An Overview of Canine Body Language and the Importance of Reading Canine Body Language in Training

Publishing Author : Jay Gray
Date Published : 24/10/18

An Overview of Canine Body Language and the Importance of Reading Canine Body Language in Training

Author: Jay Gray


As verbal, language-based animals, we tend to pay less attention to body language than other animals which leaves us vulnerable to understanding body language of not only our own species, but other animals as well.  Dogs, on the other hand are body language-based creatures and thus, understand each other deeply in this area.  Beyond this, dogs will also communicate with us through their body language, but our lack of understanding in this area leaves the communication hanging in the air.  Dog bites that ‘came out of nowhere’ are almost always because the human in the picture was incapable of reading many prior warning signs the dog was giving.

Understanding very basic and fundamental canine body language is paramount for success in the canine training world and of course, kinesics goes far beyond the foundations and into much more complex scientific studies, but an overview is an important starting point.


Alert body language is fairly easy to spot in the Canine world and an important one to master.  Although not a comprehensive guide to Alert body language, the above diagram clearly shows this complete stance.  Dogs do not have to show all of these signs but can show two or three and still be classed as alert.  The eyes will be wide and generally locked onto something with an intense stare, the body will lean slightly forward towards the objective that the eyes are locking onto, the tail may stand taller than normal and have a short cadence wag from side to side.

Dogs with hyper alert body language can be prone to throwing negative behaviours immediately afterwards but of course the context of the situation needs to be considered.  If the dog is playing with a ball and is showing alert signs to the ball in the handler’s hand then this would be acceptable and expected, but if a dog is known to show reactive behaviours toward external stimuli and begins to show this kind of behaviour then this is a good indication that the behaviour is about to escalate further.  Seeing these symptoms early means a trainer can deal with them whilst the intensity is much lower, giving a considerably higher chance of success.

Fear or Fear Aggressive

Fear, or fear aggressive body language is another fundamental understanding needed by any canine professional.  Being able to spot these sings are one of the earliest preventative measures one can take in bite management.  As with the above, not all of the symptoms or signs have to be present to allow a confident analysis to take place.  The ears will usually be pinned to the head and obviously so.  They will not just be laid back but pushed hard onto the skull generally.  Although pupils dilated is a true indicator, a more important regard to the eyes would be ‘wale eye’ (where the dog shows the whites of its eyes either looking steeply up or steeply to the side and also fixation. Lips curling and teeth beginning to show is a sign that the dog will fight if needed and is considering forward action, especially if flight is not a readily available option in the scenario.  The tail being tucked right under the body generally indicates a higher level of fear and the body lowered with hackles raised further solidifies the diagnosis.

Fear needs addressing as soon as possible for the wellbeing of the humans involved, to prevent bites occurring and also the wellbeing of the dog.  Living in this state, regardless of causing factors is unhealthy for the dog and should definitely be addressed.  Again, the importance of this body language, much as the above, is catching a behaviour before escalation begins to occur therefore reducing the chances of more serious issues arising.


Nervous Aggressive

Nervous aggressive body language is much different to fear based aggression.  Nerve and fear need clear differentiating factors and psychologically the dog is going through very different behaviours and motions.  Nervous aggression is often displayed in dogs showing reactive behaviours and again, as above, needs addressing early to prevent escalation.  Lips curling will generally only happen if the dog is pushed further than the other signs but can occur at any time.  The forward leaning is important to this type of body language, because a fearful dog would generally not lean forward but a dog in nerve very well could.  It would depend on the severity of the nervous nature towards the external stimulus.  Bristled tail and hackles raised allows a dog to seem bigger than it is in the hope of making the external stimulus retreat instead of proceeding.  Nerve based dogs generally do not want a fight but will if it is the only option remaining. Understanding this allows one to understand why leads can make nervous reactivity worse when we essentially remove flight as an option for the dog.

When we begin to notice the early signs of these body language signals we can prepare, on the fly how to deal with them, again before they escalate further.  All three of these body language examples have been examples of behaviours that we want to extinguish as they progress, but this is not always the case.


Playful body language is quite the opposite to the examples above, and a sign of a happy, confident dog, enjoying whatever is going on around it.  The only external factor that needs considering with playful behaviour is how any other dogs around are responding to it.  If this behaviour is aimed at the handler, or a toy, then there are no problems but if this is aimed at another dog and the other dog is showing signs of nerve or stress then we need to interject to prevent problems occurring.


Dogs with playful body language will very often show the ‘play bow’ which is pictured left.  The play bow leaves the rear end in the air and the front end hunkered down towards the floor.  The tail will likely broadly wave in a fluid fashion and it may also be in the air rather than hanging low towards the floor.  The ears will likely be up and alert, the eyes will likely be fixed forward, and the mouth will likely be open with the tongue exposed.  Dogs panting during play is extremely common, but it is also can be seen in stress behaviours so looking at the entire picture remains vital in understanding.

Allowing a dog to show these body language signs and reinforcing them is exactly the counter argument of the above behaviours.  Reinforcing these behaviours and extinguishing other, more negative behaviours will tie in directly with Skinner’s studies of operant conditioning and the end goal for most dog owners.

Relaxed Approachable

Relaxed and approachable body language is the state of being that we expect dogs to be in for the majority of their lives.  This is the body language we are looking for under normal day to day circumstances.  A calm, relaxed, approachable dog that isn’t hyper aroused, nervous or stressed.

The ears will sit somewhat naturally, in the diagram they are up because of the dog’s breed but they will not stand up and forwards as they would in hyper alert behaviours.  The head can be high or dropped slightly if more relaxed or on the go, the mouth will very often be open with natural panting but again, not stress panting.  Stress panting is often very shallow and of a fast cadence, but it is important to look at other signs at the same time for an accurate diagnosis on the behaviour.  The tail will usually be down and relaxed unless the breed is one that tends to carry their tail up and over their bodies (Akita’s etc) and the stance will generally be loose and relaxed on all four feet.  In general, without even looking deep into relaxed body language, most people can recognise it as a normal, content dog.


Stress body language is the final state we will discuss in this paper and the most subjective of the bunch because stress can be shown in multiple ways.  This is the most common symptoms of a dog feeling stress but again, it is important to realise that there are many ways that this can be conveyed.  The body may often be lowered towards the ground, but this can be less noticeable than it is during fear responses, so it takes a careful eye to spot.  The ears will be back but again, not pinned as hard as in fear or nerve response, the pupils may be dilated, but being able to read this on the fly can be very difficult with the dog moving and the lack of knowledge about the size of the pupil previously.  Breathing is likely the biggest give away to spot stress responses and it will be shallow and rapid in cadence with the corner of the mouth likely pulled back.  The tail will hang lower than usual but not be tucked as it is during fear responses and sweating through the pads, although true is virtually immeasurable and therefore can usually be dismissed in real world application.


Canine Kinesics will be forever evolving as we begin to understand more about the behaviours and body postures of dogs and there are certainly far more comprehensive studies in Canine Kinesics, but an overview above will provide the basic information needed to begin understanding the phenomenon.

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