Communication is a key part of success in any relationship – personal, professional, and all the in-betweens. The same is true of your relationship with your dog. There’s just one catch…we don’t speak the same language.

Most dogs can understand basic English words, and their vocabulary of understanding is similar to that of a toddler. Commands like sit, stay, and roll-over is commonly known for dogs. In some ways, dogs understand how we communicate. But do we know how they tell us things?

Dogs communicate with each other and humans primarily use their bodies. From their tails to their lips, each subtle movement can tell us something about what our dogs are trying to say. Let’s review some basic dog body language and what it means.


We all know a wagging tail means a happy dog. And that’s true! A dog wagging his tail is generally feeling relaxed and happy about his current situation. On the opposite side is a tail tucked between the dog’s legs – we know this to be a fearful or submissive communication.

Right between the two comes a flagged, or raised, tail held in a stiff posture. This means the dog is tense, perhaps displaying dominance, and can lead to a behavioral disruption. If you notice this raised tail and tense body in your dog, he may be stressed about his current situation – this can sometimes occur when meeting new dogs and humans.

Tails carried lax behind the dog’s hips is typically a sign of relaxation and ease, but can sometimes indicate a dog isn’t feeling well.


They say the eyes are the window to the soul and our dogs’ eyes tell us a lot about what they are thinking. Soft eyes that look relaxed, or even squinty, indicate he is calm and content. Hard eyes, sometimes referred to as “whale eyes”, occur when dogs’ eyes widen and turn into an intense stare. This is almost always a sign of anxiety and is often followed by aggression – it should be taken as a threat. If your dog exhibits whale eyes, it is best to remove them from a given situation with redirection or isolation.

Facial Movements

Yawning, lip-licking, and snarling (the baring of teeth) are all signs of stress and discomfort. Yawning can simply be done out of fatigue, but it’s important to consider the context in which the dog is yawning. Use your best judgment to decipher its meaning.

Like snarling, “smiling” is when a dog shows his teeth as a form of submission. This is usually accompanied by a loose body posture and sometimes showing his belly.


How a dog is standing or holding itself can tell you a lot about what he’s feeling. A cowering dog is displaying stress and fear – that he doesn’t feel safe in his current situation or environment. A dog leaning forward is displaying interest in something, but when paired with a raised, tight rail and raised fur along their back (also known as raised hackles), this is indicative of aggression.

Lastly comes the much-loved play bow. This is when a dog lowers himself on his front legs with his butt raised in the air. This playful posture is used to initiate play with other dogs and humans. A dog in this stance is happy and ready for a fun romp.