If Only They Could Talk, Part 2

The messages dogs send using their body language are layered and complex, which can make it difficult for us to understand them; however, being able to accurately interpret what a dog is try to say can help you keep your pet happy and healthy, as well as allowing you to gauge the emotions of all of the myriad dogs encountered daily in New York.

In the last post, we covered the individual sign dogs use to communicate, but we also discovered that reading each signal in isolation will not necessarily give a clear idea of what is happening. To see that, we need to understand the whole picture, from top to tail. Here are a few common emotional states dogs experience, and the typical signs that go with them.

Happy and Contented

A happy, contented dog will have relaxed, natural body language: tail and ears are neutral and she is not trying to look bigger or smaller than she actually is. Her tail may be wagging gently, her mouth relaxed (possibly slightly open) and the corners turned up a fraction.


An alert dog is intense and focused, standing upright and centered with ears up and forward and head and neck held high. Her tail will be either neutral or pricked up immobile. She will be looking towards whatever she is focused on, and her mouth is typically shut. She may growl or bark, depending on how she feels about the object of her attention, and her hackles may be slightly raised.


An excited dog shares a lot of the postures of an alert one, with the difference being one of relaxation: the tail is likely to be held high and her weight centered over her rear legs waiting to move forward, but body and face slightly less tense. Many dogs also bark out of excitement, and will typically hold their mouths open and be panting rhythmically.


When a dog is feeling playful she will tend to move and bounce a lot, using sinuous twists and leaps. She may paw at you, mouth, or run away inviting you to chase her. The play bow (forelegs extended on the ground, rear up in the air) is very important to recognize postures during play and bow is a way of saying that she isn't being serious and it's all in good fun! She may also have her mouth a little open (as though smiling) and growl or bark in excitement.


An aroused dog is one who is on the borderline between alert and either scared or aggressive, and as such will show many of the same behaviors as in the alert posture, except for hackles almost always being raised. Depending on her emotional state, she may also give signals from the scared or aggressive postures.


A submissive dog is trying to defuse a situation by saying that she is not a threat. In active submission, he will keep low to the ground with her tail tucked (sometimes wagging rapidly in this position). Her ears will be flattened or out to the sides of her head and although her neck is low to the ground her muzzle may be turned up towards the other dog or person. She may nuzzle, lick, or flick her tongue, and will avoid direct eye contact. Some dogs, especially puppies, will urinate as well.

Passive submission takes the form of her rolling onto her back and exposing her belly. She may lie still, or perhaps paw at the individual to whom she is submitting. Again, some dogs, especially puppies, will urinate in this position too.


A fearful dog will do her best to look small, often by hunching over, cowering to the floor and tucking both tail and ears as much as possible. Often, she will lean her body weight in the direction of escape, if there is one, or to the side to be able to dodge the threat. An exaggerated yawn is a common sign of stress, as is freezing up if there is nowhere to run, with muscles tense and rigid.


There are different types of aggression, with different signs to indicate them.

Fearful aggression happens when a dog is scared, and feels that there is no avenue for escape. Her body language will give all the fearful signals described above, but may include her showing her teeth or growling. Is she snaps or bites, it's usually very fast, followed by a swift retreat as far from the threat as she can. Some dogs may wait for the threat to begin to back off, and then nip at them from behind.

An offensively aggressive dog is feeling both angry and confident. She will try to look large, with head held high, ears up and tail raised stiffly (it may flag back and forth slightly), body weight forward ready to charge. Her hackles may be up, her muzzle wrinkled up to show her front teeth and she will probably be growling or barking in a low tone. She will stare at the object of her wrath, and may or may not stop aggressing if the individual she's focused on retreats; this will depend on exactly how aroused she is by them and by the situation.

A defensively aggressive dog is one who would rather avoid a fight but, at the same time, is perfectly prepared to defend herself if the threat doesn't back off and leave her alone. She is typically both angry and scared, so her body language will usually show a mix of these two postures: standing up tall to look big, with ears forward and tail held high, lips drawn back and muzzle possibly wrinkled. If she snarls or barks, it will usually be high-pitched

So remember: whenever you are interacting with dogs, make sure you're listening to what they have to say!