9 Emotions Dogs Display with Their Body Language

When living with a dog, or even just interacting with one, communication is everything.

Since a dog can’t speak to us and tell us what he’s thinking, we need to be able to understand his body language. Unfortunately, many times problems arise when people don’t understand what the dog is trying to say. Thankfully, even though each dog is an individual with his own unique communication, most dogs do share some common body language traits.

The Furiously Happy Dog

Think of a Golden Retriever or Labrador Retriever greeting an owner who has been gone all day; this dog is doing everything except turning himself inside out. His eyes are often squinted, his mouth is open, he may be whining or barking, and his ears are slightly back. He’s not holding still, may be spinning in circles, and his tail is all over everywhere. This is a happy dog in motion.

The Playful Dog

This dog just wants to play and he’ll greet either a person or another dog with a play bow. With the front end lowered, front paws extended to the front, and his hips held high, this dog is extending an invitation. Within seconds of making a play bow, however, he’ll be dashing here and there with complete joy. His eyes are open wide with dilated pupils, his ears will be up (and down, and sideways, and up again) and his tail will be wagging in broad strokes back and forth. He may be barking in high pitched barks.

The Relaxed Dog

A relaxed, happy dog is going to show this with a relaxed body posture. He may be panting slightly, with the mouth partially or slightly open. His eyes will be open but not wide and his ears will be relaxed, either upright (as with German Shepherds) or hanging (like a Golden Retriever). If standing, his weight will be comfortably on all four feet and his tail will be wagging softly; not furiously. Everything about this dog says he’s comfortable.

©istockphoto/Legolin

©istockphoto/Legolin

The Alert Dog

The alert dog is still (but not frozen in place) and is standing upright. His eyes are wide open, his ears are up and forward, and often his mouth is closed. His nose (and perhaps his head) is moving as he’s scenting whatever has garnered his attention. His tail may be slightly raised and still although not stiff. This dog is interested in something and is trying to figure it out so is concentrating.

The Confident Protective Dog

A confident, protective dog who has been threatened or pushed, or whose owner is being threatened, or who is facing tresspassers is a dog who could potentially bite but in most cases is more likely to charge and bark furiously instead. This dog will all be forward and advancing; his head is thrust forward, he’ll be leaning or moving forward, and his ears will be up and facing forward. He’ll be staring hard at the source of his outrage. His hackles will be up. His back legs will be braced and ready to drive him forward with power should he need it. This dog is not at all afraid and instead is outraged that someone (not him; someone else) disobeyed the rules.

The Worried Dog

Even the most confident dog can be worried sometimes; perhaps on a visit to the veterinarian’s clinic. When worried, the dog may show tongue flicks (the tongue appears at the front of the mouth to quickly lick the nose) and the corners of his mouth will be pulled back. His ears will be pulled back and his forehead is smooth. His paws will leave sweaty paw prints and his tail will be lowered. He may lift one front paw, and his body posture may be slightly lowered. How many (or few) of these postures he shows will depend on the extent or degree of his worry. A confident dog may show a couple of tongue flicks and a lowered tail and then go back to his normal stance. A less confident or more fearful dog may show all of these signs.

©istockphoto/Pekic

©istockphoto/Pekic

The Fearful, Stressed and Fleeing Dog

This dog just wants to get away from what’s causing him to be stressed and afraid. It could be noises, strange people, an aggressive dog, or something else entirely. This dog is panting with the corners of his mouth back, his pupils are dilated, and his ears are back and plastered to his skull. His body is lowered and may even be slinking. His tail is tucked to his hips and he’s sweating through his pads, leaving paw prints. This dog is not thinking, may not respond to commands, and is just looking for an escape. He could potentially bite.

Extreme Fear and Submission

This dog is trying to alleviate a difficult situation by giving up. He’s on his back with belly bared, front paws tucked to his chest, and tail tucked up to his belly; often covering his genitalia. His head is turned to one side, his eyes may be closed or squinted, his ears are flat to his head, and the corners of his mouth are pulled back. He may urinate on himself. Everything about this dog says that he’s afraid but is not a threat and he will not fight back.

Extreme Fear But May Bite

Unlike the previous dog who is saying with all of his body language that he’s frightened and won’t bite, this dog is saying he’s frightened but may bite; especially if cornered or pushed too much. This dog will be on his feet although his body posture is lowered. His tail is tucked between his back legs; perhaps even to his belly. His hackles are up along his spine, sometimes from shoulders to the base of his tail. His pupils are dilated, his nose is wrinkled, his lips are pulled back, and he may be snarling (showing some teeth). This dog is dangerous as he feels like he is cornered, or in a position where he has nothing to lose. He could very well bite.

Understanding emotions can be difficult between people; thankfully dogs tend to portray their emotions with broader strokes. Unlike people, they haven’t learned to hide their feelings. This can help communications tremendously as long as you know what you’re seeing.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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