Happy dog with head sticking out of car window

Key takeaway

Dogs use body language to communicate a variety of needs, emotional states, and affirmations, but it’s not always easy to read. Familiarizing yourself with common actions and poses, like tail-wagging and whale eye, can help you recognize when your dog is feeling excited, overwhelmed, or even in pain.

Dogs don’t speak human languages, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to communicate with you in other ways. One of the most significant ways your dog expresses themself is by communicating through dog body language. By learning to read your dog’s body language, you can more accurately communicate with each other, building a stronger bond. 

In this guide, Dutch explains everything you need to know about dog body language. We’ll walk you through common behaviors, responses, and what they tell you about your dog’s state of mind. We’ll also focus especially on signs of stress and agitation, as these could be signs of anxiety or other underlying problems. 

Part of being a good dog owner is knowing when your dog is feeling happy and when they may be stressed or fearful. Body language is one of the best indicators of this, and knowing exactly what signs to watch out for can help you support your dog’s happiness and healthiness. Below are some of the most common signs to look out for, then, we’ll cover some common FAQs about body language in dogs.

Relaxed Vs. Tense Body Language

The first thing to become familiar with is the difference between relaxed and tense body language in dogs. Sometimes, it may seem intuitive, but it’s good to learn about the specific signals that your dog may display if they are stressed or if they are relaxed. Generally, dog owners are not better at identifying canine body language versus non-owners, and owning dogs longer does not make you better inherently at interpreting body language. Ultimately, dog body language is something that needs to be studied over time to really understand and identify body language which is not often inherent or intuitive.

Relaxed

Relaxed posture in dogs can be fairly straightforward to identify. A relaxed dog will have a lack of facial tension, with the lips and forehead skin loose and soft. Similarly, the eyes will blink and appear restful and soft, with the ears facing generally forward. 

In cases where a dog is on-task or playing, there may be some tension in some of the facial muscles, and the ears may appear at “half-mast”, or further back than normal. They may be trotting happily, with their tails up and wagging gently, and their eyes may appear attentive and focused. They may also be panting softly, especially if they are exercising.2

Dogs that are relaxed and focused may vocalize shortly or softly, but usually do not bark in a way that is loud. This contrasts distinctly with dogs that are stressed or tense, which we will cover next. 

Find out more about dog barking and the reasons why dogs vocalize by reading our blog. 

Tension

The signs of feeling tense in dogs might be subtle at first, but it’s a good idea to learn to recognize them. Tense dogs will demonstrate a number of signs, like:

  • Wide, alert-seeming eyes
  • Wrinkled forehead skin
  • Larger pupils, less visible whites of the eyes
  • Spatulate (wide) tongue
  • Ears sideways or drawn backward2

If the source of stress leaves, this may be relieved quickly. However, if the signs of tension are ongoing, this could be a sign that your dog is anxious or facing a chronic stressor. 

Play bow vs. prey bow

Another important sign to be able to recognize is the play bow and the prey bow. When dogs are playing, you may see them lower the front half of their bodies toward the ground, often wagging their tail, or bouncing back and forth. However, this posture also mimics the closely-related prey bow, a posture that dogs take when readying themselves to pounce on a prey animal. In the latter case, you may notice the tail is up and not wagging, and the dog may take on a more serious facial expression. 

Common Stress Signals

Dogs signal stress with many different signals. Keep an eye on your dog to see whether they have started expressing any of the following signs.2

 Stress signals can include:

  • Dilated (widened) pupils
  • Wide tongue
  • Heavy panting with lips drawn back
  • Tense ear posture or ears drawn back
  • Lip licking
  • Braced, firm leg posture
  • Excessive panting, even without exercise
  • Tail below the back, between the legs, above the back, curled over back
  • Scratching

Spatulate tongue and facial tension

Tongue posture can be a particularly telling indicator of stress in dogs. Spatulate tongue, which means when a dog’s tongue is wider at the end, can be a sign of tension, nervousness, or stress. This is especially the case when the spatulate tongue is paired with facial tension, along with agitated movement and a nervous look in the eyes. 

