Can you speak dog? 10 canine body language signals to know

10 February 2024 - 3 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Image of a smiling doberman

A dog's tail is wagging, but something feels off. Is that wag genuinely welcoming, or more of a polite hint to keep your distance? Should you stride up confidently, or is it smarter to veer off course? Things get even more complicated if your dog's with you.

Grasping dog body language is key to fostering positive interactions and, in critical situations, preventing attacks. We'll cover the top 10 dog body language signals and the best ways to respond.

Remember, when in doubt, always opt to give a dog plenty of space.

Let's dive in.

Tail wagging

A wagging tail might signal joy, but context is crucial. A stiff, high wag could mean the dog is on alert, while a relaxed wag suggests friendliness.

How to react: With unfamiliar dogs, don't take a wagging tail as an automatic green light. Assess other body language cues to understand their mood and intentions before getting closer.

Ears perked or flattened

Image of a black and white dog with perked ears

Ears pricking forward usually show curiosity or alertness, whereas flattened ears may signal fear or aggression.

How to react: If an unfamiliar dog's ears flatten as you approach, pause and give them room, indicating you're no threat.

The "play bow"

Image of a brown Airedale Terrier bowing playfully

This universal dog gesture says, "Let's play!" with their front end down and back end up.

How to react: If the dog appears playful, engage with them. Still, keep an eye on their overall body language, ready to back off if their mood shifts.

Belly exposure

Image of a brown dog lying on its back playfully showing its bellyA dog exposing its belly can signify trust, submission, or nervousness.

How to react: With unfamiliar dogs, keep giving them space. If they seem relaxed and welcoming, gently offer a hand for them to sniff before petting.

Freezing or a sudden stiffness

A dog that freezes, particularly with direct eye contact, might feel threatened and could be gearing up to defend itself.

How to react: Allow the dog space and avoid direct eye contact, which they might see as a challenge. Slowly back away if needed, letting the dog calm down.

Lip-licking and yawning

dog yawn

These signs can indicate nervousness or stress, not just hunger or tiredness.

How to react: Give the dog space if they exhibit these behaviours, because they may be uneasy.

Raised hackles

Piloerections, or raised hackles, show arousal due to aggression, excitement, fear, or insecurity.

How to react: Proceed with caution, observing other body language cues to gauge the dog's state. Avoid sudden moves.

Excessive vocalisation

Dogs that whine, whimper, or bark excessively may be anxious or stressed. Growling, specifically, is a clear warning.

How to react: Cease whatever is causing the growl and distance yourself. Forcing further interaction could lead to escalation.

Intense eye contact (or avoidance)

eye contact

A direct stare may challenge or threaten while avoiding eye contact or showing the "whale eye" (white of the eye) signals discomfort.

How to react: If faced with a tense stare, don't stare back. Soften your stance and look away to reduce tension. Give them time to feel secure.

Body blocking

A dog using their body to block others could be asserting dominance or protection.

How to react: Acknowledge their need for control without confrontation. Distract them with a command or treat them when it's safe.

We know—petting that ultra-fluffy Pomeranian is hard to pass up. But a vital part of reading dog body language is knowing when not to engage.

So when you encounter a stray or someone else's dog, mindful engagement is key.

  • Always get the owner's consent before approaching their pet. (If the dog is unattended, don't pet them no matter what.)

  • Present a palm-down hand for a sniff, letting the dog get comfortable with you at their own pace.

  • Steer clear of sudden movements that could alarm the dog.

  • Give them space, particularly if they seem hesitant.

These tips pave the way for fun, safe interactions!

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Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.