Dog body language: our guide to understanding your dog’s behaviour

Many pet parents wish their pooch could talk – but if you learn a little about dog body language, you can start to understand what your pet is saying. You might not be Dr Dolittle but getting to know what your dog’s behaviour means will help you communicate with your pet – and recognise if something is wrong. Of course, it’s important to remember that every dog is different and dog behaviour is often influenced by their breed, personality, and history. As a guide, here are our pet experts’ top tips on dog body language.

Body posture

If you want to understand how your dog’s feeling, it’s a good idea to start with their posture. Here are some of the most recognisable postures:

  • Rolling onto their back
    Dogs often roll onto their backs and expose their bellies to show that they want to play, and that they don’t pose a threat. However, as this is a sign of submission, some dogs may also do this when they’re anxious.
  • Hunching over
    Dogs will often try to make themselves look small when they’re feeling scared or submissive.
  • Bowing
    A ‘play bow’ is a dog behaviour everyone will have seen, it’s when your dog leans down on their elbows with their behind in the air. This is a universal dog body language that means your pet wants to play!

Tail wagging

Now, everyone knows this bit of dog body language! It’s easy to think that a dog wagging their tail is happy, but that’s not always the case. Dogs actually use their tails to communicate many different emotions. Because canine vision picks up movement better than colour or details, a wagging tail can say a lot.

  • A slow wag, with the tail held low – your dog is a little nervous and insecure, perhaps because they’re meeting a new dog or person
  • A slow wag, with the tail held high – your dog is curious and considering what to do next
  • A fast wag, with the tail held vertically – this can be a sign of aggression, especially if your dog is barking or has a tense, defensive body posture
  • A freely wagging tail and wiggling hips – your dog is being friendly and might have just spotted a friend

It’s important to remember that your dog’s breed can also affect their tail position and movement. For example, dogs with tails that curl upwards on their backs, like pugs, won’t wag their tails so much, but that doesn’t mean they’re not happy.


Tail position

Tails are important in dog body language. Even if your dog isn’t wagging theirs, the position of their tail can give you a clue as to how they’re feeling.

  • Tail held high
    Your dog is feeling confident and wants everyone to know! As well as being a visual signal, this position allows more scent to be released from your dog’s anal glands, which tells other dogs they’re in the area.
  • Tail held low
    Ever heard of someone having ‘their tail between their legs’? The expression usually means someone is feeling embarrassed or defeated, and it comes from a common dog behaviour. Dogs will often hold their tails low or between their legs if they are nervous or afraid.
  • Tail held rigid
    If your dog’s tail is straight and tense, they’re alert and maybe a little apprehensive. They might have heard a noise that startled them or seen someone new. You might want to be careful in case they bolt off or become aggressive.


Barking is one of the most recognisable dog behaviours. You might have noticed that your dog has different barks for different situations. For example, they might have a ‘play with me!’ bark, as well as a ‘go away!’ bark. If you’re not sure what your dog’s bark means, there are three things you need to pay attention to: the bark’s pitch, duration, and frequency.

  • Pitch
    A lower-pitched bark means business: your dog is showing how confident and scary they are. You might have noticed that your dog’s bark is lower and gruffer when they hear someone at the door – they’re warning off intruders! Although high-pitched barks usually come from a dog who is happy and wants to play, a very high pitch might mean they’re scared or unsure.
  • Duration
    Short ‘yips’ tend to express surprise or annoyance. But dogs can also draw out their barks into longer howls, which tend to have more meaning. For example, a long, low-pitched bark may be a warning to others that your dog is ready to fight.
  • Frequency
    In general, the more barks in a row, the more worked up your dog is. A yapping dog is either stressed or excited. The closer together their barks are, the more likely it is they’re feeling aggressive.


Howling is perhaps less common than barking, but it’s still a normal dog behaviour. Many dogs tilt their head backwards as they let out a long howling cry – just like wolves. Some breeds of dogs, particularly hound breeds and huskies, are more likely to howl than others.

  • Separation anxiety
    It’s common for dogs to howl when they’re alone and seeking attention. If your neighbours tell you your dog is howling while you’re at work, look into tackling their separation anxiety
  • Expressing pain
    Sometimes, there’s a medical cause for a dog howling – especially if the howling has begun suddenly or changed recently. Talk to your vet if you suspect your dog is hurt or unwell.
  • Responding to sounds
    Some dogs howl when they hear high-pitched sounds like sirens or musical instruments. You might have seen videos online of dogs ‘singing along’ to tunes!


