Pet Expressway for Dogs

Understanding Canine Body Language & Vocalizations

Understanding Canine Body Language & Vocalizations

Properly interpreting your dog’s body language and vocalizations is critical in order to fully understand your dog’s emotions, intentions, wants, and needs. It is what makes true communication between you and your dog possible. The result is a better trained, emotionally well-adjusted, and happy dog.

In this article we will review the following topics:

1. Dog Speak
2. Examination of  Dog Tail Positions
3. Examination of Dog Facial Expressions
4. Overall Dog Body Positions
5. Canine Vocalizations

1. Dog Speak

Dog Speak is a general term to refer to the types of things dogs want to communicate (speak) about. Dogs typically speak upon or communicate about three area of their lives. Their emotional state, their social status within the pack and finally their wants and needs.

Communicating Emotional State

Your dog’s emotional state as to whether he is happy, sad, fearful, anxious, angry or surprised can be interpreted through both vocalizations and body language.

An example of an Emotional State through vocalizations could be that a dog may yelp in a high pitch to indicate an emotional state of pain. A series of yelps would mean that the dog is hurt or scared.

For example, a steady panting shows the emotional state of excitement (let’s go) .

Showing emotional state through body language could be a dog’s ears being held slightly back to indicate feeling suspicious of what is happening around him. Or perhaps a dog rolling on his back & rubbing shows that he is emotionally content.

Communicating Social Status

Your dog’s intentions relative to his social status within the pack can be interpreted through both vocalization and body language. Remember, dogs link survival to their standing in the pack (or group with whom they belong) . They will communicate their intentions to be dominant or submissive, territorial or yielding with vocalization and body language.

Social Status through vocalization, for example, could be a soft, low growl to show dominance over another in an attempt to tell them to back off from a valued resource such as the food bowl. Or, a single, abrupt, sharp bark (with a mid-range tone) communicates that the dominant dog is annoyed and is disciplining the more submissive dog to stop a behavior such as initiating play.

Social Status through body language, for example, could be a dog turning his eyes away from you or another dog when stared at to show submission. Or, slow stiff body movements are an example of a dog asserting authority.

Communicating Wants & Needs

Your dog’s ability to communicate his wants and needs, whether it be food, water, attention or affection can be interpreted through both vocalizations and body language. Communicating wants and needs through vocalizations, for example, a loud prolonged whining means your dog wants something (perhaps the food you are eating or to go outside) . Or, a mid-range toned Stutter Bark (ha ruff) means the dog wants to play.

Communicating wants and needs through body language, for example, a Play Bow to go along with that Stutter Bark would be to initiate play with you or another dog. Or, for example, if a dog places his paw on your knee, he is asking for attention.

These vocalizations and body language examples illustrate how a dog communicates his emotions, social status, wants and needs.

Studying tail positions, facial expressions of ears, eyes, mouth as well as body postures and vocalizations will enable you to fully understand what your dog is trying to say as clearly as if he were talking to you with human words!!

Next, we will explore Canine Body Language, beginning with interpreting the tail.

2. Examination of Dog Tail Positions

Canine tail positions are bursting with meaning, yet the most overlooked bit of dog communication. People think that a wagging tail is a happy tail. A common remark from those who do not understand this form of communication is “the dog’s tail was wagging so I don’t understand why he would bite me”

The height of the tail, the speed of the wag, and the combination of the two are things to consider when understanding canine tail positions as non-verbal communicators.

Generally speaking, a super high tail is a sign of aggression or dominance and a super low tail is a sign of fear or submission. A content dog will keep his tail in a more natural horizontal position, give or take a few inches either way.

Dog Tail Positions & Their Meanings

Here are some definitions:
  • When a dog’s tail is horizontal but relaxed – This means the dog notices something of interest is occurring
  • When a dog’s tail is horizontal but not relaxed, appears stiff – This means the dog views a challenge
  • When a dog’s tail is somewhere between horizontal and vertical – This means that the dog is saying he is dominant
  • When a dog’s tail is vertical and curved over his back – This means the dog is saying I am confident & dominant and I may act and take action
  • When a dog’s tail is a bit lower than horizontal – This means the dog feels things are fine in the situation
  • When a dog’s tail is low, near his legs – This means the dog is saying I am insecure or saddened
  • When a dog’s tail is low, in between his legs- This means the dog is saying I am afraid a/o I am submissive and want no trouble.

Also, in general a dog wagging his tail is saying that he is focusing or open to the interaction occurring. Both stoke length and speed of wag have meaning.

Broad Strokes of the tail indicate feeling relaxed, whereas Short Strokes of the tail mean the dog is anxious about something. The faster the Tail Stroke the more excited the dog is feeling. The slower the tail wag the more apprehensive the dog is about the interaction.