You may also notice that your dog stands tall, attempting to look bigger, and a tense, drawn look to the face as the skin is drawn back with stress. 

Lip licking

Lip licking is another common indication that a dog’s stress levels are starting to increase. This signal, like many other stress indicators, may be accompanied by other stress signals, like a tail tucked between the legs or ears being drawn back. 2

Stress yawning 

Your dog's yawning could be a sign that he or she is stressed. In fact, studies have suggested that some behavioral reactions, such as yawning, are linked to elevated heart rate and stress hormone levels. When dogs are in a stressful environment, they may resort to displacement behaviors to calm down. One of the well-known habits that dogs utilize to self-soothe is yawning.3

Hypersalivation

Some dogs start to hypersalivate when stressed. While it’s normal for dogs to drool from time to time, hypersalivation occurs when dogs start producing excessive amounts of drool—often enough to wet their fur and surroundings, as though a full glass of water had been spilled. 

 Again, dogs may drool when sleepy or panting heavily from exercise, but hypersalivation is often a stress signal that should be taken seriously. If you notice your pet is salivating more than normal, don’t hesitate to consult your veterinarian.

Scratching

Scratching at their fur, often accompanied by nibbling, especially excessively can be a sign of stress. While occasional scratching is normal (just like it is for humans), excessive scratching can indicate stress. (Note that it likely indicates other sources of itching, such as allergies or even a skin infection.)

Indications Of Fear

Stress can occur around unfamiliar people, unfamiliar dogs, and in unfamiliar environments. However, stress is often distinct from fear, which is a more acute and intense reaction for dogs—just as it often is in humans. Below are some of the common signs of fear. All of these might be accompanied by vocalization, usually whining and whimpering.4 

If your dog is afraid, it’s a good idea to remove them from the stimulus that’s scaring them. If it’s something that can’t be escaped—like a thunderstorm—it could be a sign that they have a chronic anxiety condition.

Pressing body against wall or owner

First, your dog may press their body against a wall, averting their eyes and taking on a cowering posture. If no wall is available, or if their owner is nearby, they may press themselves against their owner (or other trusted person) instead. 

Other signs of fear include:

  • Braced legs
  • Tail down between the back legs
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Squinting
  • Ears flattened against the head
  • Head lowered
  • Panting
  • Back ridged or arched
  • Paw lifted
  • Hiding
  • Escape behaviors
  • Trembling

Whale eye

Another common symptom of fear in dogs is so-called “whale eye,” in which the whites of the eyes are clearly visible fully around the pupil. The dog’s gaze may be fixed to the source of fear, and they may cower, have a paw raised, or an arched back accompanying whale eye. This is often pre-bite behavior; if you see this occurring, it is wise to de-escalate the situation.

Indications Of Anxiety And Avoidance

In addition to indications of fear and stress, dogs may present anxiety and avoidance symptoms.

One common form of anxiety in dogs is separation anxiety, which may occur when a dog negatively reacts to temporary or permanent separation from their owner. Anxiety in dogs can have a negative impact on their overall health, making them more prone to disease and reducing their welfare and overall longevity. To guarantee that your dog lives a long and happy life, it’s smart to learn how to handle separation anxiety. 

Hiding

Dogs that are feeling anxious or are anxious may have a tendency to hide. Dogs may also have a rounded silhouette and back, braced front legs, and/or crouched back legs.

Avoidance

Anxious dogs can also express avoidance behavior, facing their body away from the trigger, avoiding eye contact, holding their ears back, and displaying the whites of their eyes. They may try to leave the situation, hide, or pace nervously as well. 

Retreat

Under substantial situations of anxiety and avoidance, the dog may fully retreat with their tail between their legs. They will move away from the thing or situation that’s causing them anxiety, and may even become desperate to escape the area (for example, running around the house attempting to escape the sound of thunder during a storm).