Body Copy

There’s nothing more heart-breaking than hearing your dog whine. But dogs don’t only whine when they’re scared or nervous – in fact, this dog behaviour can mean many things. 

Your dog may whine when they’re:

  • greeting others – your dog may be excited to meet people or other dogs
  • interacting with others – whining can be a sign of submission
  • anxious – your dog may be stressed or have separation anxiety
  • seeking attention – your dog might want some cuddles, their toy or a treat
  • in pain – it’s common for dogs to whine when they’re hurt.
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Biting is one dog behaviour that all pet parents want to avoid – but it’s important to remember that it can be caused by many things. Most of the time, mouthing is simply playful. It’s common in puppies, but it’s a good idea to train them out of the habit before their teeth can do much damage. If your dog is an adult, biting can be much more serious, and can be a sign of pain or aggression: speak to your vet for advice.


Chewing is a natural dog behaviour – it keeps their teeth strong and healthy, and keeps your pet occupied! But if your dog is chewing excessively or destructively, it could be down to something else:

  • Teething
    Up to the age of six months, puppies lose their baby teeth as their adult teeth come in. Just like human babies, puppies can find teething painful and uncomfortable, and may chew more than normal for relief.
  • Hunger
    Your dog may chew items that look or smell like food if they’re hungry.
  • Stress
    Sometimes, stress and frustration can lead to destructive chewing. Read our article on the causes of dog anxiety for tips.


Licking is another dog behaviour that can mean several things:

  • Cleaning
    Dogs often clean themselves using their tongue and teeth – but excessive grooming may be a sign of fleas. If your dog has puppies, she’ll groom them as well.
  • Understanding their surroundings
    With their sensitive sense of smell and taste, dogs can pick up a lot of information about their surroundings. This is why they may lick another dog’s urine – even though it seems disgusting!
  • Affection
    Of course, puppies and dogs will often lick us to show their affection – and to get our attention. It’s one of our favourite dog behaviours!


Dogs often love a good scratch behind their ears – but excessive scratching is likely to be something you should speak to your vet about. Some of the most common causes of itchy skin are fleas, skin allergies, lice and ticks. For more advice, take a look at our guides for protecting your dog against ticks and for fighting fleas. If your pet’s flea-free but still scratching, speak to your vet.


Although digging is a normal behaviour, many pet parents don’t appreciate the damage it can cause to their gardens! Certain breeds of dogs, such as terriers, are more prone to digging than others. Digging is usually something dogs just do for fun, but if your dog digs excessively it may be due to stress, boredom or separation anxiety.


Panting is a normal dog behaviour – as they have few sweat glands, panting is their main way of dealing with excess body heat. However, if your dog is panting a lot, it may be down to something else, such as:

  • anxiety or fear – sometimes, dogs may pant as a sign of stress
  • heat – your dog will pant more in the summer: check out our tips for looking after dogs in hot weather
  • pain or illness – there are a number of illnesses that can cause panting, including serious problems such as anaemia, so speak to your vet if your dog’s panting is abnormal.


Body Copy

Although shivering may seem like a concerning dog behaviour, our pets can shiver or tremble for many reasons, such as:

  • cold – like humans, dogs can shiver in the cold
  • excitement – some dogs shiver simply because they’re excited
  • stress or anxiety – your dog could be trembling in fear: many things can trigger anxiety
  • pain or illness – just like us, dogs can get shivers if they’re unwell: speak to your vet if you’re concerned.


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Understanding your dog’s behaviour

We hope this article has given you some pointers for understanding your dog’s body language and behaviour. Although we’ve outlined some of the most common behaviours and the possible reasons behind them, every animal is different. The best way of working out what your dog is saying is to take everything into account as a whole: the situation, your dog’s body language, and your dog’s personality. The same behaviour could mean different things, depending on the circumstances. If you’re ever in doubt or concerned about your dog’s behaviour, speak to your vet.

If you have a new puppy, it might take you a while to get to know them and recognise what different behaviours mean – as well as to train them. For a bit of help, check out our top tips on raising your puppy!

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