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Health & Wellness

Understanding your dog’s body language

Here’s how dogs use body language to express their feelings.

Even though dogs can’t communicate through words, they express themselves in other ways – like through howling, barking and other vocalizations, along with tail wagging.

“Tail wagging is a common method of communication dogs use,” Dr. Aliya McCullough, Fetch’s on-staff veterinarian, says. “In some cases, tail wagging may mean a dog is happy and excited. In other circumstances, it can mean a dog is nervous, anxious or attempting to diffuse a tense situation.”

Other body movements or positions can indicate how a dog may be feeling, too. Here are the most common emotions dogs express through body language. 

How to read a dog’s body language

Pet parents can read their dog’s body language by looking for changes in their posture or movement, which can sometimes be subtle depending on their mood.

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What does relaxed body language look like for dogs? 

Most pet parents aren’t fully relaxed until their dog is relaxed. Dr. McCullough explains how to tell when your pup is chilled out:

  • Head and ears up and in a forward position
  • They may have a slightly open mouth (their tongue may even be poking out!)
  • If they’re standing up, they’re standing tall
  • Wide, circular tail wags 
  • They could be sniffing another dog’s backend

What does fear or anxious dog body language look like? 

Dogs will often exemplify fearful or anxious body language when proving they’re not a threat to diffuse a situation, Dr. McCullough says. Your dog is likely anxious if you spot these body positions:

  • Ears that are low or held back
  • Furrowed eyebrows
  • Their head may be down
  • Lip licking
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Downward pointing tail (or between their legs)
  • Cowering, laying on their side or their back
  • Slow movements
  • Pacing (or being unable to settle down)
  • Standing frozen
  • They won’t accept a treat from you
  • Going pee

What does aggressive dog body language look like? 

If a dog feels aggressive, the signs are typically more subtle at first. When a dog’s aggressive body language is ignored, it escalates and becomes more apparent. Dr. McCullough says to pay attention to these signs of aggression: 

  • Ears pointed back and down
  • Raised lips, growling and showing their teeth
  • Direct eye contact with another dog
  • Their body is stiff, and their body weight could be shifted forward
  • The hair on their back could be raised

When a dog communicates fear or aggression through body language or vocalization, their parents should remove them from the situation as soon as possible (and as long as they are safe to do so!). Dr. McCullough recommends reaching out to your veterinarian, too, as signs of aggression and fear can sometimes look like signs of underlying pain. 

If your veterinarian has ruled out a medical requirement behind your pup’s anxious or aggressive body language, consider reaching out to a veterinary behaviorist or trainer as a resource for improving your dog's well being and behavior. 

“Pet parents can enlist a veterinary behaviorist and a trainer as early as possible to help develop a specific and individualized behavioral modification program,” Dr. McCullough shares. 

The Dig, Fetch Pet Insurance's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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