How to Interpret the Most Common Dog Signals
Dogs. We love them, and they love us. Sometimes, our dogs seem to know our feelings better than we do, intuitively knowing when to give us extra snuggles and puppy kisses. Unfortunately, we don’t always understand our dogs as well as they understand us.
Without words, dogs speak to us and to other dogs through body language. Learning what dogs are telling us with their fuzzy ears and fluffy tails can help us to avoid aggression, keep our pups healthy and take our bond with them to the next level. Keep reading to uncover the most common dog signals and what they mean.
What it looks like: Ears up, firm stance, tail relaxed
What it means: What’s that?
Dogs consider it their job to be aware, keeping their favorite hoomans out of trouble.
The “alert” position isn’t aggressive. It’s just a sign that they hear, see or smell something, and they’re waiting to see if it’s a friend, a squirrel or an intruder.
What it looks like: Ears up, tail up, fur raised, firm stance, sometimes leaning towards perceived threat
What it means: Someone’s there! Who is it? Do we like them? I’m not so sure about this…
While raised fur doesn’t always mean aggressive behavior will happen, it’s a warning sign that it’s time to de-escalate the situation. If your dog starts to behave like this around another dog, calmly walk them in the other direction to allow them the space they need.
If an off-leash dog approaches you like this, but without growling or other signs of aggression, don’t try to pet the dog, yell or wave your arms. Instead, talk quietly to the dog, avoid eye contact, hold your ground and allow the dog to sniff you. If this scares you, slowly walk away from the dog without turning your back to it.
Anxious or Sick
What it looks like: Ears back, back rounded, tail between legs, sometimes whining
What it means: I’m uncomfortable. Help me, hooman!
Just like us, our dogs can feel worried or scared. Anything from fireworks, to the vacuum cleaner, to an afternoon alone can spark a bout of anxiety, but the causes of anxiety can also be complicated. Some breeds are more anxiety-prone than others, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
If your dog exhibits the anxiety position, or frequently pants, paces or demonstrates destructive behavior, the best course of action is to speak with your vet. He or she will make sure there are no underlying health issues and recommend a treatment plan. Solutions may include medication, situation avoidance and behavioral training. In the meantime, extra-long walks can help alleviate the tension!
What it looks like: Ears back, back rounded, tail down or between legs, barking
What it means: Stay away from meeee!
A dog that's threatened doesn’t want to hurt anyone. They’re simply shouting, “Don’t come any closer! I’m warning you!”
This behavior is rooted in fear. Discourage the behavior by avoiding triggers. To prevent barking at other dogs on walks, for example, turn to walk in the opposite direction or cross the street when you see a dog coming towards you. At home, close the blinds, so your dog can’t see other dogs or people walking by.
What it looks like: Ears back, head lowered, teeth bared, growling
What it means: This is mine, and you better not try to take it.
It’s normal for dogs to protect their toys from other dogs. In most cases, your older dog growling at your puppy over a bone is nothing to stress about. If your dog is guarding their food bowl from people, however, it’s a real problem. In households with only adults, you can prevent your dog from guarding by simply placing the food bowl in a low-traffic area or a crate and leaving them alone while they eat.
However, this can still become a dangerous situation with kids around. Be extra cautious, and if the guarding escalates to outright aggression, it’s time to call in a professional trainer for advice. In the worst cases, rehoming may be necessary. To stop the problem before it starts, hand-feed new puppies and adopted dogs their first few meals in your home to teach them you’re there to give them food, not take it away.
What it looks like: Tail down, licking nose repeatedly
What it means: I don’t like what’s happening, and it’s stressin’ me out.
As cute as this one looks, nose-licking actually means, “I’m nervous!" This is common when kids get too handsy with dogs, hugging them tightly, playing with their ears or climbing on them.
Grabby kids are an easy fix, but some stressful scenarios aren’t — veterinary exams, for example. Do your best to avoid doggy stressors, but if you can’t, try bringing a toy filled with frozen peanut butter or treats to keep Fido distracted.
What it looks like: Sitting or laying down, glancing at you sideways
What it means: Please leave me be.
Being fluffy and lovable doesn’t mean that dogs don’t have a personal bubble. When they start giving you, guests or your kids the side-eye, they’re politely asking, “Can you like … not?”
