Dog Body Language: What 4 Things Is Your Dog Trying To Tell You?

Small brown puppy smiling with big earsYou’ve heard the expression “to wear one’s heart on their sleeve.” It means that someone lets their emotions be known without actually having to tell anybody how they feel. Dogs are in a constant state of wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Pups are great because of how simple they can be. They have a very instinctual language and as we learn to recognize how they communicate, we begin to better understand what our furry friend is telling us through dog body language.

You don’t have to be Cesar Milan to know when a dog is happy, hurt or angry. The obvious sign of a wagging tail or a vicious growl lets you know right away what that dog is feeling at that exact moment. What you may not have noticed were the subtle signs that led to that behavior that lets us humans know how a canine arrives at a certain state of mind.

Key States

There are 4 key mindsets that affect how a dog behaves. They are aggressive, submissive, timid, and excited. Sometimes, some of these mindsets can merge together, such as timid-aggressive behavior (think when a fearful canine bites someone who is entering their personal space). Another example is excited-submissive, when he is fiercely wagging his tail in anticipation of a treat. Please see below for a list of “behavior tells” that will allow you to interpret what your furry friend is feeling at any given moment.


Tense tail – A tense tail means he is in a state of unrest. While a tense tail that is wagging might mean playful behavior, rigid and high tail positions means steer clear.

Closed mouth – Much like the body-less tail wag, this shows that something is holding his attention. If that something is another canine, it might escalate to aggressive behavior.

Raised hair on back of neck – Sometimes dogs play aggressively. The best way to be able to tell whether he is being playful-aggressive or angry-aggressive is by the hair on his back right behind the head. If it is raised and stiff, it is a sign of being angry and aggressive.


Yellow dog laying in grass on backRelaxed tail – Shows he is passive and relaxed.

Looks away – Shows trust (especially around people) and non-threatening around animals.

Exposes Belly – Shows trust and submission.

Licks lips or nose – A pup will lick his nose to keep it moist for smelling, but it will also do so when it is nervous or anxious.


Sad dog sad eating out of food bowlTail between legs – A cowering tail is a sign of fear or shame. If he is uncomfortable, he will try to make itself seem as small as possible which includes curling his tail in between his legs.

Yawns – Yawning is a way to remove internal tension. This behavior could mean a dog is uncomfortable about something. This type of timid behavior rarely leads to aggression.

Shivering – Shivering or trembling can mean anything from a dog being sick to overwhelming excitement. First, you have to figure out if the shivering is common or if it only happens in certain situations. Trembling around certain people or objects is a sign of timid behavior or past trauma.

Eyes extremely open (body tense) – Another sign of fear.

Ears pinned to body – This behavior usually comes with a tail between the legs and is a sign of being scared.


Dog smiling on sidewalkTail up in air – Generally speaking, the higher the tail points the more excited a dog is. If his body is tense, it means he is concentrating on something. A high tail while walking or playing is a sign of enjoyment.

Full-body tail wag – If the whole body goes into a tail wag, it is a sure sign of excitement.

Eyes extremely open (body moving) – Canines love to show their excitement though body cues, but also with their eyes. Wide-eyes could mean he is overly excited.


Dog howlingAside from the body tells listed above, there is a lot you can read from what a dog is feeling by the sounds that it makes. Growls, yips, barking, moaning and even no sound at all each mean something very specific and very different. Once your ear is able to recognize what a certain sound means, you will be able to discern what your dog is telling you and have a happier and healthier relationship.

Groan/yawn – Not to be confused with discontent, a groan or yawn can happen as she relaxes her body.

Growl – Aggressive dogs will growl with exposed teeth to warn or intimidate. If his teeth are not exposed, a growl could just be a form of aggressive playfulness.

Barking – Barking can mean any number of things. Look for secondary clues to hone in on what she is trying to tell you. Generally, one bark is meant to alert. Multiple barks mean she is trying to tell you something, which could be anything from she is hungry to there is another dog outside the window that needs your attention.

Yipping – A pup usually yips when he is uncomfortable or lonely. You will probably notice yipping as you leave or when you put him in his cage.

Other Actions

Dog jumping on crateClimbs on couch – A dog will often climb on the back of the couch to get above you. In doing this, she is trying to establish a position of authority or dominance.

Scrapes ground after peeing/pooping – Sign of marking his territory.

Panting – Often times, you might think a dog that is panting is tired or exhausted because it is very similar to how humans act when they’re exhausted or tired. Actually, the panting is expelling heat from her body. If you are outside in the heat, find some shade or take your dog inside to cool down.

Chewing – A dog will chew more often than not when he is a puppy. This could be a sign of anxiety, but many times chewing is just a natural thing certain breeds do to relax and feel comfortable. Here are some helpful  tips to stop your dog from chewing.

Jumping to greet you – Also more common in puppies is jumping to eye level when you come home. This happens because she is excited to see you, but also because she wants to lick your mouth, which is another sign of showing affection.

Tilt Head – There are several reasons dogs tilt their head to the side. It could mean they heard or see something, they expect something from you, they are showing you empathy or they want attention. They may also be trying to get a better look at your full face and body to better read your body language and emotions.

Dog Body Language Video

Learn more about canine body language by watching live behavior in this helpful video:

Understanding What Your Dog Is Saying

Like humans, no two pups are alike. While certain breeds are more prone to exhibit certain behaviors, it really comes down to your personal relationship with a certain canine. If you come across a stray dog, always practice caution, and try to remember some of the signs of aggressive behavior to keep yourself safe from harm. Once you have a basic understanding of how your furry friend thinks, acts, and what he is trying to tell you through yips and licks, you will begin to create a deeper bond between you and your dog.

How do you interpret your pup’s favorite body language signal?

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