Dog Body Language: How To Read it

How well do you know dog body language? Let’s practice!

There are three big things to look for when you’re looking at body language.

1. Tail. The height of the tail generally indicates the level of energy and the willingness to engage. (The willingness to engage may or may not be a good thing.) The higher the tail, the higher the energy and the more likely the dog is to engage. The lower the tail, the lower the energy/likelihood. It is not an indication of happiness.

Sometimes, you’ll hear people refer to a high tail as “high confidence.” I don’t. Some of the most confident dogs I know have low tails. They’re usually older dogs who are happy to engage if approached, but would rather be off doing their own thing, kthnks.

2. Spine. The more relaxed the spine, the better the emotional state. The more tense or still the spine, the worse the emotional state. Keep in mind that the tail is part of the spine. Also keep in mind that a dog might have a mostly loose spine, with a touch of tension. You can generally say, “my dog is 70% relaxed and 30% negative emotional state,” and you’re pretty accurate.

You can combine energy and emotional state and get a human emotion that’s close enough to a dog emotion. Am I ready to engage and in a bad mood? My temper is flaring, and I’m aggressive. (High tail, stiff spine.) Am I low energy/not wanting to engage, in a good mood? I’m feeling like settling in for some snuggling, TV watching, or book reading. (Low tail, relaxed spine.) You can go forward with that, I hope!

3. Facial expression.

Stress and anxiety: When a dog gets stressed out, the muscles just behind the ears tense up. This draws the ears back, widens the eyes, and pulls the lips away from the molars. If your dog has one of these indications, they’re a little stressed. Two, and they’re more stressed. Three, and it’s time to stop everything and figure out what’s going on RIGHT NOW. Of note: if your dog is panting and stops suddenly, back off. That’s a bite warning.

Now, some stress is good. The stress of learning something new in a difficult (distracting) situation? Good! The physical stress of playing fetch? Good! (Though time to stop playing before your dog overheats.) In both cases, the spine will be relaxed; they’re thinking hard or playing hard, but they’re in a good mood.

The bad kind of stress is when they’re not being asked to learn something new or they’re not under physical stress, and they look stressed. This is what leads to anxiety. We should also see the stress of learning something new ease off as they get good at it. My dog is chewing on a bone and looking stressed? Something is very wrong. I need to remove my dog from the situation and/or figure out what’s wrong, and possibly call a dog trainer.

Tuned out: The opposite facial expression is when your dog picks their ears waaaaaay up and focuses with their eyes on something not-you, most often creating wrinkles in the forehead. What they’re saying right now is, “I’m really interested in that thing, and I’m going to decide what to do about it.” They might decide to be friendly… but they  might not. What we’d like is for them to see something, prick the ears, and then bring the ears back again. Now they’re saying, “I’m really interested in that thing. Do you see it? What should I do about it?” Voila! You can call the shots.

Friendly: Nose up, nostrils or muzzle checking a scent, usually with a slight side to side movement. Your dog is saying, “Hi! Want to be buddies? Can I smell you?”

There’s a LOT more detail work you can do — which we’ll do in photos over the next month or so — but that’s the big, basic earmarks. Let’s look at these obvious ones.



IMG_0077Here we have Diesel (left) and Cash (right). Both are shepherds with upright ears. Start at the tail: Diesel’s tail is low, near his hocks: low energy, doesn’t want to engage. Cash’s tail… well, I think I can make it out back there. It looks a little farther from his body — a little “higher.” More likely to engage.

Next, we look at the spine. Diesel has a little tension there, holding his head down. Doesn’t want to engage (tail), and negative emotional state (spine). Human translation would be: I’m unsure, I’m sulking, I’m pouting, I’m nervous. Human and dog emotions aren’t exact, but close enough to give us an idea of what to do. Cash’s spine looks relaxed. Higher energy, good emotional state: I’m ready if you are.

Now, the faces. Diesel’s ears aren’t pinched against his head, but neither are they relaxed. Those muscles indicating stress are tense, then, but not overly so. If you look closely, you can see the whites of his eyes. Tense ears and whites of the eyes are two of the three anxiety signs; this is a stressed dog. Cash’s ears are relaxed alongside his head, not pinched back. The whites of his eyes might be showing; I can’t quite tell. His back molars are not. So he might have one out of three stress signs. Neither dog has a raised nose saying, “I want to be friends!” (Cash does that put-upon look whenever I tell him to lay down so I can take comparison pictures. *grins*)

In looking at these pictures, I would say that Diesel probably has anxiety problems, while Cash isn’t thrilled in the moment. Now let’s focus on one thing at a time.

Facial expressions:




Here we have ears pinched back, whites of the eyes showing, and visible back teeth. You can’t quite see the back molars, so the anxiety could be worse, but it’s definitely not good. This is all three signs of anxiety.






Ears up, watching with his eyes (the slant of his face is closer to vertical than horizontal). He’s tuned me out, and making up his own mind for good or ill!







Both dogs have sideways ears; they’re tuning in the humans. I can only see Lily’s face, but she shows no signs of anxiety. Cash’s ears are relaxed, though I can’t see his eyes or molars. He’s probably fine, too!




Tails (energy level, willingness to engage)


Two dogs: the shepherd has a high tail, even though he’s sitting. He’s willing to engage. (Note the hand on his back holding him still!) The husky has a low tail: she’s saying, “I’m low energy, I don’t want to engage entirely.” If she was totally unwilling to engage, she wouldn’t be sniffing. But my guess? If the shepherd turns to sniff back, she’ll retreat.



Another example: note the HIGH tail. This dog is very willing to engage, and as shown in the next picture, does so a moment later!








Finally, spines. Note the very loose and relaxed spines:

Lazy Layla

san and donis hugging















Tense spines:



Strain on the leash always means tense spine: if nothing else, your dog has to tense up to strain against the leash. This can actually create aggression where none existed.

Also check out the noses: the shepherd, even though he’s taller, has a more-lifted nose. The slant of his face is closer to level. The terrier has a lowered nose, and from how much harder he’s straining, his spine is more stiff.



Stiff spines; head held low on the grey husky, head pulled back on the black one. In both cases, there’s stiffness and rigidity in these spines. Negative emotional state.

Can you spot any of the three signs of anxiety in their facial expression? Hint: there are two!


Over the next month I’ll start posting photos and dissecting them. I have tons, but you’re welcome to send ones that stump you, or even videos. (Spines are always easier to tell on video!) You can respond on any post, or email them to jenna.b.mcdonald [at] gmail [dot] com!



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