Dog Body Language

Instead of words, dogs use their bodies to explain how they're feeling as well as provide insight into what's going on in their heads. Here's a quick primer on how to read a canine's body language.

NOTE: "Dominance Theory" is a widely debated topic among dog behaviorists, but we at Cuteness like to give voice to writers on both sides of the debate. For an opposing view, please see our article Social Hierarchy Among Dogs.

Body Position

A relaxed body is a relaxed pooch. When the body is softened and relaxed, the dog is neutral and most often happy. When the weight is shifted backward, the dog may either be submitting, fearful or in a defensive posture. During submission, the entire body is lowered and the dog may raise a paw. During fearful encounters, the dog will typically be trembling, whether a little or a lot. When defensive, the body is much more tense and not as lowered. When a dog is ready to attack or showing assertive aggression, everything about him is pointed forward and tense. A playful pup will have a softened body and will either be wiggling about or in a pounce position with the rear raised and the chest low to the ground.

His Tail

While a dog's overall stance may be the first sign of any type of aggression, submission or other behavior, his tail can tell you quite a bit about what's going on. In a neutral position, his tail will be soft, not stiff, and may either be hanging softly or wagging. When his tail is tucked, this could be a sign of submission or fear. A dog will sometimes slowly wag the tip of his tail when being submissive; the tail will be tucked and stiff when he's scared. A playful dog will have his tail out or raised, but not stiffened, and it will normally be wagging. When your pup is curious or alerted to something, he'll raise his tail, stiffen it and may wag it stiffly. He shows aggression through a straightened, stiff tail which may or may not have a slow, stiff wag. He shows defensive aggression with a lowered straight tail and assertive aggression with a raised tail.

Eyes

When a dog is alerted, his eyes will be staring hard at the cause of the alert. When assertively ready for a fight, the eyes will also be staring directly at the opponent and hard. Neutral, play and submissive eyes are all soft. When fearful or in defense position, a dog's eyes will be wide. During fear, the eyes won't be directed at the cause of the fear, in many cases a dominant dog. When defensive, the dog will look out of the corners of his eyes and at the opponent. Dogs will not normally stare into another dog's eyes or face because this is a threat, so a dog doing so is showing dominance or aggression toward another dog. They will, however, often look upon the face of a human.

Mouth

An aggressive dog, whether assertive or defensive, will often be baring his front teeth. The top of the muzzle will wrinkle during aggressive behavioral stances. When submissive or fearful, the pooch will often have a closed mouth, although some dogs will show their front teeth during a submissive body posture. It's sometimes difficult to distinguish the mouth shape of aggression and submission with dogs who do this, so look at the rest of their body as well. A relaxed or playful pup will normally have his mouth open and relaxed.

By Jasey Kelly

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References
American Humane: Understanding Dog Body Language
ASPCA: Canine Body Language
Caring Hands Humane Society: Body Language of Dogs
ASPCA: Reading Canine Body Postures

About the Author
With a professional background in gardening, landscapes, pests and natural ecosystems, Jasey Kelly has been sharing her knowledge through writing since 2009 and has served as an expert writer in these fields. Kelly's background also includes childcare, and animal rescue and care.