Dog Body Language: What does it mean?

How Animals Perceive the World: Non-Verbal Signaling
Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

The uniting feature that connects all social vertebrates is the extent to which they signal non-verbally. Communication involving ritualized displays or graded signals is used to confirm or reject information received from others in social interactions, to indicate species, sex, and sexual receptivity, to signal about issues pertaining to status, and to otherwise negotiate all social interactions. As such, communication can involve such instantaneous behaviors as tactile and visual displays. These are relatively “short-distance” signals. Vocal communication is also instantaneous but may reach over longer distances. Verbal communication is only one variety of vocal communication, and both of these may pale when the full story of olfactory communication is written. Certainly, olfactory and pheromonal signals provide information that can be assessed over distances and across time.
When assessing any communicatory structure it is important to realize that signaling involves a set of rules that will be shaped by the evolutionary history of the species. The story of canine domestication is the story of work and work-related tasks. The story of feline domestication is the story of rodent and vector-borne diseases and their prevention. These 2 divergent paths to domestic lifestyles have been shaped by, and in turn have continued to shape factors like reproductive schedules, fecundity, age at first reproduction, age at sexual and social maturity, the composition of family or group units, and social interactions within these units. To understand such behaviors it is critical to understand the component signals as they are used to communicate with conspecifics. The following table provides an introduction to this topic:

Signal Circumstance Information
barking alerting/warning
growling warning
howling elicit social contact
anxiety situations (social contact = reassure)
moans pleasure, contentment
tail and ears up; forefoot in front of other alert, ready to participate
direct gaze challenge
absence of threat
averted gaze fear
absence of challenge (not the same as deference for confident, high-ranking dogs)
distance-decreasing signal
belly presented deference – if neck, back, and other solicitation bruises given

disengagement – if inguinal area and, or chest covered may become aggressive if pursued

relaxation – if flaccid

tail tucked when belly presented fear/submission
tail tucked when belly presented with urination profound fear/submission
grin deference

distance-decreasing signal

piloerection arousal associated with anxiety, fear, aggression


piloerection restricted to neck or tail region confident dog
rigid stance, stiff torso musculature confidence and intent to interact (may not be aggressive)


tail above horizon confident
high status
tail below horizon less confident
lower status
tail wag willingness to interact
tail tip wag; stiff confident
offensively interactive
neck erect or arched confident
ears erect alert
ears back fear
ears vertically dropped deference
low rank
snarl/growl with only incisors and canines apparent confident
offensively aggressive
snarl/growl with all teeth and back of throat apparent defensively aggressive
body lowered defensive
licking lips, flicking tongue appeasement
anxious (and solicitation of reassurance; derived from et-epileptic)
raising forepaw distance-decreasing
solicitation of attention
deference (off balance)
paws out, front end down, rump up, tail wagging body bow, an invitation to play
perpendicular posture challenge
mounting or pressing on the back shoulders of another dog challenge
marking, claiming
licking at the corner of another dog’s (or person’s) mouth et-epileptic
blowing out lips/cheeks anticipation (positive or negative)

anxiety (if very fast)

popping or snapping of upper and lower jaws (bill pops) capitulation, intention to comply as a last resort

As always, if you ever have concerns about your pet’s behavior, contact your veterinarian for guidance.

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