Make sure kids know that dogs aren’t stuffed animals. If your dog is asking for space, listen! To ensure the safety of every member of the family, teaching kids to give dogs respect is a must.
What it looks like: Ears back, tail raised, barking or growling, even lunging towards perceived threat
What it means: I warned you, but you didn’t listen. Beware!
An angry dog is a dangerous dog. A dog behaving like this has been pushed past their limits, whether by another dog, a stranger or even you. If your dog reacts on walks or around toys or food, remove them (or yourself) from the situation.
Reactive dogs can be quick to snap, so these pups require more patience, understanding and training than others. Even calm dogs can snap when pushed too far, so always pay close attention to your dog’s body language to avoid an accident.
What it looks like: Walking away, turning to look or sit facing the opposite direction
What it means: I wasn’t sure about you, but now we’re cool.
When a dog meets someone new, turning away is a good sign.
It means they don’t see the new person or dog as a threat and feel comfortable.
What it looks like: Sniffing the ground, looking around casually
What it means: It’s all good!
A dog that’s going about its dog business is a dog that feels easy-going and safe.
Though it doesn’t appear as enthusiastic as excited tail wagging, it’s always positive when dogs explore their surroundings via the nose, especially in unfamiliar situations.
What it looks like: Rolling over to expose their cute little fluff belly
What it means: You’re the boss, and I trust you.
This one can actually mean one of two things: “You’re a more dominant dog or hooman. I respect yew.”
Or it can mean, “BELLY RUUUUUB!! STAT.”
Needless to say, both meanings are positive.
What it looks like: Shaking it all out
What it means: I was feelin’ a little uptight, and this is how I like to unwind.
Aside from showering the walls (and you) with water after a bath, dogs like to shake to relieve tension.
After a nerve-wracking vet visit, trip to the groomer or car ride, a big shake feels good. We suggest you try it, too!
What it looks like: Tail wagging or relaxed ears in a neutral position
What it means: Hiya! I like you!
This is what we love to see. A dog that greets you like this is happy and affectionate without any hyper, anxious whining or jumping up.
What it looks like: Blinking slowly, eyes half-closed, ears relaxed
What it means: I’m chillin’.
Expect to see this one while snuggling up on the couch together for a Friday night Netflix binge or a Saturday morning cuddlefest.
Remember: Dogs love to play hard, but they also can be masters of zen.
What it looks like: A biiiig stretch followed by tail wags
What it means: I can’t wait to start our day together!
If you hadn’t guessed, that deep, morning stretch is your pup’s way of greeting you after a good night’s sleep or a nice nap.
Expect this one to be followed by a request for a walk and full bowl of noms.
What it looks like: Front paws on the ground, fluff butt in the air
What it means: Throw the ball! THROW IT!!
Need we say more?
This one might be accompanied by tail wagging, playful barking and “zoomies” — running all over the place like a kid high on espresso.
Puppy Dog Eyes
What it looks like: Looking up at you, blinking slowly
What it means: I am the cutest thing ever, so please give me your sandwich.
You want an entire Thanksgiving turkey, good boi? Take it. Have the stuffing and gravy, too.
Pro-tip: Puppy dog eyes also work on parents and significant others. Sometimes.
What it looks like: Head tilted to the side
What it means: What’s that? Do I play with it? Do I eat it?
Step 1: Get a laser pointer.
Step 2: Verbally abuse the annoying plastic packaging.
Step 3: Point it at a blank wall.
Step 4: Show your floof the mysterious red dot.
Step 5: Laugh forever.
What it looks like: Back rounded, eyes half-closed
What it means: You’re a great masseuse.
Mmmmm, that’s the spot! You know you’ve found the right place for scritchy scratches when your pup looks at you like this.
Warning: This may be followed by constant requests for belly rubs, which you’re obviously required to accommodate.
What it looks like: Exactly like playful, but with copious butt wiggling
What it means: I have never been so happy in my whole life.
Put your fluff butt in the air, and wiggle everywhere!
A wiggly butt is a butt that’s lovin’ life. It wants to run. It wants to play. And it wants to do all of these things with its favorite person in the world: YOU!