The language of dogs
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The language of dogs: how to understand what your dog is telling you

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A grasp of the language of dogs is fundamental for us to understand them. Knowing how to interpret the communication signals your dog sends out will allow you to understand him better at all times. This summary provides a very practical guide. Dogs are animals that are able to experience a lot of different emotions, and they use their body position, their tail, their facial expression and also their voice to tell you how they’re feeling, or what they need.

The language of dogs: visual communication

Body position, the tail and facial expression form the basis of canine visual communication. 


In general terms, it can be said that it’s possible to distinguish between three posture types in dogs, each of which are linked to a different emotional state: 

When the dog is on the offensive: attack postures 

Dogs adopt these postures in order to intimidate another dog, a person or another animal. They indicate that he’s ready to attack if his rival doesn’t give in. 

  • The dog tries to look bigger than he really is in order to intimidate by raising his hackles.
  • He leans forward in an intimidating manner.
  • He tenses his muscles.
  • He stares fixedly and his pupils are dilated. 
  • His ears are erect, and angled forwards slightly.
  • He shows his teeth.
  • His tail is stiff, and may quiver or vibrate from side to side.

When the dog is afraid: defence postures

In dog language, defence postures indicate fear. If your dog adopts such a posture, it’s because he feels threatened and insecure. 

  • He tries to make himself smaller, so as not to be noticed. 
  • He leans back.
  • He looks away from whatever it is that he’s afraid of. 
  • His ears are back.
  • His tail is between his legs: the more he tucks it in, the more frightened it means he is. 
  • Sometimes your dog might even urinate in fear or to show submission: this is very frequent for example when a puppy is being told off. 

When a dog is afraid and wants to defend himself: ambivalent postures 

A mixture of attack and defence postures. In dog language, this indicates conflicting emotions: the dog is scared, but to defend himself from the threat, he chooses to adopt an attacking posture.  

  • Body slightly lowered, with raised hackles.
  • Tension in the whole of the body.
  • Fixed stare focused on the threat, dilated pupils. 
  • Ears back.
  • The dog shows his teeth and growls.
  • Tail may be tucked between the legs, as in defensive postures. 


The tail is the key to dog language, it’s rather like a flag: movement and position transmit very visible messages.  

  • Position: generally tail up indicates that the dog feels secure, tail down or tucked between the legs is a sign of insecurity or fear. 
  • Movement: is related to excitement. A dog who’s excited will wag his tail more often and more quickly than one who feels relaxed. 
  • But beware: a stiff, static tail can indicate that your dog is alert, and if the tip is jerking quickly back and forth, and the general body posture is an offensive one, it’s a sign that the dog is about to attack.

The face

Dogs have very expressive faces - because there are more muscles in the face than any other part of their bodies.  

The mouth

  • How open is his mouth? An open mouth is a relaxed mouth. If his mouth is closed, and his jaws are clenched, this means that he’s alert or stressed. 
  • Lips pulled back at the corners: In dog language, if he shows his teeth this is a sign of threat. And the more the teeth are visible, the more imminent the probability that he will attack.  

There are two notable exceptions to the rule that suggests that when a dog shows his teeth it’s a sign of threat: play and a "doggy smile". The latter consists of showing his teeth to tell you that he’s happy and excited.  As ethologist Juliane Kaminski explains, this is an expression that dogs use exclusively with humans, and it could be an effect of domestication.

The eyes

  • Staring: a constant, fixed gaze, straight into the eyes of another individual (a dog or a person) could signal a threat if combined with an offensive or ambivalent posture.
  • Looking away: in dog language, when a dog tries to avoid eye contact with another dog or a person, it's because he wants to avoid conflict.
  • Dilation of pupils: before attacking, the dog stares fixedly, and his pupils dilate. 

The ears

Flattened ears are a sign of fear, or submission. If your dog has flattened his ears, or has had his ears cropped, you should look at the base of the ears to see if they’re pointing backwards or forwards.

Dog language: barking and growling


In general, short intervals between one bark and another are usually connected with aggression, threat or alert scenarios. Longer intervals are related to play situations.

On the other hand, low-pitched barks can also indicate an alert or a threat, while higher-pitched tones are associated with play or attention-seeking behaviour.


Growling can be a sign of threat when it’s accompanied by an offensive posture, and is both deeper in tone and either constant or long lasting. 

On the other hand, dogs also growl when they’re playing. In this case the growl is shorter, and the dog’s posture in general shows very clearly that he doesn't mean to threaten in any way. 

The language of dogs

Signs of stress, appeasement and submission in the language of dogs

Dogs give off signs of stress when they are faced with situations that are uncomfortable for them. Some of these signals can also be considered appeasement signals, because they serve to reduce stress.

It's normal for your dog to adopt a submissive and calming posture if you tell him off. He'll probably lower his body, flatten his ears and try to lick your mouth or hands.

The major signs of stress and appeasement in dog language are: 

  • Licking the other dog or person’s face or mouth
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Shaking himself
  • Scratching himself
  • Looking away
  • Yawning

We hope you've found this guide to canine language useful and practical. We feel sure it’ll help you take even better care of your four-legged friend..


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