Dog displaying playful body language at park

Dog Body Language: Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some of the most common questions we get asked about dog body language. Read to find out more about how your dog uses their body to communicate to you. 

What does it mean when a dog pushes his body against you?

A dog pushing their body against you is often a sign of fear or anxiety. For example, if your dog gets anxious or fearful around new people or new dogs, they may push up against your legs or against a wall. They may also pant, salivate, and look around nervously in response to the anxiety-inducing stimulus. 

If your dog is fearful, you can try to calm them, but it’s not a good idea to try to physically restrain a dog that is panicking, as this may injure both you and the dog. 

What is the body language of a happy dog?

Happy dogs appear relaxed, with their facial skin untaught, eyes relaxed, and posture stable and not braced. Excited and happy dogs may bark and yip, but this is not to be confused with the louder, more agitated barks, whines, and whimpers of a dog that is scared.

How does a dog communicate with you?

Dogs communicate in many different ways. To start, they communicate through vocalization, just like humans. They may bark, yip, growl, whine, whimper, or howl. Usually, happy dogs only bark and yip excitedly; the latter few vocalizations listed often indicate your dog is in distress in some way. 

Dogs also communicate through body language, as discussed at length above. Happy dog body language is indicated through a relaxed or excited posture, and distressed, anxious, or fearful body language is indicated by many of the tense postures described above. 

Dogs may also communicate in other incidental ways. For example, they may bring you their leash to indicate they want to go for a walk or bring you their food bowl if they are hungry. They may try to get you to follow them if they have encountered something interesting, or they may follow you around if they are bored, lonely, want to show you affection, or are just interested in what you’re doing. 

Two happy dogs with eyes closed and tongues out

Final Notes

It’s normal for dogs to experience fear and stress in response to scary or stressful stimuli—it’s just part of life. However, if your dog experiences chronic fear and stress, especially in situations that are not usually considered stressful, it may be a sign of a chronic anxiety condition. 

It's distressing to learn that your dog is suffering from chronic fear anxiety. You never know what you'll find when you get home, whether it’s urine on the carpet or a chewed-up door. Self-inflicted injuries, like broken teeth and wounded paws, can occur from these destructive actions.

Dealing with a dog who suffers from anxiety may make you continually concerned about their well-being and interrupt your regular routine. Finding the best treatment options ensures a higher quality of life for you and your pet. At Dutch, we address anxiety through treatments backed by science— our strategies employ a comprehensive approach, including medicine with behavior modification devised by a veterinarian. 

Dutch’s network of affiliated expert veterinarians can recommend the treatment your dog needs to help alleviate their anxiety, whether that’s anti-anxiety medications or behavior modification. Plus, we make it convenient. You can have medication delivered directly to your doorstep within 7 days of your consultation and you can communicate with licensed veterinarians from the comfort of your own home to help the transition. 

Our telemedicine for pets service gives you access to prescription medicines to help cure your pet's anxiety without having to leave the house or take them to the clinic. Begin with an online consultation, and we'll work with you to decide the best course of action or treatment. Our affiliated veterinarians make a diagnosis and devise a plan to alleviate acute suffering while also medically calming your pet's mind in the long run.

References

  1. Aloff, Brenda. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide: Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog. Dogwise, 2018.
  2. “How to Read Your Dog's Signals.” Florida Veterinary Behavior Service, 21 Sept. 2021, https://flvetbehavior.com/am-i-having-fun-yet-what-your-dog-is-really-trying-to-tell-you/.
  3. Bonne Beerda, Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Jan.A.R.A.M. van Hooff, Hans W. de Vries, Manifestations of chronic and acute stress in dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 52, Issues 3–4, 1997.
  4. Becker, Marty, et al. From Fearful to Fear Free. Health Communications, Inc., 2018.