Every Dog Can Talk…Can You Speak the Language?

Have you ever wished your dog could talk? We’re not talking about the “wonder dogs” on YouTube that can howl words, but you may think of your dog’s bark or whine as his or her only language. However, your dog also talks to you through body language all the time. Learning to listen is a little like studying a foreign language.  At first it makes little sense, but with some practice comes improved communication.

When you understand what your dog is telling you (or other dogs, for example at a dog park) it helps you gain new insights into your dog’s likes and dislikes. It can even help you watch for what triggers certain undesirable behaviors so you can get your dog out of the situation before something happens. A dog’s tail, ears, eyes and mouth say so much without ever letting out a noise.  In general, the higher a dog’s tail, head and ears, are, the more dominant it feels, and the lower they are, the more uncertain the dog is feeling.

Example: Don’t make the common mistake of automatically interpreting tail wagging to mean friendliness.  When a dog is excited to meet someone, the tail wags more to the right. When it sees an unfamiliar person, the tail wags more to the left.

Many of the behaviors listed below are common, but based on the situation and sudden changes, you can read what your dog is “saying” so you can figure out how to do more of what makes your dog happy and less of what causes tension. If the things that cause tension are unavoidable, individual training can help reduce the negative feelings associated with the trigger.


When your dog is feeling nervous you can often tell, but things like yawning are not as commonly recognized as indicating nervousness.  When this happens, you can work to redirect his or her brain with some basic training commands that are well known, in order to bring the dog back to a confident frame of mind.  Common ways dogs show nerves and anxiety through body language:

  • Yawning
  • Sneezing
  • Shaking
  • Freezing
  • A “wet shake” when not wet
  • “Whale Eye” (showing white of eyes)
  • Tense jaw
  • Low tail
  • Drooling
  • Lack of focus/poor listening
  • Hair standing up on the back of the neck 

When your dog does these things he or she is asking you or whatever is feeling threatening to keep a safe distance. If a dog is not given adequate space or taken out of the situation it could lead to aggressive behavior.

  • Tense body leaning forward
  • Staring eyes
  • A tense mouth
  • Lips forward and vibrating while the dog growls
  • Snapping at the air to warn something to back off
  • Nipping quickly to further tell something to back off
  • Wagging tail – this does not always mean a happy dog, so look for other body language clues to see what your dog is saying
  • Hair standing up on the back of the neck


Most submissive behavior is shown through the dog lowering its body, making it appear smaller and less threatening.  Recognizing that triggers these behaviors can help you keep your dog feeling more confident.

  • Low head
  • Averting eyes
  • Lip licking
  • Low tail, sometimes tucked between the legs
  • Ears pinned back

When a dog is relaxed the body looks comfortable. The follow things can show your dog is happy, confident and wants attention from you and/or others.

  • Mouth slightly open with a soft tongue
  • Play bow
  • Turning over to invite a belly rub
  • Wiggling backside
  • Ears in natural position

Again, it will take some practice to put all these clues together to see what your dog is saying, but practice makes perfect. Once you do understand canine body language you can help your dog be an even more happy and confident companion because you will speak his language!