What Does That Head Tilt Mean? How to Read a Dog’s Body Language

Do you know how to read a dog’s body language?

Our dogs will never speak to us with the same verbal language as a human, but they do tell us everything we need to know about how they are feeling through body postures and vocalizations.

Using their ears, eyes, mouth, teeth, tongues, and tails, our dogs speak loud and clear. It is our job to learn to speak their language so we can interpret what they are saying, and respond in an appropriate manner.

Ready to learn how to read a dog’s body language? Here’s what you need to know.

Understanding Body Language

Every dog, whether Akita, bichon, or beagle, knows the same language. You and your dog probably pick up on each other’s signals without thinking much about it. But if your dog begins to behave differently, if you are getting to know a new dog, or if you encounter a dog you don’t know, it helps to be able to read the universal body language of dogs.

Although a dog can’t speak and has no hands and fingers for gesturing as humans do, you can watch key parts of his body —including face, eyes, ears, lips, teeth, and tongue — to determine how he’s feeling and reacting to the world around him.

When figuring out how to read a dog’s body language, take a close look at his posture. When two dogs meet, as long as their human companions aren’t tugging tight on their leashes, they carry out a series of actions that looks like a choreographed dance. With their bodies tense and tails taut, they circle and sniff each other, silently gathering and exchanging information, ready to defend themselves at any moment if necessary. They hold their ears back and the hair on their back may stand on end. They often avoid direct eye contact at first, sizing each other up to determine if the stranger is strong or weak, male or female, hostile or non-hostile. One dog may place his head on the nape of the other’s neck or nip at his nose. It seems they are getting ready to fight and then, one lies down. Soon, they may separate and urinate. At this point they have agreed on which dog is dominant.

Dogs learn body language from their mothers during the first 8 weeks of their lives and they test out this form of communication with their littermates. If a dog misses out on such training, he will have trouble communicating with other dogs throughout life.

Wagging Tail = Happy?

Yes, dogs wag their tails when they are happy, but also when they are feeling “alert” or “agitated.”

A dog’s tail is part of a complex system of body language that the domestic canine uses (along with “verbal” cues such as barking, growling or whining) to communicate. A wagging tail indicates excitement or agitation — but whether he means it as an invitation to play, or to warn another dog or person to stay back, depends on other body language.

A wagging tail that curves down and backs up into a “U” usually indicates a relaxed, playful dog. If his ears are erect and pointing forward, and he is in the classic “play bow” position, he’s inviting you to play.

A tail that is held higher, whether wagging or not, indicates dominance and/or increased interest in something. If the end of the tail is arched over the back, and is twitching back and forth, you may be faced with an aggressive dog.

The tail is a purely social indicator for other living things. A dog doesn’t usually wag his tail when alone. For instance, say you pour your dog a bowl of food. He may wag his tail excitedly at the prospect of eating. But if he comes upon the bowl already filled — without anyone being around — he most likely will not wag his tail. He may still be happy to eat, but there’s no one around to whom he can communicate his state of mind.

Is That Lick a Kiss?

Is your dog kissing you when he slurps your face like a lollipop? Although we may never know, there are several possible explanations for this behavior, not all of which are mutually exclusive. The motivation for face licking appears to vary for different dogs and different circumstances.

Licking can be a signal of submission, making it a part of a dog’s body language communication system. Pups and adults also lick to groom themselves. It is part of normal survival-oriented behavior. Licking their own lips, limbs, and trunk removes traces of the last meal that would otherwise begin to decompose and smell. Quite apart from the hygienic aspects of this behavior, it also serves to keep dogs relatively odor free and thus olfactorily invisible to their prey. Domestic dogs retain these instincts even though they are not vital today.

Dogs, like people, engage in a number of “displacement behaviors” when nervous or stressed, and many of these behaviors involve self-grooming. You only have to glance to the side the next time you are stuck at a red light — the driver next to you will likely be stroking his hair, looking in the mirror, or trying to pick something out from between his teeth.

Dogs do not experience the stop-go conflict of the traffic light, but they do have their own share of dilemmas. Take going to the veterinarian’s office, for example. Veterinarians expect their more anxious patients to begin nervously licking their own lips as they enter the clinic. They may even lick or nibble their feet or flank.

There is no doubt that some dogs lick as a gesture of appeasement and goodwill. They may lick their own lips or may lick a person to whom they wish to signal deference. If the recipient of the licking interprets this behavior as “make-up kisses,” that’s just fine. Perhaps the behavior is analogous to some forms of human kissing and thus their interpretation may be close to the truth.

However, not all dogs seem penitent when they slurp the faces of people they meet. For some dogs, it seems that they engage in face licking because they can get away with it and because it gets a rise out of the person. When licking is performed for such a reason, it may be component of the “center stage,” attention-demanding behavior of dominant dogs. No lick! is a good command to have working for these guys.

Dog to Dog Communication

There is no one sign that gives away a dog’s feelings but if you consider all the body language signs, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the dog’s head. A dog that is staring at another dog, his ears pricked and his tail stiff, is probably conveying dominance, or at least a wish for it.

A dog that averts his gaze from another dog and hunkers down nervously as if waiting for an explosion is likely fearful and is trying to defuse the situation by acting submissive.

Sometimes body language signs can be ambivalent, however. For example, it is not uncommon to observe a dog growling at another dog while occasionally glancing to the side, backing up, and with his tail wagging. Such a dog is invariably fearful. Whenever fear signs are present, fear is in the equation. These dogs are unpredictable with other dogs and will alter their body language and behavior according to circumstances. If the opposing dog retires, they may jump around and “look happy.” If the opposing dog approaches too close the fearful one may snap or bite. Owners, if present, can help defuse their dog’s ambivalence and uncertainty by taking a strong leadership role. It’s amazing how rapidly a fearful dog’s disposition will change when an authoritative owner steps in and controls the moment. Dogs need strong leaders.

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