Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language: Why it Matters

understanding your dog's body language

Dogs Use Non-Verbal Communication, Just like Humans

Dogs speak to us all the time. Just like much of human communication is non-verbal, so too is canine behavior non-barking. Sometimes, however, we just don’t know how to understand what they are. saying. But, the more we understand our dog’s body language and what they are actually trying to communicate to us, the more successful we will be in training and preventing problem behaviors. 

Because our dogs are so cute and part of the family, I think we just forget sometimes that they are a completely different species than us. This means they have their own way of communicating their emotional and psychological needs. Barking and tail wagging are just a couple of communication methods with which most of us are familiar. 

Dogs are Smarter than we Think

Dogs can actually understand many words in our language. As a matter of fact, according to The American Physiological Association, dogs can understand more than 150 words. Dogs have a lot more brainpower than other animals. The human and dog brain do indeed have some similarities, although dogs need our guidance when it comes to communication due to the size of their cerebral cortex. Dr. Gregory Berns, a Neuroscientist breaks it down for us in his book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain

According to a 2015 study involving MRI testing on dogs, humans and dogs have similar hormones and chemical changes in the brain. We know through research and studies that dogs do indeed have feelings and can express emotions such as happiness, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. 

No one body language sign by itself can be relied upon for us to fully understand a dog’s body language and what they’re saying. You must pay attention to the ENTIRE body and see what it is doing in order to understand it better. A wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly, and barking/vocalizations do not always mean a dog is upset or aggressive. 

All dogs do not exhibit signals the same. Some are very obvious, some are very subtle. It can take a lot of time and experience to become skilled in reading different dogs and understanding what they are communicating. 

6 Signals for Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Here are 6 Signals in dog body language that we like our students to be familiar with at Wag n Tails. Learning these basic signals helps us to identify and become more aware of the message the dog is sending. 

  1. Stress or Arousal
  2. Calming or Appeasement
  3. Distance increasing signals
  4. Distance decreasing signals
  5. Displacement behavior
  6. Appropriate play behavior

Some dogs do not exhibit certain signals at all. Just like humans, dogs can have a lack of socialization or social skills! Some dogs are great communicators, and others just are not. 

No Two Dogs are the Same

Often, you might need to learn the quirks of their “language” when trying to understand new dogs. Just like humans, no two dogs are the same. For example, you might encounter a very patient dog who uses all of the distance-increasing signals to warn you to back off. Yet another dog might not give any signals until you are touching them, then suddenly freeze and bite without giving an obvious growl warning. The main idea here is to always be aware and mindful of your behavior, a dog’s behavior, and what’s going on in the surroundings. 

Learning how to identify the language and reading the messages sent before the dog becomes upset is the key! Your timing is critical to your success. It’s up to us to take the time to calmly identify and read what a dog is saying and to respect the message being sent. It’s easy for us to say that a dog is just pulling on the leash or barking at a neighbor dog, but wouldn’t it be nice to know by reading their body language the reason they are pulling or barking and to read the message well before it’s too late? Most times we can manage problem behaviors by reading body language. 

To me, that’s what patient guidance and true “dog training” is all about. Reading and listening to the dog’s message being communicated creates an irreplaceable bond based on trust and understanding. We can learn how to “listen” better if we have the skills to identify and read our dog’s body language.


About Wag n Tails Seminars

We offer seminars on a variety of topics from basic obedience to understanding how your dog learns and responds to cues. We also discuss how to properly use positive reinforcement in dog training and how to be consistent with rewards.

Our seminars are interactive and informative with plenty of hands-on activities. We discuss different dog behaviors and how to structure training around them. We also talk about how to deal with specific issues such as dog nutrition, your dog’s body language, enrichment, treat retreat, barking, aggression, and much more! 

Learn more here.

Picture of Christine Fox

Christine Fox

Leave a Reply

Download a Free Guide

The Mindful Way

Take the steps you need to follow to teach your dog the mindful way.


Group Classes are back in session – rebooted and better than ever. Our group classes are designed to tackle the COVID-related needs of modern pet parents. We address a variety of topics in a casual and fun group setting, including:

And so much more!

Group Seminars returning in the Spring. Inquire for early access.