Excerpted from Decoding Your Dog from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Edited by Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB and John Ciribassi DVM, DACVB, with Steve Dale. 

These six steps and the following guide will help you to "speak dog" and understand your dog's body language.

  1. Learn their language.
  2. Listen with our eyes.
  3. Use cues that work for dogs.
  4. Avoid miscommunication traps.
  5. Teach a common language.
  6. Have realistic expectations.

The goal is not to learn our dogs' language so that we can "speak dog" back to them; that just won't work. But we can use a knowledge of canine language to better understand our dogs' emotional states and predict what they might do next.


  • Remember to look at the entire dog, not just one body part or a single vocalization, and to also look at the situation to get an accurate read of the dog's emotional state.
  • Dogs understand some words, but they can’t understand a full conversation. Gestures and body language are clearer ways to communicate with dogs. Clear communication takes attention and effort, but is well worth it!
  • Not every dog can succeed in every situation. Watch your dog for signs of anxiety or aggression and change the circumstances so that the dog doesn't get overwhelmed.
  • If something seems like it's about to happen, step in. Either remove the dog from the situation or change what's happening. 

Canine Body Language 

Unwavering, fixed stare: challenge, threat, confident
Casual gaze: calm
Averted gaze: deference
Pupils dilated (big, wide): fear
Wide-eyed (whites of the eyes are visible): fear
Quick, darting eyes: fear 

Relaxed, neutral position: calm
Forward, pricked: alert, attentive, or aggressive
Ears pinned back: fear, defensive 

Panting: Hot, anxious or excited
Lip Licking, tongue flicking: anxious
Yawn: tired or anxious
Snarl (lip curled, showing teeth): aggressive
Growl: aggressive, or playful
Bark: reactive, excited, playful, aggressive, or anxious 

Up, still: alert
Up with fast wag: excited
Neutral, relaxed position: calm
Down, tucked: fear, anxious, or submissive
Stiff-wagging or still and high: agitated, excited, and perhaps unfriendly 

Body carriage
Soft, relaxed: calm
Tense, stiff: alert or aggressive
Hackles up: alert or aggressive
Rolling over: submissive 

For additional advice on understanding your dog and his needs, purchase Decoding Your Dog from Whole Dog Journal.


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