A guide to understanding dog behaviour and body language

by Kris Rollo

small white and black dog laying on grass

Although we’ve been around dogs for hundreds of years, understanding our canine friends can still be a challenging task. Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and deciphering their signals is key to building a strong and positive relationship.

In this article, we will explore some common signs related to dog behaviour, providing insights into their world, and helping us become better companions.

So what are some of the basic body language your dog might display?


Tail wagging

Contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail doesn't always mean a happy dog. The speed, height, and position of the tail convey different emotions. Of course, the natural position of hanging down behind their hind legs and no wagging means that your dog is likely relaxed. A high, fast wagging tail may indicate excitement or happiness, and could also mean unpredictability in your dog’s behaviour. A slow tail wag may signal unease, insecurity, or submission. This may be more common when inspecting new environments, things, or even animals that are new to them.


Tail position

A high, erect tail may indicate confidence, while a tucked tail signals fear or submission. Wagging, combined with other body language, provides insights into a dog's emotional state.


Ear positioning

When your dog is relaxed, their ears sit in a neutral position. Neutral position means that the ears are not facing forward, pointed down, or flat against the dog’s head. Up standing ears can generally suggest attentiveness, depending on the context. Pinned-back ears indicate fear, intrigue, or submission, while relaxed ears may signify a calm and content state.



Dilated pupils can signal excitement, fear, or aggression. Direct eye contact may be a challenge or a sign of confidence, while averted eyes can indicate submission or discomfort. A relaxed dog will often squint, so that his eyes become almond-shaped with no white showing at all.


Body posture

A dog standing tall with a straight posture might be asserting dominance or confidence. Whereas a lowered body and tucked tail usually signify submission or fear. A dog that is standing at full height, with their full weight on all paws will likely be confident and relaxed. And as dog lovers, when they’re rolling over and showing their belly, we all know that the dog wants some love and attention!



The pitch, frequency, and duration of barks can convey different messages.

Continuous barking may indicate anxiety or a need for attention, while sharp, rapid barks may signal excitement or alertness.



As they are unable to sweat, dogs pant to cool themselves. But panting can also be a sign of distress, such as from loud noises or fireworks being let off. Rapid panting accompanied by a tight mouth with stress wrinkles around it is one of the more obvious visual clues.



Whining can be a sign of distress, anxiety, or a desire for attention. Understanding the context and accompanying body language is crucial for accurate interpretation. There are many different ways your dog might whine about something. Pain or discomfort can cause a dog to whine, and this may happen after discomfort or pain that becomes worse over time. Often, your dog will whine when they want something; a toy under the sofa, or something from the plate of food you have. But it’s often wise to ignore this and not to give in to their demands, no matter how cute they look!



Growling is a warning sign that a dog feels threatened or uncomfortable. It's essential not to punish a dog for growling, as it's their way of communicating discomfort, and could cause them to show increased aggressiveness.


Yawning, lip, or paw licking

These subtle signs can indicate stress or discomfort in a dog. Recognising these cues can help prevent escalation into more overt signs of anxiety. Some dogs lick their paws on a daily basis to keep them clean, but if you observe continuous licking, there may be a problem. This can usually be a sign of a health problem. If you think your dog's paw licking is abnormal, the first step is to determine if there is a health issue or a potential allergy. Environmental allergies can often start when your dog is around two to four years old. Seasonal exposure to the allergens may be accompanied by an itchy face and rear.

When it comes to building a deeper connection, there are certain things to look out for including:


Consistent observation

Pay attention to your dog's behaviour in various situations to understand their baseline and recognise deviations. This way, you’ll be more aware to any changes to their behaviour which could need looking into.


Respect personal space

Allow dogs to approach you rather than forcing interaction. Be mindful of signs of discomfort and give them space when needed.


Positive reinforcement

Reward good behaviour to reinforce positive actions. This strengthens the bond between you and your dog and encourages desirable behaviour.


Understanding dog behaviour and body language is an ongoing process that requires patience, observation, and empathy. By recognizing the subtle cues our canine companions provide, we can create a harmonious relationship built on trust and communication. As responsible dog owners, it is our duty to invest time and effort into deciphering the language of our furry friends, ensuring a happy and fulfilling life for both humans and dogs alike.

When it comes to your dog’s behaviour, introducing them to new places can be a worry. The Doggy Styling staff are trained to create stress-free experiences when it comes to dog grooming in Surrey.

If you’d like to book your first, or your next, appointment with Doggy Styling visit us today at our Cobham dog grooming salon, our Weybridge dog grooming salon, or our Surbiton dog grooming salon.



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