Dog Body Language: What Is Your Dog Really Saying?

By Carin Ford, November 2020
dog postures - signs of aggressive dog body language
Dogs talk to us all the time, but too often, we don’t have a clue what they’re trying to tell us. In this article, you’ll learn how to correctly interpret what they’re saying via body language and avoid any awkward misunderstandings.

“Cooper is aggressively attacking our cat!” Pete told me over the phone.

I didn’t answer right away. Cooper? Aggressive? It didn’t make sense. Pete had recently adopted Cooper from a rescue where the little Dachshund mix had been living happily in a foster home with another dog and two cats.

I asked Pete to describe Cooper’s behavior, rather than label it with words like “aggressive.”

“He was barking a lot,” Pete replied, “and it was very loud.”

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Did Cooper lunge at the cat ? Snap at him?

No. He’d just barked.

And no wonder. Cooper had only seen the cat twice during the week he’d been living in Pete’s home. He was excited, surprised and unsure so, naturally, he barked.

Dog body language is complex and subtle, and people often misinterpret what their dogs are saying. Few of us have ever learned to “speak dog” or “read” dogs, but understanding what our pets are trying to communicate is key to understanding their behavior.

Let’s focus on what is probably the most inaccurately used adjective when it comes to describing dog behavior: “aggressive.” I’ve heard people use it when referring a 10-week-old puppy who was playfully nipping the feet and legs of the children in the family. Most often, I hear people use it to describe a barking dog.

“How do you know he’s barking aggressively?” I always ask.

And the typical reply is, “Because he was barking.”

Imagine if every time you spoke, someone assumed you were thinking about attacking them!

Let’s clear up the disconnect right now between what dogs do when they’re displaying signs of aggression and what they do when they’re just being … well … dogs.

signs of aggressive dog body language

Dog communication is mostly nonverbal; they “talk” with their bodies. Here are signs of dog body language that could possibly signal aggressive intent (if you observe any of the following, at the very least, give the dog some space):

•Forward-leaning stance
•Stiff body
•Tail above the horizon, possibly stiff, possibly wagging
•Ears up and forward (for cropped ears, look at the base of the ear)
•Wrinkles or ridges around the eyes and lips
•Direct stare
•Raised hackles (hair along the dog’s back)

As you can see, when a dog is threatening aggression, his body tends to be stiff and forward. He may also bare his teeth, growl or bark.

Let’s compare this to a dog who has friendly intentions:

• Relaxed body, curved or wiggly (think puppy)
• Soft eyes
• Tail below the horizon, often loosely wagging
• Relaxed ears
• Mouth gently open

In this case, the dog’s body looks relaxed and curvy.

An often overlooked factor—which could lead to aggressive behavior if ignored—is stress. It’s extremely important to know when your dog is showing signs of stress so you can remove him from the situation, or help him cope with it.

Signs of stress

Imagine you’re walking your dog in the park and a dog you’ve never met before approaches (we’ll assume both dogs are on leash). Don’t take it as a given that your dog will want to meet the other dog. Observe the dog’s body language to determine how he’s feeling about the situation.

• Previously open mouth suddenly closes
• Ears go back
• “Dandruff” or dander appears
• Tail rises above the horizon
• Yawning begins
• Tongue flicks as if licking his lips
• Turns entirely away from the approaching dog (or averts just eyes or head)
• Starts scratching or sniffing

If your dog displays any of these behaviors, err on the side of caution. Respect what he’s telling you, which is, “I need some space!” Move your dog out of the path of the oncoming dog and let him observe the strange dog at a stress-free distance. How will you know how far that is? Again, observe your dog; his body language will tell you. The stress behaviors will disappear, and you’ll see a noticeable softening or relaxing of his face and body.

One more important point to remember: Like human behavior, dog behaviors are fluid and can change in a blink of an eye. So when your dog is in a new situation, pay attention to what he’s trying to tell you with his body language.

With careful observation of dog body language, you can learn to “speak dog” and keep your pet safe and happy.

As for Cooper and the cat, it took a lot of time and patience, but they’re now sleeping side by side on Pete’s bed at night!

Carin Ford, CPDT-KA, is co-founder and president of DogsHome in Paoli, Penn.