Dog Tail Wagging & Their Meanings

Here are some definitions:
  • When a dog’s tail wags with quick strokes – This means the dog is excited; the faster the more excited
  • When a dog’s tail wags with slow strokes – This means  the dog is insecure and perhaps fearful of the interaction
  • When a dog’s tail wags with broad strokes – This means the dog is saying I am friendly and I like you
  • When a dog’s tail wags with tiny, high-speed strokes (looks like vibrating) – This means the dog is feeling socially challenged and if submissive is ready to run. If dominant he is ready to fight.
  • When a dog’s tail wags slow in a horizontal posture – This means the dog does not understand the interaction
  • If a dog’s tail swishes to his right, he is trying to keep others relaxed. If it is swishing to the left, this will induce stress in other dogs.

3. Dog Facial Expressions – Ears, Eyes & Mouth


When a dog communicates with its ears you should be paying attention to whether they are Erect or Flat and whether they are forward or backward. Generally speaking, erect ears indicate alertness and flat ears indicate fear.

Here are some definitions:

  • Ears erect and slightly forward = paying attention in response to a new sound or situation
  • Ears slightly lowered and back = a friendly gesture
  • Ears slightly back but not lowered = feeling suspicious. could fight or flight
  • Ears very pulled back or ears flat against head = can indicate fear, timidity, submission, anxiety.


When a dog communicates with his eyes, much of the time it relates to his social status.

Here are some definitions:
  • When a dog stares eye to eye with a human or another dog – This is a challenge for dominance.
  • When a dog looks away from a human or another dog when stared at this means the dog is displaying submission and trying to indicate they are not a threat.
  • Dog blinking = means to show friendly intentions on the part of the dog.
  • Sad eyes = depression of confusion due to absence or loss of family members or a routine change.


When a dog communicates with his mouth, it is often communicating an emotional state.

Here are some definitions:

  • Dog’s mouth is relaxed and slightly open = they are happy and relaxed. You can think of it as the equivalent to a humans smile.
  • Dog yawn = indicates tension, anxiety or feeling stressed.
  • Dog looks as though he is smiling with his lips pulled back = an indication of being very stressed.
  • Dog licking lips = anxious (also can indicate nausea, about to vomit)
  • General oral behaviors such as suckling on toys = self soothing behavior (the equivalent to humans biting their nails)
  • Dog bears teeth = aggressive posture
  • Dog’s teeth showing but all other body language is friendly and relaxed = dog is smiling

4. Overall Dog Body Positions

Canine body positions can communicate a variety of messages as they relate to social status, emotional states, wants and needs. Generally speaking, if a dog is trying to look bigger than he is, this is a sign of dominance and or aggression. If a dog is trying to look smaller than he is, this is a sign of submission or fear.

Here are some definitions:
  • Dog bows by lowering head near the ground with back legs up = universal expression of play aka play bow
  • Slow and stiff movements forward = a dog who will fight if necessary and is showing off his authority
  • Feet braced with body leaned slightly forward = accepting a challenge by another dog and is willing to fight if necessary.
  • Dog rolls on side or back = submissive response to a situation
  • Dog’s fur on the back of neck raises up or bristles = he anticipates aggression and may retaliate to the threat
  • Mouthing = displaying dominant behavior
  • Dog placing paw or head on the back or shoulders of another dog = displaying dominance
  • Dog places paw on owner’s knee = seeking attention
  • Dog sits with paw raised = sign of stress or anxiety
  • Dog rolls on back and rubs ground = sign of contentment
  • Urinating and scraping the grass = marking territory by leaving scent
  • Lunging = sometimes it means eagerness to meet others and sometimes it is meant to drive other dogs away. Look at additional body language
  • Butt wiggles = friendly gesture

5. Canine Vocalizations

Dogs are talking all the time with their Tails, Facial Expressions and Overall Body Positions. They also communicate emotional state, wants and needs and social standing with vocalizations. The Pitch and Repetition Rate of dog Bark and Growls plays an important roll in understanding canine communication.


Bark Vocalizations can be more difficult for humans to read than dog body language because you need to focus on both Pitch and Rate of Repetition.

  • A mid-range pitch can mean neutrality, alertness or pleasure.
  • A low pitch can mean a warning, threat or pending aggression.
  • A high pitch can mean fear, or pain. It can even mean pleasure if it is high with less sharpness in the tone.
  • A rapid rate of repetition of a vocalization mean excitement and a sense of urgency.
  • A slower rate of repetition of a vocalization is associated more with fleeting thoughts, pleasure & play and a lower level of intensity in excitement.

