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Dog Body Language

The left side of a small tan dog cowering next to a person's feet

Unsure Fearful Dog

Every species has their own language. Humans use words in a complex dialect with some body language, while many other animals such as the dog, use mostly body language along with energy (a sixth sense that can feel emotions) with relatively few sounds. To fully understand and communicate with the dog, humans must not only understand its natural instincts, but also its language in order to know what the dog is saying. This page shares examples of dogs communicating and the meaning behind it.

Unsure, but not Fearful

An American English Coonhound standing outside in the grass with its tail tucked under between its legs

This dog is unsure about the situation, but he is not fearful. His mouth is parted with his tongue out in a somewhat relaxed stance showing he is not afraid, however his tail is tucked between his legs letting his owner know he is not really sure about something, and in this case he is not sure about the man taking the pictures and how the humans want him to stand.

Playing vs. NOT

When Leia the blue-nose Pit Bull Terrier (green collar) was first rescued from the high-kill shelter, the concept of not being allowed to attack other dogs or guard her bones and toys was a new concept for her. After less than 4 months in her new home she has come a long way. While Bruno the Boxer and Mia the American Bully play, Spencer the blue-nose brindle Pit Bull wants to find a place to chew his bone. It might look like Leia wants to play too, but what is really on her mind is getting the bone away from Spencer and she knows she is not allowed, hence not going right in for the attack like she used to do when she was first adopted. You can tell by her body language what frame of mind she is in. Her tail is up and her body is not relaxed. Spencer knows it too, notice his tail is tucked tight to his body. He knows she wants the bone, but he also knows I will not allow it. Spencer knows he does not have to give his bone up to her. As soon as I remind Leia the pack leader is watching her tail lowers and she relaxes. When Spencer moves on from bone chewing to playing Leia is allowed to chew the bone. The dogs are allowed to play together with their toys if everyone is playing. But no one is allowed to steal the toys in a dominate frame of mind.

Playing vs. NOT

Dog Hunting Not Playing

This is the same group of dogs as above. Some might mistake Leia the blue-nose Pit Bull Terrier's (green collar) actions as play, but she was not playing. Watch her appear from behind the van in a hunting pose, not a playing posture. She was approaching Mia the American Bully (pink collar) and Spencer the Pit Bull (on the dog bed). Leia got down low on the prowl and pounced in for the attack with her tail up, chest bumping with Mia the American Bully (pink collar) who braced herself for the impact. Mia said it all when the normally very playful dog didn't play back. She froze, ignored and then removed herself from the situation, calmly but not fearfully walking behind the human for protection. She turned down Leia. "I want no parts of you right now", said Mia. Even IF Leia was inviting play, it wasn't a real nice way of playing and Mia wasn't having it. Too intense for her and Spencer. Notice how when the human walked outside Leia's tail went from straight up to a lower position. She knew her actions were not acceptable and she backed down immediately. After it was all over Bruno the Boxer appeared from around the corner. It's a good thing he was not there because while Bruno is not dog aggressive, unlike Spencer the Pit Bull and Mia the American Bully, unless there is a human present that Bruno feels can handle the situation, he will often take matters into his own paws and try and correct other dogs if they get out of line or challenge him. This was caught on a webcam. The human had heard something that didn't sound good outside, but by the time she got out the door it was over and she had not seen anything. She could only speculate and later confirmed what she thought by watching the webcam footage.

Playful Posture

A blue-nose Pit Bull Terrier play bowing with a toy in his mouth

This is a "play bow". The dog is saying that he wants to play.

Dominant Behaviors

Chihuahua dog standing on grass with one paw in the air wearing a harness

Dominant Posture—Dogs that believe they are alpha puff themselves out, and carry their heads as high as they possibly can to try and make themselves bigger. For more information, read Recognizing Dominant Behaviors in Dogs.

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At about 7 seconds Mia (right) tells Spencer (left) he can't have the toy. Watch for it.

Submissive Posture

Two dogs, a Great Pyrenees and a Pit Bull, walking side by side with there heads low through the grass

Submissive dogs, on the other hand, carry themselves in quite the opposite way. They hold their heads low, shoulders down, tails down, slinking themselves smaller. To the untrained human eye it looks like a submissive dog is a sad dog. Not so, the posture of these submissive dogs is telling all around them that they do not wish to challenge anyone. They come in peace. Dogs are “fight” animals, which means their natural defense mechanism is to fight when they are threatened. That is why they make it so obvious when they do not wish to fight or when they do.

Fearful Posture

The back left side of a Yellow Labrador Retriever dog standing on lawn with its tail in between its legs

This yellow Labrador was growling and barking ferociously at a lady. The dog at one point trapped the lady in the corner of the garage until the owners were able to come and call her off. Most people would mistake this behavior as dominant-aggressive, but if you look at the dog's body language you will notice it is different than the Chihuahua shown above. The dog's tail is down and slightly tucked. The ears are back rather than forward. Notice how the dog is leaning slightly backward, rather than forward. This Labrador is insecure and fearful and she has learned to deal with these feelings by acting out aggressively. This dog may still bite a human out of fear, but the reasons for her behavior are not the same as a dog who is acting aggressive out of dominance.

A Warning Could Lead to a Bite

A tan and white dog is standing in a kitchen showing his teeth and it is in an aggressive stance.

This dog is giving a warning. It is showing its teeth and is staring right into the eyes of the offender. It is communicating that it is not pleased. This can lead to a dog who bites or attacks.

Written by Sharon Rose© Dog Breed Info Center® All Rights Reserved