Understanding Dog Body Language

by Lexi Notabartolo

Small dog and cat cuddling in the grass

Dog body language is a helpful tool for understanding what your (or any) dog needs to be their most confident and happy selves.

Dogs have a remarkable range of nonverbal ways to engage with the world. The ability to read dog body language is a helpful skill for understanding what your (or any) dog needs to be their most confident and happy selves. We’ve previously looked at the unique ways that dogs communicate with each other, but these general features of canine body language can help you better understand what a dog is trying to communicate and create an even stronger bond with your (or any) pup.

Tail Wagging

One of the first things people learn on their dog parenting journey is that a dog’s tail expresses many of their emotions since it conveys a state of emotional arousal. What exactly is being communicated with each articulation, however, depends heavily on the context in which the dog is operating. 

The meaning of a tail up wag

Tail up, spirits up! A dog whose tail is wagging tall with a steady side-to-side motion is a happy, relaxed pup. Keep an eye on the speed, though, since a tail high to the ground moving quickly can also indicate an assertive dog who’s highly emotionally aroused - a possible precursor to more aggressive behavior.

The meaning of a tail down wag

A dog whose tail is pointed down (or even tucked between their legs) is generally communicating that they are stressed and fearful. It’s important to approach a dog in this state cautiously so as to not increase their stress level. The best advice for dogs in this state? Slow your pace, use a gentle tone, and try to approach the dog from the side rather than head-on. Why approach from the side? Moving in an arc helps dogs feel more comfortable and less challenged than a direct or head-on approach.  

The meaning of a dog’s tail level with their body

It can be hard to assess a dog’s ‘neutral’ tail position, but knowing what it looks like for your dog’s breed can be an invaluable asset to knowing when they are processing an emotion (positive or negative). The neutral position is generally level with a dog’s back and reflects them at their most relaxed.


A dog’s posture can be as subtle as a redistribution of their weight or as dramatic as inverting onto their backs, but all represent clear indicators of a pup’s mood.

What it means when a dog is hunched over

This stressed dog body language is the physical representation of meaning no harm. If a dog transitions out of a hunch and onto their backs with their belly exposed, this can be a sign of extreme anxiety and you should approach from the side with the same slow, measured movements as recommended above.    

What it means when a dog exposes their belly

As the above scenario suggests, not all belly exposure is created equal. A dog that wants a belly rub is relaxed all over, often with a loose tongue and soft eyes. A dog expressing their submission will be more rigid and likely have their mouth closed. 

What it means when a dog play bows

The play bow, aka the ‘downward dog’ pose, is a sure sign of a dog’s desire for play. The low chest and raised rump of the play bow communicates an openness to engagement with a person or other dog.   

Facial expressions 

A dog’s facial expressions can be harder to read than full body physicalizations, but offer especially clear insight into the intensity of a dog’s emotional state. These can be confusing to dog parents, though, as similar behaviors in humans convey completely different meanings.

The meaning of dog yawns 

Dogs may yawn out of boredom or tiredness like their human counterparts and there is research that suggests dogs have the same ‘sympathetic’ or ‘contagious’ yawn impulse that humans do, but unlike humans yawning can also indicate something less benign. Dogs may yawn when stressed or scared, often accompanied by panting or shaking. As with other stress indicators, approach these dogs calmly and with a gentle tone of voice.

The meaning of a dog ‘smile’

Relaxed, happy dogs may display their front teeth in an affectionate display known as a ‘submissive grin.’ The dog’s body in this state is loose and relaxed, often with an active and happy tail. This is clearly distinct from displays of aggression such as snarling or the bearing of teeth.  


Often the most subtle dog body language, the way a dog’s eyes present can help orient you to their emotional state. It’s normal for even well-socialized dogs to avoid eye contact at times and blinking can be a sign of either a dog self-soothing or trying to soothe you, so the cues related to a dog’s eyes can be harder to identify. That’s why, like so many of the other physicalizations we’ve discussed, eye cues should be taken into consideration alongside other aspects of body language like overall posture and tail location / movement. 

What dog ‘soft eyes’ mean 

So-called soft eyes are when a dog’s eyelids are heavy and relaxed - some may even look sleepy or ‘droopy.’ Notably, you’ll see very little of the whites of a dog’s eyes when they are displaying soft eyes. Soft eyes are a clear indication of a relaxed and comfortable dog, often paired with a slow, casual wagging tail and an overall lack of physical tension.

What dog ‘hard eyes’ mean

A dog with hard eyes, by contrast, is almost always stressed and/or fearful. Hard eyes will appear more open than usual, typically alongside tension in the face or body. An extreme version of hard eyes is ‘whale eye,’ which is when the whites of a dog’s eye are most visible and their pupils may appear dilated. A dog displaying whale eye is extremely stressed and should be left alone until the state of anxiety has passed.    

The more time you spend learning to read dog body language, the more likely you are to engage the dogs in your life in a stress-free way. Whether you are a seasoned pup parent or just learning about the wide world of dogs, understanding dog body language will only help you feel more confident in all canine interactions. 

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