Dog Training Denver, Conifer to Fairplay, Colorado

Affection & Praise Family Dog Training, Inc.

    Established 1996                     (303) 910-3931

                     “Building Lasting Relationships through Training and Understanding”


Dog Language

Your dog thinks you are a very strange dog.  Your ears are barely visible, you don’t have a tail and when you smile (bare your front teeth) you are happy instead of threatening?  Not to mention that you howl and bark all the time, for no reason at all!  In spite of this, your dog tries to communicate with you all the time and is very attentive to your body language, because that is the only language he “speaks.”

Most of dogs’ signals are designed to either prevent, avoid or resolve conflicts.  Your dog inherited these social skills from his ancestors the wolves.  Conflicts are very bad for wolf families.  They interfere with the ability to efficiently hunt big game and to raise wolf pups together.  Therefore, as long as your dog has been properly socialized, his skills could make our foreign diplomats green with envy.

When we learn to understand the body language of our dogs, we open a window into their emotional states and can see how they feel about us and the world around them.  We can even answer them sometimes in their own language, which will thrill them to no end.  Their body language can be very subtle, but with practice you will be able to recognize most of their signals.  They usually fire off these signals with lightning speed, one after the other and/or simultaneously, so we need to observe carefully.

We can divide most of dogs’ body signals into two groups:

Group 1: Threatening, Antagonistic, Aggressive, Defensive

Dogs use this group of signals when they are defending themselves or their resources, such as food, toys, sleeping places and in some cases their pack members.  These signals are intended to increase the distance between themselves and whomever they are communicating with.  They indicate “stop what you are doing and/or go away” or “don’t try anything funny or I will kick your buttocks.”

These signals include: staring, stiff stance, stiff movements (including stiff tail wagging!), charging, growling, barking, showing teeth, snapping at and biting/fighting.  They can also stand over or lean their head or paw on the other party’s head or back.  This is why most dogs don’t like to be hugged or petted on top of the head or back.  In fact, any approach from above can be threatening, especially from us giants.

Their body posture depends on their level of confidence.  It ranges from:

  1. a.least confident: low to the ground, ears back and tail tucked, corners of the mouth pulled back, to

  2. b.most confident: tall posture, ears up and tail up, corners of the mouth pulled forward.  Ears can be back as well, to protect them in the case of conflict.

If dogs in group a. are pushed to the point of biting, they will quickly bite the closest body part and retreat.  If dogs in group b. are pushed to the point of biting, they will do damage, usually higher on the body.


When you respect your dog’s language, learn to observe it and learn to use it, it will greatly improve the relationship you have with him.  You then can also enable him to be the social butterfly and diplomat he was meant to be.

Rolling.  There are a lot of theories out there as to why dogs roll around in smelly stuff.  We have noticed however that the hair on the back of dogs’ necks retains odor better than the hair elsewhere.  That’s why we think that the purpose of rolling is to bring a smell back to the rest of the pack, so the pack can smell what kind of potential prey is out there. 

Scratching.  Of course a dog will scratch himself when he is itchy.  However, a dog will also start scratching himself when he doesn’t understand something, like an obedience exercise or when he is hinging on two thoughts and doesn’t know what to do in the moment.  It’s similar to us scratching our heads when we are confused.

The tail.  The tail generally indicates the confidence level of the dog in any situation.  The further a dog’s tail is up, the more the anal glands are exposed and the more other dogs can smell who he is.  The lower the tail, the less other dogs can smell who he is.  When the tail is tucked, it is as if to say “you can’t smell me, so I’m not really here.”

The ears.  Ears back indicates either fear or appeasement.  Ears up and pointing forward either means that dogs are paying close attention to something, or it can be a confident threatening signal.

Splitting up.  Dogs will move or stand in between two dogs or people who are getting too aggressive with each other.  This is why dogs get in the middle when you are kissing, hugging or wrestling (not jealousy).

Smiling.  Whenever dogs pull the corners of their mouths back while having their mouths part way open and panting, it means “I’m happy and friendly.”  However, dogs also pant when they are stressed or hot.

Licking another’s face from below.  “I love you.”  Hmmm, it stems from puppies licking the mouths of their elders to ask them to regurgitate.

Wagging tail in a flowing motion.  A tail wagging stiffly is threatening.  A tail wagging loosely in a flowing motion can indicate happy, friendly excitement.  If the tail wags in wide horizontal sweeps, it means “I mean no harm.”

Curving.  Well socialized dogs never approach strange dogs by walking straight up to them, because that would be rude or threatening.  They can only do that with good friends and those he knows well.  If your dog is not comfortable meeting other dogs straight on when being walked on a leash, the let him curve to one side.  Some dogs need a wide curve, others just a little one.  If your dog tries to go to the other side of you when meeting another dog, let him do it.  He is curving - a clear message that he means no harm.

Sniffing the ground.  Yes, they sniff because they want to see who went there recently.  But they also sniff the ground when other dogs are approaching to show them that they mean no harm.  They will use this one especially when the approaching dog shows signs of nervousness.

Sitting/Lying down.  “I mean no harm.”  Often used by bigger and confident dogs to show other creatures that they mean no harm.  They will often pounce though as soon as the other dog gets closer.

Slow bow. “ Peace.” Often used in tight situations (when we restrain them, bend over them or walk straight at them, or they had no choice but to walk straight at us, like in a narrow hallway).

Fast play bow.  “I want to play with you.”

Yawning.  “You are reaaaaally stressing me out.”

Licking Tongue over the Nose.  “You are stressing me out.” “You are coming on too strong.”  Staring at, hugging or leaning over a dog often brings this one out.

Moving slowly.  “Calm down.”  Walking slowly, such as hanging behind when heeling and coming in real slow on the recall, is meant to calm down someone.  Often they get the opposite reaction from us.  Irritated by the slow movements we rush around them, we run and scream and make noises, we encourage them to move faster.  This will only get them to move slower.

Lying belly up.  Ultimate surrender, like a knight kneeling to avoid being chopped up.  It can also mean “please don’t be mad!!” or “I mean no harm whatsoever!!!”  It is also used during play to try to make a smaller or nervous dog feel more comfortable.  It requires trust that the other party won’t injure you. (On the right is adult Jesse playing with a puppy).

Lifting one paw of the ground.  “please don’t be mad.”

Lowering head, body and tail. “please don’t be mad,” “please don’t hurt me” or “I’m frightened.”

Turning head or body away. “SERIOUSLY! PEACE, you are coming on too strong” or “not now, go away”  Hugging is a sure fire way to get that one.

Looking away with eyes only. “Seriously! Peace!”  with slight nervousness.

Blinking and softening of the eyes.  “I come in peace.”

Group 2: Non-Threatening and Appeasing

Dogs use this second group of signals when they want to cut off or prevent aggression, stress, fear or any unpleasantness.  Dogs use these signals to say “I come in peace, I don’t want any trouble, everything is cool.”  And some signals mean “you are stressing me out, I wish you would not threaten me or tone it down.”

Since well socialized dogs are such diplomatic creatures, they have a huge variety of these signals.  They will use them in a range of situations, such as:

  1. -when they feel threatened or uncomfortable

  2. -when they feel stressed or confused

  3. -to calm down a scared dog

  4. -to indicate that they come in peace

  5. -to split up two dogs who are being too wild or are not getting along

  6. -to calm you down when you are mad or too excited

  7. -to be polite, to adhere to proper doggie etiquette.

These signals come in different strengths and your dog will use the most appropriate one for the situation.  In order to see what your dog is saying you always need to observe the entire context as well as the language of whom he is communicating with.