Understanding dog body language can help you know when it is safe to approach or handle a dog.
Green body language: non-fearful dog
Body posture Relaxed “soft” muscles, weight evenly distributed, “loose” or “wiggly” body
Tail Relaxed, neutral position, may be wagging
Ears Relaxed, neutral position, orientation
Mouth Appears “soft”, may be open, tongue out, relaxed muzzle
Eyes “Soft”, relaxed, eyebrows neutral, normal pupil size, steady relaxed gaze
Behaviors: non-fearful dog
- Seeks attention
- Play bows
- Barking or whining for attention
- No signs of fear
- Neutral: Undisturbed from resting, eating, playing, or other maintenance behaviors
Humans can understand how dogs feel by listening to them! Studies have shown that humans are good at interpreting the meaning of barks. You can also use dog body movements to identify their emotions. (Kerswell et al., 2009; Pongrácz et al., 2005)
When you know how your dog feels you can set them up for success! Avoid putting your dog in a situation where they feel overwhelmed. That can lead to unwanted behaviors or injuries.
Red body language: fearful dog
Body posture Muscles tensed, “hard and stiff”, uneven weight distribution (forward, back, or to the side), may be very still, hackles up/hair on end, excessive shedding, may roll over and show belly or hold up one paw
Tail Mid way or low, wagging or still, tucked, carried high, often wagging slowly
Ears Back, rotated down, or erect and forward, may have little movement, pulled high with tension (wrinkles) between them
Mouth Closed mouth, tension in muzzle, nose wrinkled, showing teeth
Eyes Wide open, dilated pupils, scanning/darting, wrinkles in brow, avoiding eye contact, slow blinking, whites of the eyes showing, head low/outstretched neck looking up over brow, “hard stare”, squinting, tense eyebrows
Behaviors: Fearful dog
- No approach
- Backing away
- Aggressive displays
- Straight, hard, fast approach
- Repetitive behaviors out of context
- Alarm bark, yelp, scream, growl, silent
- Shaking, trembling, panting
- Head-turning, lip licking, turning away
Dogs communicate so they can stay safe! Knowing how your dog feels can help you protect them from feeling threatened, or like they must fight or run away.
Yellow body language: Ambivalent
Body Language, Posture and Behaviors: May show behaviors from both Red and Green categories; hard to categorize as either Red or Green
Behaviors: Ambivalent dog
- Unsure – approaches AND retreats
- Signs of stress with friendly behaviors and/or approach
- Approach and/or attention seeking with signs of fear
- Partial approach with friendly behaviors. No fearful body language or behaviors.
When dogs are uncomfortable, they may display behaviors known as calming signals. These behaviors may help dogs avoid or stop conflict or help them cope with stress.
You may observe:
Displacement behaviors: Normal behavior out of its usual context. Often an animal feels frustrated or conflicted because they want to approach but they feel unsure. Some examples include: scratching, sniffing the ground, mounting, eating/drinking
Appeasement gestures: Behaviors meant to reduce threat. Examples include: play bow, turning or looking away, smiling, rolling over
Other signs of stress: These responses may decrease anxiety or allow your dog to assess the situation around them. Examples: lip/nose licking, yawning, shaking off, darting eyes/head swivels
Calming signals mean your dog is unsure. If you see these behaviors, be careful. If the dog also seems fearful, stop the interaction right away. This keeps you safe and protects your dog’s welfare.