While dogs sometimes communicate vocally, as anyone who’s experienced a puppy’s first night at home will know, they rely far more on body language to get their feelings across.
Here are some key signs you can look for to gauge your dog’s mood. Remember, though, dogs will often show a combination of body language signals, so try to read the whole picture. Context is crucial, too. If your dog growls and bears their teeth at a stranger, that’s bad. If they do it during a game of tug, they’re having a fine time.
Versions of the phrase ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’ are well known, and it definitely applies to pooches. Dogs’ eyes are a great indicator of their mood.
If their eyes are ‘soft’—so relaxed lids, slightly dopey looking or like they’re squinting—then they’re probably calm or happy. However, a ‘hard’ stare (think of the look they give when resource guarding or meet a dog they don’t like), particularly if it’s aimed at something or someone for an extended period, suggests they feel threatened.
Another negative sign is ‘whale eye’—when a dog shows you the whites of its eyes. This indicates anxiety or stress. You’ll see it when you do something your dog doesn’t like.
Eye contact is also a great indicator of your dog’s mood. Research suggests that pups and people actually get a boost in oxytocin, a bonding hormone, from prolonged eye contact—similar to that between a parent and child. However, a dog deliberately averting their eyes is almost certainly feeling anxious.
We have a whole article on the truth about dogs’ tails but in short, despite common belief, a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog.
A wag is an indicator of arousal, positive or negative. It can mean different things depending on things like speed, angle and even direction (some studies have suggested that a tail wagging left is a happy sign and wagging to the right an unhappy one, but good luck spotting the difference!).
A more obvious sign you can look for is the tail’s position. The rule of thumb is, the higher it is, the more assertive the dog is feeling. So, if it’s tucked between their legs, they’re almost feeling stressed or threatened. But a stiff, upright tail, possibly with a slight wag, can be a sign of aggression.
A dog’s body shape is an excellent indicator of a dog’s mood. How they position their limbs and torso is a real tell-tale sign of happiness, anxiety, fear, aggression or whether they’re in the mood to play.
A happy dog might sit and look noticeably relaxed, possibly with its mouth open. If it’s standing, weight will be distributed evenly on all four legs, again with an open and relaxed mouth, attentive face, and probably a swishing tail-wag. And you’ll probably know the ‘play bow’, when your pooch lowers their head into a ‘downward dog’ position, forelegs stretched out, backside in the air and a hopeful look on their face—a sure sign that they’re in the mood for fun.
There are negative signs, too. If a dog is frightened or worried when lying down, they will be noticeably unrelaxed, and might turn their back or head away, avoiding eye contact. Standing, their whole posture will be lower, with tail tucked and ears back. You’ll also get some of these signs when they’re sat, and they might also lift a front paw.
If a dog is extremely worried, it can lead to aggressive or defensive behavior. This could be a tense, upright and slightly forward-leaning stance. It could be cowering, back turned, tail tucked and ears back. Or it could be stood with weight back and head tilted upwards.
You should also look for a dog’s heckles being up—this is when the hair is raised along their spine and means that they’re on high alert. Although this is a lot easier to spot on a short-haired breed than a bundle of fluff.
And finally, you’ll see your dog ‘shaking off’ even when they’re not wet. It’s basically a way of releasing tension and will usually happen after they’ve been really excited or stressed. Maybe they were being well-behaved when wary or just had a big old play with another dog. It’s nothing to worry about unless they’re doing it excessively.
Dogs may not be able to speak as such, but they can certainly get a message across with their mouths.
A very unhappy or frightened dog might bear their teeth, tighten their lips and growl (though, as mentioned above, this can be a feature of play). If your dog is stressed, it’s common for them to lick their lips or ‘fake yawn’ – but again, read the situation, they might just be tired or have the remnants of a particularly delicious meal on their face.
A happy dog will often have their mouth slightly open (you know that very cute, slightly dopey look). They might also have their tongue out, but make sure you don’t confuse this with them being hot or thirsty.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, some dogs can smile, though you kind of have to know your dog because the signs – like having teeth on show – are also signals of aggression or fear. But if they look relaxed in their body, they’re probably giving you a big cheesy grin.