfectly said. Thank you Karly!
What a great resource! I’m definitely going to share! I learned about the yawning thing with our previous dog who was easily stressed. Actually, I yawn when I’m stressed, too.
Thank you, very much appreciated!
So important that you’re putting this out there. To better equip dog owners about the subtle and not so subtle signs and body language exhibited by their canine companions. Many times when there are ‘problem’ dogs or cats, it’s not the animal but the owners who need a little nudge in the right direction.
100% agree. Thank you!
This is a very helpful resource to have all this info in one place and spelled out so clearly. I will share it on Pinterest and Facebook because it’s a good fit for my blog’s audience.
Thank you Lindsay, I really appreciate the kind words and for sharing!
This is very important information! My daughter had a classmate who had been bitten severely by his family’s German Shepherd. It was such a sad thing, and I believe it was preventable.
So sad, there are way to many stories like this. Thanks for sharing.
This is so important!! I am astounded by the videos I see where there is a bite incident waiting to happen. Even this afternoon I was at a rabies clinic with one of my cats. Watching the dog owners interact I thought some of them were clueless. No dude your dog doesn’t want to play with the old lady’s cute dog, it kind of wants to fight. There were only two minor skirmishes I saw while I was there.
Agreed. It’s frustrating, sad and scary all at the same time.