Home > Dog Behavior, Dog Park, Pet Safety > Dog Body Language – Test your skills (The results)

Dog Body Language – Test your skills (The results)

Dog’s communicate with us, and other dogs, through their bodies. A raised tail, a furrowed brow, a tongue lick – all of these are signals of something the dog is feeling or trying to reflect back to us.

Have you ever heard someone say that a dog made an unprovoked attack on a child, an adult, or another dog?  Would you believe me if I told you that in almost every single case the dog was already telling the human he was afraid or nervous or uncomfortable or threatened?

It’s true. In almost every case, a bite or attack could have been prevented if only the human had known what her dog was saying and removed him before trouble could begin.

Understanding dog body language not only helps you better understand your dog, but it also helps you to better meet his/her needs.

Yesterday, I shared a few pictures with you and asked you to make some observations of the dogs in the pictures, and what they were communicating, via their bodies. Today, I will share my own observations. I hope that you will keep me honest and call out anything I miss.

So here we go.

Picture 1: Lab and St. Bernard


Well hello big guy. #dogpark


Both dogs are approaching one another in an arc, something Nancy Freedman-Smith called out in her blog post Socialization Tips For Adult Dogs: A Tail Of Two Collies. This is a normal way for one dog to greet one another. Leashed dogs often cannot do this which is why problems can often pop up when two leashed dogs greet one another.

Lab (my dog, Daisy)

  • Lowered head (lower than her shoulders)
  • Body is leaning back, while her head is stretching forward
  • Eyes are looking at the other dog
  • Ears are way back and close to the head
  • Mouth is closed and pulled back slightly
  • Tail is down and may be tucked close to her body

The combination of the lowered head, with her body leaning away from the other dog, and ears being pulled back and resting close to her head, indicates that Daisy is nervous about the other dog. She is unsure of his intentions. By lowering her head as she approaches, Daisy is telling the other dog she means no harm. You’ll also notice that her mouth is closed and drawn tight and that her tail is down closer to her body, another sign that she is nervous or unsure.

St. Bernard

  • Head is also slightly lowered (lower than his shoulders)
  • Body is leaning forward and slightly leaning away from the Lab
  • Eyes are looking are facing the Lab, but unable to tell if the gaze is direct
  • Although it is hard to tell, it appears the ears are slightly forward and slightly erect.
  • Tail is up and curved slightly over his back

The combination of the St. Bernard’s curled tail, forward leaning body and ear position, indicate he is an extremely confident dog. He appears to be keenly focused on Daisy. The slight lean away from her is somewhat at odds with the rest of his body language, so I welcome anyone else’s thoughts on that one.


 Picture 2: Sheltie

Maggie gets this close for chicken. #sheltie #puppymilldog

The Sheltie is this picture is my foster dog, Maggie. She is  former puppy mill dog and still tentative with me (and others).

  • Maggie’s ears sit far back on her head and pulled close. They are pricked and alert.
  • Her head is tucked close to her neck
  • Her mouth is tightly closed and lips drawn tight, but if you look closely, you can see her tongue has flicked out
  • Her eyes are wide and round and dilated. Her eyebrows seem to be raised high on her head and there is a slight ridge just below her eye.
  • Although it is hard to tell, her body appears to be leaning away from my finger.

The position of Maggie’s ears along with her wide eyes, raised eyebrows, and drawn lips are all signs that Maggie is stressed, nervous and afraid. She clearly is uncomfortable. Her tongue is likely out because she was displaying lip-licking, which is an appeasement signal in dogs (i.e., her way of telling me she means no harm).  As my friend Nancy shared with me when saw this picture, Maggie is pressure sensitive. She wants the cheese I am offering, but she would probably feel more comfortable if I could offer it to her using a stick so she could take it from me at a distance that would feel much more comfortable to her. (If you are curious about pressure sensitive dogs, you can read You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure from the blog Eileen and Dogs.)

Picture 3: Husky

Husky says hello


This is a Husky from our local dog park.

  • Ears are pricked and forward
  • Mouth is open, tongue is hanging out and you can see some of her teeth
  • Body appears to be balanced on all four feet, but with a very slight lean forward on the front feet
  • Tail is relaxed, but in a  natural curl (for a Husky)

My guess is this dog is relaxed, but ready to play. The pricked and forward position of her ears indicate she is alert and watching what is going on across the field . The slightly forward lean could indicate that she is ready to jump into the mix, if the opportunity arises. The relaxed mouth indicates the dog is happy and relaxed.

Picture 4: Lab Mix and Shepherd Mix

Millie crashes. Big dog waits for her to get up again.


The black Lab mix in the photo is Millie, a dog friend of ours from the dog park. Millie loves a good game of chase. She has never played with this dog before the day this picture was taken.

Lab (Millie)

  • Ears are back far on her head and pulled close (her ears are pulled back so far that the distance between them on her head is very small)
  • Eyes are wide and round and show whites along the top (also known as “whale eye”)
  • Her tongue is hanging out and the corners of her mouth are pulled back
  • She the front paw is slightly raised
  • Her body does not appear to be relaxed, but that may be because she is about to spring up from her prone position.

Millie’s ears, eyes and body seem to indicate that she is nervous and unsure. She is likely feeling anxious about the dog standing above her. The raised front paw may be just an indication of her trying to get up, but it also could be an appeasement signal to the dog standing above her.

