Tail-Tale Signs: The Body Language of Dogs

Dogs live and act in a world of exquisitely subtle signals in their interactions with each other. Our observations and communications in our interactions with them must seem unbelievably coarse at times to these sophisticates of non-verbal communication. Turned around the other way, we would perceive such inattentiveness to our subtle signals as rude, uncaring and perhaps simply stupid.  Suzanne Clothier from The Fine Art of Observation

Many times during my practice years clients would comment on how much more challenging it must be to be an animal doctor than a human physician. “After all, your patients can’t talk to you like theirs can,” they’d say. I’d nod and smile with great wisdom, puffing my chest out a bit in the process. It’s taken a few years to realize that Suzanne Clothier’s quote comes much closer to telling the truth.

Compared to our canine companions, most of us are “unbeliveably course” when it comes to reading the language of animals. It’s not that dogs can’t communicate. As highly social animals, they’ve developed a wide range of communication skills. The real problem is most people haven’t taken the time to understand the different language of dogs. But when so much of one’s livlihood and sometimes one’s own personal safety depends on it, it’s a great incentive to learn to “listen” carefully to what our canine patients tell us.

As Dale Peterson writes in The Deluge and the Ark, “Many wild animals communicate with other members of their species, and even other species, in remarkable and rather sophisticated ways — with postures, gestures, facial expressions, vocalizations, and so on.” With study and observation it is possible to learn how to read much of this communication.

As Stanley Coren notes in the book, The Intelligence of Dogs, the earliest stages of language development involves comprehension, rather than language production as can be easily witnessed by observing a well trained dog who’s adept at comprehending both spoken commands and hand signals. Coren’s own dogs understand over fifty words or phrases and these only include the ones that produce some kind of response. For example, the word, “Settle” causes the dog to remain quietly in a given area, while “Swing” has the dog go around his owner to the heel position. On top of this vocabulary, his dogs also understand a number of gestures and signals, such as a gesture for come, two different hand signals for down, and two for sit.

Coren also points out that dogs also recognize body language, which includes how we move and position ourselves and also includes our facial expressions. Consider, for example, if you are angry, even if you aren’t angry at your dog, or if you are trying to suppress your anger. Dogs are very sensitive to such feelings and may try to slink away with its tail between its legs.

Dr. Mark Plonsky, psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who also trains service dogs for the disabled, says his own German shepherd recognizes over 250 words. While Plonsky uses many of these words in agility trials with his dog, he’s recognized the words may be more important to him than his dog.

“One day my mentor tried to emphasize how unimportant the words were to the dog compared to my body language,” Plonsky remembers. “She told me, ‘I want you to do this run without any words at all.’ I was amazed how the words weren’t really that important. Where my shoulders were, where my body was, whether I was looking at the dog or not, how far I was from the dog, the direction I was moving . . . these were signals what to do next. On the agility course, I’d say 85% of what’s going on is from my body, the other 15% is words.”

Plonsky points out another example that illustrates how sensitive dogs are at reading body language. One of the organizations he works with, Paws with a Cause, trains seizure alert dogs. “Some of these dogs can actually predict and tell their owners a few minutes before they have a seizure. Now, we can’t train a dog to do that because we don’t know for sure how they’re doing it, but it’s probably from non-verbal cues and perhaps olfactory cues. There may be some change in the body chemistry that the dog can smell.”


Not only can dogs understand what we tell them verbally and through gesture and body language, but they can also talk back to us as well, also through vocalization, signals and gestures. Psychologists who have studied this area have found that dogs communicate about three topics; their emotional states, their social relations, and their wants and desires. It is in this last realm that dogs are most likely to show learned language or signaling to their owners.

Just like humans, dogs use their bodies to communicate about social and emotional issues. The main body parts that dogs use for communicating include the tail, eyes, ears, and mouth.

The position of a dog’s tail is an important indicator of its social standing and mental state. Of course, there is some variation depending on the breeding and the size and shape of the tail. We all recognize the ‘tail tucked between the legs’ posture of a dog who is frightened or who is showing submissiveness to another more dominant dog, but that’s just one of several communications that the dog is capable of making with its tail. The opposite position with tail up, between the horizontal and vertical position is the way a dominant dog says, “I’m boss here,” as does the tail up and curved over the back. A tail held below the horizontal but still away from the body indicates the dog is relaxed.