It is easier to interpret barks and other vocalizations by combining the Pitch with the Rate of Repetition.

Here are some definitions:
  • Mid-range pitch with continuous bark = a dog or person is approaching, be aware
  • Mid-range pitch with repeated, rapid with pause bark = dog is alerting leader of trouble
  • Mid-range pitch with short, sharp multiple barks = dog is greeting, saying hello
  • Mid-range pitch with a single short sharp bark = dog is annoyed and disciplining another dog
  • Mid-range stutter bark (ha ruff) = dog is initiating play
  • Mid-range bark that rises sharply (aka rising bark) = play bark. Dog is feeling excitement and fun
  • Low pitch with a slower style but continuous bark = dog perceives danger and is preparing to defend you and himself
  • High pitch with a short single yelp bark = dog is saying ouch
  • High pitch with a series of yelps = dog is communicating he is scared or hurt

Keep in mind that low barks can come from dogs who are confident as well as dogs who are afraid and are trying to scare you away. Is the fearful dog who is more likely to bite you.


Growl vocalizations are not always a sign of something negative like aggression. Generally speaking, growls coming from your dog’s mouth are called play growls and are a sign of friendly interaction. Growls coming from his throat may be a warning to a person or another dog. Growls that sound like they are coming from the dogs belly are a true sign of immediate impending aggression.

Here are some definitions:
  • Low pitch soft throaty sounding growl = back off, warning threat
  • Deep low pitch growl with a bark included = impending aggression if pressed
  • Mid to higher pitch growl with a bark= dog is worried and frightened. lacks confidence but will defend himself
  • Mid to higher pitch growl that undulates = dog is terrified and could fight or flight
  • Noisy throat growl (sometimes with stutter bark = dog is playing or engaged in a game

Other Vocalizations

  • Soft whimpering = dog is afraid or hurt.
  • Loud, long-lasting whimpering = dog is wanting or demanding something or wants attention.
  • Sighing with eyes open = dog is giving up or is disappointed about something.
  • Sighing with eyes closed = dog is content or feeling pleasure. Perhaps from a belly rub!
  • Panting = dog is excited and wants to be on the go.
  • Howling = an action of a very confident dog perhaps staking his territory or announcing his presence.
  • Yip howling = loneliness abandonment, an expression of sadness.
  • Baying = leader indicating he wants to be followed by the pack

Some Tips To Remember

1. Some Communications Can Be Complicated

Though many of these communications are simple, singular and easy to read others can be complicated. For example, your dog may be giving a low throaty growl with his ears held forward and stiff, his lips raised showing his teeth, his hackles are raised and the tip of his tail is lashing back and forth.

Collectively the vocalizations and body language of ears, muzzle, tail and shoulders are telling us that the dog is about to bite. This tip is also a reminder that we need to be looking at our dog’s entire body when trying to interpret his emotions, intentions, wants and needs.

2. Dealing with Misinterpretation

Another tip has to do with misinterpretation. Myth: a dog showing his teeth is aggressive. Actually, some dogs smile! They lift their lips up and show their teeth. It would be easy to mistake that for aggression. That is why you need to look at the entire dog. A smiling dog will also have relaxed eyes, ears, and demeanor as well as a wagging tail.

3. Fully Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Another Tip has to do with fully understanding dog body language; as if it were a dictionary. Myth: A dog wagging his tail is happy. The rate at which a tail wags, its direction, and position when wagging actually determine what the dog’s emotions and intentions are.

For example, let’s say your dog’s tail is engaged in a slow wag at half-mast then this would indicate that he is trying to understand the situation at hand. In other words he is trying to figure out if it is good or bad.

4. Judging a Wagging Tail

A wagging tail that is lower than midway is indicating that the dog is insecure about the situation. Since a ‘wagging tail isn’t always a happy tail’ a good tip once again would be to look at the dog’s body language in its entirety when attempting to understand and communicate with your dog.

5. Dogs Read People The Same Way As They Read Other Canines

Because body language is the main form of communication dogs use to understand one another, they use this skill to try to understand people. Your dog reads slight shifts in your posture, the position of your arms, legs, and hands. He observes the position of your eyebrows and even the turn of your mouth.

From all of this he can understand your likes, dislikes, needs wants, moods and even your thoughts. Remember this tip the next time you are expressing yourself to your dog. And remember you will advance your relationship with your dog if you communicate with him in his first language, which is body language!.

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Keith Byrne

Keith Byrne

From an early age Keith has been around dogs. He has been involved in dog grooming, dog walking, dog sitting and dog showing as well as voluntary work in animal shelters. His aim is to help all dog owners especially newbies learn about dogs and care for them in a loving, caring and fun way.


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