Shepherd Mix

  • Head appears lowered, but the its position is even with her body (maybe even slightly raised above her shoulders)
  • Eyes appear to be hard and focused and you can see the ridges of her eyebrows
  • Ears are pricked and up high on her head
  • Ridges are evident between her eyes and even between her ears
  • Mouth is open and tongue is visible, you can see ridges just back and above her mouth
  • Her body looks to be balanced (I cannot tell if she is leaning forward or back)

The wrinkles between the ears and the eyes on this dog are quite pronounced. These wrinkles, combined with the position of her ears, indicate she is annoyed. Her stare is also a form of intimidation and a warning that Millie should tread lightly.

Reading List: 

These next five are all by Ann Bernrose of Woof Work Blog:

  1. January 27, 2015 at 7:16 AM

    Great post and insight into these dogs. I agree with your assessments although at first look, I thought the last one was just caught in mid-play, so it didn’t seem as concerning. With Maggie – I know that look all too well and plan to read up on that body pressure. I sometimes have to leave things on the floor and walk away before Maggie will take them. Our kitchen has an island and that’s a sore spot for her – never wants to get caught behind the island.

    • Mel
      January 27, 2015 at 8:29 PM

      Thanks SlimDoggy! I am glad you enjoyed it. The last one was a somewhat mid-play, but escalated as the older dog got irritated with Millie (the Lab). We ended up having to intervene.

      It’s so funny, but when I was writing that piece on “pressure sensitive” Maggie I was thinking of your Maggie and wondering if she also displayed that type of sensitivity. It’s pretty common with unsocialized dogs, like puppy mill dogs. So understand the island thing. She probably feels like she doesn’t have an escape route there. Close quarters too.

  2. January 27, 2015 at 1:12 PM

    I loved this series of photos- and thought your observations were very spot on.

    I do think the St. Bernard in the top photo is quite confident of himself, and that slight lean forward indicates to me that he’s prepared to snap should the lab move quickly. I’ve noticed this with large breed dogs- they can become somewhat controlling during a meet and greet because they do not spin or move as quickly as some of the other dogs. I’ve often wondered if they try to intimidate the smaller breeds into holding still long enough for a good sniff?

    I also think the black puppy in the bottom photo has more of a ‘goofy’ look than scared. Almost like she’s catching her breath before they get back to playing- the dog above her looks intense but more like he’s excited for her to get up to resume the game to me?

    Just my thoughts! Loved reading yours

    • Mel
      January 27, 2015 at 8:20 PM

      Thanks Kaitlin. I appreciate your thoughts on the St. Bernard and think you and I are in agreement on the lean forward. I agree that the black Lab could have been just being goofy, but I have to confess that I had watched this interaction for quote some time and had already seen it escalate as the Shepherd was annoyed with the Lab’s antics. Millie (the Lab) got quite nervous before we intervened.

  3. January 27, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    Some things I recognized and agreed with your assessments, but I also learned some things I didn’t know too. I thought lip licking was just a sign of nervousness, not appeasement, and I didn’t recognize the signals from the shepherd mix at all. Great posts!

    • Mel
      January 27, 2015 at 8:26 PM

      Thanks Jan! Yes. Lip-licking is both a sign of nervousness and a signal of appeasement (“I mean no harm.”). So you were right on! I had a trainer double-check my work just in case. 🙂

  4. Cascadian Nomads
    January 27, 2015 at 2:51 PM

    My guess is the St. Bernarards slight lean away from the lab is that he is reading her nervous signals and believes she may snap at him (as I do when I look at the photo!) Yet, as observed, he is confident and focused enough to still give treating the lab a try. I would guess that if he managed to gently appease her, they became friends and had a fun romp! I have to tread lightly with language similar to the labs with my corgi- sometimes when a dog really wants to play with him and moves slowly, my corgis body changes quickly into a submissive play stance (ears less tightly back and a slight bow) or his whiskers peel back and he snaps! Fortunately contact (biting) is not his intention (cattle herding dogs use fake snaps to move those big cows feet without injuring them) but I fear the other dog may not know that as well as the humans. I try to intervene before my corgi feels the need to snap but I also wait a little so as not to break up what could be a beautiful friendship!

    In my own dogs, I have noticed a difference in how they lick their lips in regards to whether it is nervous licking or appeasement licking. I have always hoped someday there would be a study on the lip licking simular to the one in tail wagging. I truly believe that the sides of the lips, how much the tongue comes out, tongue up or down (licking the nose or the chin) are very significant dog mood signals.

    • Mel
      January 27, 2015 at 8:25 PM

      Interesting take on the lean back. I think it may have just been a swerve and the lean forward is the part that is worth noting. But, I could be wrong. The Lab is my Daisy and unlikely to snap. She is timid and tolerates the rudest of dog behavior sometimes. I can relate to keeping an eye on your Corgi. I have the same issue of wanting to intervene with Jasper. He air snaps too. He absolutely hates dogs who invade his space, especially puppies, so I try to keep him busy and away from dogs that I know will likely irritate him. Could it be that the air snapping is just a Corgi behavior? Jasper’s best friend used to be Henry, who was a Corgi mix. He was the same way. He loved the chase and snapping at a dog’s heels. 🙂

      Love your thoughts on lip-licking! I would love to see a study on that!

  5. January 29, 2015 at 7:23 PM

    This is a great post! I love observing body language in dogs. I often wish I had a video camera with me all the time because meetings between dogs sometimes happen so fast that it’s hard to manage your dog, analyze body language and greet another dog owner at the same time. Fascinating topic! Sharing 🙂

  1. January 27, 2015 at 6:35 AM

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