Understanding Basic K9 Body Language

Canines were first domesticated around 40,000 years ago, and by now, you would think that we would understand everything there is to know about dogs. While it seems as though we are always learning something new about these loveable and loyal creatures, their basic patterns, body movements, and behaviors are easy to interpret once you know what you’re looking for. 

From the slightest nose wiggle all the way down to the tip of his tail, your dog uses his body to communicate to humans. Learning these movements has many benefits, including an increased training success and helping you bond as well as making sure that your dog and others around him are safe and happy. 

Facial Expressions

Like humans, dogs can communicate their emotions and moods with their faces. Dog eyes are actually very expressive, and the way they use them can give us clues to what they’re feeling. Soft eyes, meaning that part of their eyeballs are covered by their eyelids, usually will mean a relaxed dog. When dogs have soft eyes, it means that they aren’t worried about anything in their environment. They don’t have to be on alert.

Dogs can also have a hard look in their eyes, which can give the same intensity as a human glare. Their eyes are wider open, so they can get a better look at their surroundings and the creatures nearby. This eye contact may be brief, but it may continue for a long time. If a dog looks away, they are showing a sign of submission. However, if they maintain eye contact, they may be feeling aggressive because they are scared or annoyed.  

A dog’s ears can also tell a story. While there are varying sizes of ears out there, their position can tell if your dog is calm, excited, or even fearful. Calm dogs will seem to have neutrally placed ears. They may be slightly raised, but they won’t be facing forward. 

Dogs will use their hearing just like they use their eyesight, so their ears will point in whichever direction has their attention. Dogs that have ears facing forward could be alert, dominant, or even showing signs of aggression, especially if something has their attention for extended periods of time. When a dog’s ears are pressed back toward their head, they could be defensive or anxious. 

A clear sign of aggression in dogs is when they show their teeth. However, their mouths can also show joy and relaxation. When a dog’s lips are pulled back over their teeth or tensed-up, they might be getting annoyed, scared, or angry. A dog that has a soft mouth with a lolling tongue is definitely on the happier and relaxed side. 

In addition to their lip tension, dogs may show that they are anxious or stressed in certain situations when they are licking their lips or even yawning. Yawning can help diffuse their stress as the act will help reduce blood pressure and calm them down. 

Body Language

Muscle tension in any part of the body can be a good indicator of how a dog is feeling. Neck position can work with facial expressions to give us clearer signs. If a dog’s neck is raised and its ears are forward, it’s paying close attention to something. A dog that has it’s neck lowered and close to the ground could be showing submission. Just like any other body part, if the neck is in a neutral placement, it means the dog is calm and happy. 

Dog shoulders are another key area to pay attention to when trying to determine their mood. If the shoulders are hunched and their hair is raised, they could be showing signs of aggression and fear. Lowered shoulders, where their chest may be on the ground, could be a sign of playfulness. 

No matter the size or shape of their tail, dogs can show a lot by wagging their tail or not. In general, the position of the tail and how it moves is one of the easiest ways to tell how a dog is feeling. A tail that is high in the air and moving quickly could mean that a dog is feeling dominant and potentially aggressive. 

Neutral tails that are going around in a circle are most likely indicating that a dog is extremely happy or excited, especially when they are greeting their human at the door. Dogs who are calm and relaxed will also wag their tails in large sweeps back and forth. When dogs tuck their tails between their legs or have them down, it means they are feeling anxious or scared. 

Putting It All Together

While looking at individual parts of a dog can help you further understand their moods and emotions, often a dog will tell how they’re feeling with their entire body. Looking at a dog’s facial expressions, posture, and tail and how they work together gives humans the complete picture, and usually we can tell quite quickly what’s going on. 


A dog that’s relaxed will have neutral expressions, postures, and tail position. Their head is up as well as their ears, but they aren’t fixated on anything in particular. Their stance will also be neutral, and they will be balancing on all of their limbs. A dog’s tongue might be showing, and they will have a relaxed look on their face. 


Dogs that are feeling playful and have some energy can show it in particularly cute ways. A playful dog will lower their shoulders and put their chest to the ground with the hind end and tail in the air. Their ears will be up, and their mouth will be open with their tongue showing. They will make eye contact with whatever or whoever they want to play with for just a moment before breaking into a run in a random direction. 


Many times when the mailman walks by or there is a stranger at the door, you will have a dog that is defensive and showing territorial aggression. A dominant dog will put its shoulders and head high with their ears and eyes keyed in on whatever is offending them. 

In addition, the hair on their hackles will be raised. Their tail will be stiff, unwagging, and high. Their lips will be pulled back from their teeth in a sign of warning, and their weight will be shifted forward in order to make themselves look bigger. 


Raised hackles is almost always a sign of potential aggression, and a dog that is fearful will also raise their hackles, meaning approaching a dog in this state could result in a bite. When dogs are scared, their tails will also tuck between their legs, and their bodies will lower slightly to the ground. Their nose will be wrinkled, but they may or may not be showing teeth. Their ears will also be back and down. 

A dog without raised hackles could be showing signs of stress and anxiety, especially if there are loud noises. Usually these dogs will seek comfort from solitude or from their humans. 

Final Thoughts

Dogs that are showing signs of aggression or fear, naturally, are in states where training or trying to get them to do something will be ineffective. The best times to train your dog or to bond with them will be when they are calm and relaxed. If they are playful, they might not take the training seriously, so they should be exercised before any training can occur. 

Understanding our dog’s behavior and how they communicate through their body language and facial expressions can help us create better working environments and secure a stronger bond with our canine friends. 




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