Dog Behavior: How to Read Body Language & Respond Correctly
Christopher Kjolseth - March 12th, 2019
Accuracy Review & Edit: Nicole Wanner, DVM - September 17th 2021
Don't you wish you knew what your dog was saying? Especially when they are feeling anxious, scared, ill, or just having a bad day? You could then talk back to them and enjoy a better relationship and help the best you can, or even be able to improve bad dog behavior.
To fix dog behavior issues, or to make your dog feel better and healthier, we don't recommend that you immediately reach for a drug like Xanax or other Doggie Downers. It's always best to target the problem, and dog communication is the answer.
Learning about dog behavior will help you to spot aggressive dog behavior, dominant dog behavior, or submissive dog behavior. Thus can help you learn how to stop or prevent these behaviors in your dog.
Once you understand dog language and typical dog behaviors, you will notice behavior changes and can then communicate with your dog.
Table Of Contents
Do you know what is normal behavior is like for your dog?
Normal dog behavior explained below related to overall dog body posture as well as eyes, ears, mouth, and dog tail that give clear indications of all being ok with your pet.
- Eyes Language - Your dog's eyes will tell you a lot about how they are feeling. Usually, the whites of their eyes will not be visible, also known as "whale eye." The pupils will be an average size, not too big and not too small.
- Ears Language - As dog ears vary in shape, size, and position depending on the breed. Some breed points upwards, and others flop down. So if the ears are in their usual place, that would be considered normal.
- Mouth Language - Loose lips, with a slightly open mouth and light breathing, even a slight pant, shows a relaxed dog. Some dogs do look as if they are smiling. All dogs will bark or growl for various reasons. It is one of the ways that they communicate with other dogs and with their human companions. Try to get to know your dog's usual sounds vs. aggressive sounds.
- Tail Language - Tails are tricky to read as they are quite different with every breed, with some curled up over their back like a little Lhasa Apso tail and others hang down relaxed near their hind legs like a Collie's tail. Generally, if their tail is in its usual position for the particular breed, then all is well.
Observe your dog's overall body and all its body parts for the most accurate understanding of your dog's emotional state, and what they're trying to tell you.
Look out for behavior changes such as:
Body Posture - Fear can be shown by rocking backward as if trying to lean away from the scary thing that they have just seen.
Dogs that are fearful or unsure sometimes stand very still, often with their tail raised, and stare at whatever is worrying them.
Your dog may lean forward, shifting his weight to his front paws when threatened as on the offensive to make himself ready to defend and spring ahead to make the first move. In this way, fearful behavior can look like or even become aggressive behavior. Consulting a dog behavior expert, especially a veterinarian certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, is the best way to keep you, your dog, and other people safe. Find a certified vet in your area here.
Eyes - The pupils (black middle part) of your dog's eyes can dilate (enlarge), and look glassy when they are excited or afraid.
Fear can also cause their eyes to open wide so that you can see the white part all around the colored section. A dog that is turning its head and looking away from something (showing the white part of their eye) is asking to be left alone. Noticing this subtle sign can help prevent stress and even dangerous behavior like biting.
Furrowed eyebrows can also be a signal that your dog is nervous.
Ears - Twitching ears can indicate that your dog is listening carefully and can hear something.
Some dogs get upset when they hear loud or unfamiliar noises, such as fireworks or thunderstorms. Fear can cause a dog to hold their ears back and to the side.
A dog that is on high alert and feels threatened may have their ears facing forward.
Mouth - Tight mouth, heavy pant, and drooling can all be signs of a fearful, nervous, tense, or upset dog.
A very raised lip, showing teeth and gums, tells us that your dog feels threatened. If your dog makes this expression, use caution! Even if your dog is normally a sweetheart, exposed teeth mean that he or she is scared, protective, or angry enough to bite. Avoid getting near your dog’s face and remove them from the situation as quickly as possible.
Whimpering sounds can mean your pet is frightened, stressed, or anxious.
Dogs also tend to lick their lips repeatedly when nervous or uncomfortable. Keep an eye out for this sign and take action or your dog may progress to more dangerous behaviors, like running away or biting.
Barking – Barking can be your dog's way of showing excitement, wants to play, or needs exercise.
However, it can also be a danger warning that there is an intruder in their space or home.
Excessive barking is also known to cause tracheitis in dogs.
Growling – This can be an early warning that something's wrong, but it does not always mean that the dog is being aggressive and is going to attack.
Growling is your dog trying to tell you that something is upsetting him, and he's trying to give you a chance to help him out of the situation that is causing the fear or anxiety.
Growling can also be a way to show dominance over another dog. For example, when both dogs want the same bone and don't want to share.
It's important not to teach your dog not to growl, as you will be taking away that communication channel that warns of an emotional state.
Tail Signs - A slow, low wag could mean that a dog is feeling threatened.
Usually, a loose tail that is standing up straight is a sign that your dog is ready to go on the offensive.
An anxious or fearful dog can have their tail tucked in between and under their back legs showing submissive dog behavior.
Fast wagging tail tends to mean that your dog is happy and excited.
Whether it's good or bad, you should always respond to your dog's behavior, as it will benefit your dog in:
- Helping them if they are ill, or in pain
- Restraining them if they are aggressive or overexcited
- Praising them when they are well behaved
- Reassuring them when they are afraid
- Rewarding them when they are good
- Reprimanding them if they are misbehaving
Be Kind – A little reassurance can often go a long way to addressing certain behaviors. For example, if your dog is showing fear during fireworks, a gentle cuddle, or simply being by their side can help ease their anxiety.
Socialization - Socialization classes where dogs are encouraged to play with other dogs in a safe environment, can help your dog build confidence, promote a healthy and balanced life.
Distraction - Sometimes, distracting your dog from the thing that is causing them to be upset with a favorite toy or treat can solve the problem.
Basic Needs – Providing your dog a safe, warm, and clean place to stay and sleep will help them to feel secured and relaxed.
Professional Training – A good professional dog trainer can often provide you with positive training techniques to help break your dog of their bad habits. Puppy classes are especially helpful for learning to communicate with your dog and preventing behavior problems before they start.
Natural Remedies - Studies have discussed natural products such as CBD Oil for Dogs, they have the potential to aid in common behavior issues associated with fear and anxiety, though further research is required to draw a full conclusion.
Checkups: Behavior problems, especially ones your dog hasn’t struggled with in the past, may be a sign that they aren’t feeling well. Take your dog in for a checkup with their veterinarian to rule out disease as a cause of behavior changes.
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