This tail information may be modified by several factors such as bristling of the tail which is considered a sign of agression. Therefore, a dog with a bristled tail over the back or up in the air is saying in effect, “I’m ready to fight if you are!” Tail wagging is another form of body language. Most people recognize that a dog who is wagging its tail vigorously is excited and the faster the wag the more excited. Mild tail wags are usually reserved for greeting while a broad tail wag is a sign of affection or “I like you.”

According to Coren, tail wagging is a completely social gesture, serving the same functions as a human smile. Just like humans reserve their smiles for when somebody is around to see them, dogs also reserve their tail wags for when a person or another dog is around. For example, a dog will wag its tail at someone who feeds it to show its appreciation but won’t wag it when approaching a full bowl of food if no one is around. Says Coren, “In the same way we don’t talk to walls, dogs do not wag their tails to things that are not apparently alive and socially responsive.” Does this mean that if your dog does wag its tail at the wall, it should see a shrink? Perhaps.

What about dogs who have had their tails docked? According to Coren, they are at a distinct disadvantage. “The absence of this vital communication channel may impair their ability to exchange information with other dogs.”


Another important body part that dogs use for communication is the ear. According to Roger Caras, author of A Dog is Listening, “We think of the ear as an organ of hearing and balance, not as a means of expression. That is because few of us do anything interesting with our pinnas (outer part of the ear), but our dogs do. The difference between a lick and a bit is generally foretold by ear set and movement, for those who care to look.”

The signals coming from a dog’s ears should be gauged relative to the way the dog normally carries its ears when it is relaxed. Just like the dog with a docked tail, dogs with cropped or very long ears will be harder to read. Whether a dog has short perky ears or long droupy ones, the area to pay attention to is the cartilage of the ear. If this cartilage is erect or pulled slightly forward, it indicates a sign of attention. If a head tilt or a relaxed or open mouth is added, the meaning becomes one of, “This is interesting,” or “I don’t understand.” Ears that are pulled back flat against the head indicate the dog is frightened or is protecting itself against a possible attack.

Dogs also communicate with their eyes, usually having something to do with the dog’s level of dominance. A dog staring directly at another dog or a person is a sign of dominance and may be interpreted as a challenge, while eyes diverted away to avoid direct contact is a sign of submission.

While dogs are not able to produce nearly as many different expressions as humans can with their mouth, they still use their mouths to express themselves. The most obvious signal is one of happiness where the mouth is relaxed and slightly open. The tongue may be slightly visible or draped over the lower teeth. One of the most misunderstood signals in dogs is the yawn. While most people interpret this to mean boredom or fatigue, Coren suggests that in dogs, a yawn is a stress-related signal, best interpreted as “I’m anxious, or edgy.”

Dogs also demonstrate various level of aggressive with their mouths, ranging from curled lips with a closed mouth, a signal of annoyance, to curled lips showing major teeth, some wrinkling of the skin above the nose, and a partly open mouth, which says, “Warning, I may bite.”

Dogs use other partS of their body to communicate, as well. For example, a dog may place its paw on its master’s knee, or place its head under the master’s hand to get attention. Likewise, most dog owners recognize the signal for play where the dog crouches with front legs extended, rear up, and head near the ground.

They also use their body to communicate with other dogs, such as placing their head on another dog’s shoulder or their paw on the pack of the other dog to let it know who is boss. A submissive dog will roll over on it’s back exposing its underside in an effort to placate a more aggressive dog, saying in effect, “I’m not a threat to you.” Dogs even use their hair for communication with the well-recognized bristling of the coat around the neck and shoulders which is a sign of aggression. Such a sign may prompt the hair on our own backs to tand at attention as we nervously back away from such an animal.

Is it fair to call these body gestures and movement language? I agree with Coren who writes, “Psychologists recognize gestures as language components. For example, the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory, a scale used to assess language development in infants, has an entire section on communicative gestures, which it counts as language. These include pointing to interesting objects or events, waving bye-bye when a person leaves, extending arms upward to signal a wish to be picked up, and even smacking the lips to show that something tastes good. Certainly, the communicative gestures of dogs are equal in complexity to these.”

Maybe the problem hasn’t been that dogs aren’t “talking” to us. Perhaps we’ve just not been listening closely enough. When we do, we’re sure to discover that our dogs have a lot to say.