Understanding Your Dog's Body Language

By John Woods dog trainer, author, and founder of All Things Dogs

We’ve all been out on a walk, having a great time with our loving canine friend, and then it happens: Fido decides to do something which can make us burst out laughing or wish the ground beneath would swallow us up.

It’s happened to all dog walkers. Your resulting question could be: 

  • Why does Fido suddenly jump and spin when walking?
  • What exactly does it mean when his tail stands directly vertical?
  • What's he thinking when he holds his ears perked?

Just like humans, dogs communicate with each other. And just like humans, speaking isn't their only type of communication. Body language may be more important than barking. From perked ears to a downward dog, it all means something.

It’s up to us to decipher the behavior and body language to interpret what it means within a specific context. Being able to grasp the basics of dog body language can make your life much easier — and walks with Fido far more enjoyable.

Let's cover a couple of common dog body language examples that you can watch out for next time you're walking your dog.

I want to play — the play bow

A play bow is body language which we most associate with younger dogs, especially puppies. Still, dogs of all ages will display this behavior.

Normally a play bow, where the dog will completely lower their forequarters to the ground while pushing their hindquarters into the air, is initiated by a dog wanting to play. This body language can mean they want to have fun with either another dog, after greeting them, or a human.

To observe this body language, you should expect to see your dog very relaxed, in the position highlighted above with their tail up. They may also make a short, high-pitched bark.

They may also rock or lunge forward and backward trying to initiate play. If you see two dogs performing this behavior they’re both ready to play and engage with each other.

Pro Tip

Make sure their hindquarters are raised to the air, and not lowered like their forequarters. If their hindquarters are lowered, this is known as “stalking” and is often not a sign of play.

I want to learn more – the forward lean

When we socialize our puppies, especially more adventurous or naturally smart puppies, we know how important is it to expose them to many different environments, scenarios and people.

This socialization period, if done correctly, will promote correct mental and social development. It can also help prevent some unwanted behaviors and allow your dog to adjust to the world around them.

During this phase, we will often see them leaning forward, adjusting the weight of their chest and body toward their forequarters, with perked ears and a slight horizontal tail wag. This is known as the forward lean.

The forward lean is done by dogs of all ages, especially between one- and three-years old, but, their demeanor should always remain relaxed. An easy way to check they are relaxed is to look at their mouth. While all of the body should be in the “forward lean”, their mouth should be closed without pursed lips, baring teeth or wrinkled noses. You should also observe no raised hackles — the hairs on the back of the dog that stand up when a dog is angry or alarmed.

The forward lean is a sign your dog wants to investigate more about whatever they are leaning towards.

Pro Tip

A dominant or aggressive dog will also assume the forward lean. Still, their nature and energy will be very different. Their tail will be vertically up and stiff, as opposed to a slight horizontal wag. In addition, their hackles will be raised and their lips pursed. Knowing the body language and circumstances of a dominant dog is important to help you understand when you should intervene.


Reading more dog

Once you start to understand that communicating with dogs is often about context and body language, then you'll be able to understand far more about your dog’s intentions. When analyzing dog body language, rather than exploring a single body part and trying to take meaning, pay attention to the dog's TEB:

  • Tail
  • Ears
  • Body

Using TEB is a simple framework and encourages you to look at the entire body of your dog rather than isolated parts that, by themselves, could deliver the wrong message.