A Dog’s Posture Two dogs playing together

Chrissie DeCesare

Body language is one of the ways your dog communicates with you. Body position, facial expression and tail movements are all clues your dog gives to convey what he may be thinking or feeling. Learning to interpret your dog’s body language will help you better understand your dog, increase communication, and help develop a stronger relationship. It is amazing how much a dog can express without ever uttering a sound!Below are some signs related to each type of body language. Your dog may not display all cues listed for each posture, but you will have a general idea of what the behaviors mean.

RELAXED POSTURE This posture is considered your baseline for all other displays of body language. A relaxed dog looks natural, just as you would when you’re relaxed. He is probably looking around and thinking, “It’s no big deal!”. Eyes relaxed and slowly blinking. Ears pricked (up) but not forward, or relaxed slightly (down and back). Mouth relaxed, maybe slightly open as if smiling

. Muscles do not appear tense

. Weight evenly distributed on all four feet

. Tail down and possibly has a slow wag


An alert dog has been stimulated by something interesting in his environment.He is standing at attention, ready to react depend- ing on what happens next. This does not mean your dog will react to whatever has his attention, and neither should you. It also does not mean the alert posture is only due to something negative in the environment. Your dog can feed off of your energy! Do not react until there is reason to do so.

. Eyes open wide, alert eye contact

. Ears perked and forward; ears may move back and forth as if intently listening

. Mouth closed

. Nose may flare or wiggle back and forth

. Tail pointing away from dog, sometimes straight up in the air

. Leans body slightly forward

. Stands tall on all four paws


The play bow invites others to play.Dogs may also use a play bow to communicate that any prior rough behavior was not intended to be threatening. Dogs may also assume this posture if they have done Something wrong, to let you know they meant no harm and really just wanted to play.

. Ears in an alert position

. Mouth may be open

. Slight grin, sometimes mischievous

. Front end lowered, hind end up

. Forepaws bent and extended

. Tail up, usually wagging

. May give a quick, sassy bark or give highpitched short barks


A dog displaying active submission behavior is offering signs of submission to a dog or person to avoid any additional threats or confrontations— a dog’s way of waving the white flag, if you will. The fearful dog has hopes the dog or individual causing the submissive behavior will retreat or show signs of friendliness.

. Ears back

. Indirect and brief eye contact

. Mouth is curled into a worried grin

. Licks mouth or face of dominant Dog, or licks the air

. May nudge dominant dog’s muzzle with own nose

. Raises one forepaw

. Body lowered, hind end low; some dogs look as if they are walking sideways

. Tail down and usually with a slight wag

. May whimper


A completely submissive dog is very afraid of a confrontation. He is signaling to the dominant dog or human absolute surrender, assuring that he is of no threat. This is the most vulnerable position for a dog.

. Ears flattened back

. Trying to avoid eye contact

. Mouth formed into a worried grin

. Rolls onto back exposing underbelly

. May raise one hind leg to expose groin area

. May do this in sitting or laying position

. Exposes throat

. Tail tucked between legs, may slightly wag

. May urinate or defecate

. May whimper

. Remains completely still if touched


This is a very threatening posture communicating confidence and dominance. Dogs in this posture are preparing to attack and, if pressed or confronted, will bite and will fight.

. Ears forward, lifted as high as possible

. Direct eye contact, fixed stare

. Corners of mouth and lips pushed forward (snarl)

. May curl upper lip, exposing some teeth with mouth mostly closed

. May curl upper lip exposing all teeth and gums

. Nose wrinkled

. Stands as tall as possible, while putting most of his weight on forepaws

. Hackles on neck and back raised

. Tail up high, stiff

. Hair bristled down tail or at tip

. May wag tail with short and fast wags

. May walk stiff-legged, as if stalking

. May warn with bark or low-pitched growl

. May snap or bite


Be very concerned about dogs in defensive threat posture. These dogs are showing signs of fear, or submission and aggression.Dogs displaying this behavior are afraid and may attack if pushed. You may have Heard the term “fear-biters” relating to this posture. People often read them wrong, thinking they are harmless because the dog is showing signs of submission. It is important to look beyond the facial expression and hone in on the dog’s posture. In general, less of the teeth show in this posture.Defensive threat is the most dangerous body posture of dogs.

. Ears flattened back against head

. Direct eye contact, fixed stare

. Eyes large and round

. Corners of mouth drawn back, lips slightly curled (similar to submissive grin)

. May slightly expose teeth

. Nose wrinkled

. Weight shifts to hind paws, as if thinking of retreating or feeling cornered

. Body is in a crouched position

. Hackles on neck and back raised

. Tail tucked

. Raises and lowers pitch of the growl

Originally published June 2011.