Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language: From Tail Wags to Ear Positions

Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language: From Tail Wags to Ear Positions

Manoeuvring the landscape of dog ownership isn’t solely about meeting the physical and nutritional needs of your furry companion, it also involves understanding them and communicating with them. The subtleties of their non-verbal communication are often lost on humans. Dogs have a language of their own, expressed through their bodies. 

Regardless of what dog you have in New South Wales or anywhere you live, you need to be able to communicate effectively with your dog. As a dog owner, understanding this language is crucial to building a strong bond with your pet and ensuring their well-being. 

In this comprehensive article, we’ll delve into the world of dog body language, breaking down common behaviours, and providing tips to respond effectively.

The Importance of Understanding Dog Body Language

A dog’s body language reveals its emotional state and intentions. An ability to read these cues can aid in identifying when your dog is relaxed, stressed, scared, or aggressive, thereby improving the quality of your interactions and minimising potential misunderstandings.

The Tail: More Than Just Wags

The tail is an expressive part of a dog’s body, often mistaken to only indicate happiness when wagging. The truth, however, is more complex.

Wagging Tail

A wagging tail can indeed indicate joy, but it’s also used in a variety of other emotional states. The speed and direction of the wag matter. A fast, right-biassed wag typically signals happiness, while a slow, left-biassed wag can express uncertainty or anxiety.

Tail Positions

The position of the tail also provides insight into a dog’s emotional state. A relaxed dog will have its tail in a neutral position, depending on its breed. A raised tail often indicates excitement or arousal, and can signal aggression if combined with other behaviours such as growling. A tucked tail, on the other hand, is a clear sign of fear or submission.

The Eyes: Windows to Canine Emotions

A dog’s eyes can tell you a lot about what they’re feeling.

Soft Eyes

When a dog is relaxed or happy, its eyes will be their normal shape. This is often referred to as “soft eyes.”

Hard Stare

A hard stare, where the dog fixates on something with its body tense, often precedes an aggressive behaviour. If a dog is giving a hard stare, it’s best to diffuse the situation by removing the object of their fixation or redirecting their attention.

Whale Eyes

When a dog shows the whites of its eyes in a half-moon shape—commonly known as “whale eyes”—it usually indicates stress, fear, or anxiety.

Ears: The Barometers of Attention

Ears can be excellent indicators of where a dog’s attention is and how they’re feeling.

Forward Ears

Ears that are pricked forward typically indicate that a dog is engaged and focused on something.

Flattened Ears

Ears that are pulled back or flattened against the head often signal fear, anxiety, or submission.

Posture and Body Movements

A dog’s overall body posture can reveal its emotional state and intentions.

Relaxed Posture

A dog with a relaxed posture is comfortable and content. Their body will appear loose, mouth open and possibly panting lightly, with a gently wagging tail.

Rigid Posture

A stiff, rigid body is a sign of alertness, which could escalate to aggression. A dog may also lean forward or backward, indicating whether they’re more likely to advance or retreat.

Play Bow

A dog initiating play will often use a “play bow” (front end down, back end up). This universally recognized signal communicates their playful intentions.

Responding to Your Dog’s Body Language

Recognizing your dog’s body language is only half the battle; the other half is responding appropriately.

When your dog is relaxed and happy, respond in kind. Speak in a soothing voice, pet them gently, and engage in play if they seem eager.

If your dog displays signs of stress or fear (like whale eyes, tucked tail, or flattened ears), try to identify and remove the stressor. Provide a safe space for them to retreat to and reassure them with your calm presence.

In the case of aggression, it’s crucial to remain calm. Avoid direct eye contact, which can be perceived as a challenge. Never punish aggression with aggression, as it can escalate the situation. Instead, aim to diffuse the situation by redirecting the dog’s attention or removing the source of aggression, if possible. 

Seek professional help from a canine behaviourist if the aggression persists and you feel unsafe. 


Understanding your dog’s body language opens a new window into their world. It enables you to identify their needs, fears, and moods, thereby strengthening your bond and fostering a healthy, balanced relationship. 

Remember that each dog is unique, so what applies to one might not apply to another. Spend quality time with your dog, observe them closely, and soon you’ll become fluent in their language. Always remember, patience and understanding are the cornerstones of any successful relationship, including the one you have with your dog.