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Understanding Your Pet’s Body Language

You probably already have an idea of what your dog or cat is thinking. Cross-species communication has been key to the evolutionary success of dogs, humans and to lesser extent cats.

Some animals are expert communicators. If my dog is standing in front of me and looking me in the eyes, I know she wants to go out. If she is doing that and stamping her feet, she wants out NOW!

Despite these close bonds of communication, there are times animal instinct takes over, pets revert back to primal displays of body language and communication breaks down. Or perhaps you have a new pet, those bonds haven’t been established yet but you would still like to understand what your pet is feeling.

In this post, I cover some warning signs you should look out for when dealing with dogs and cats, this is a basic introduction and doesn’t make you an expert. Don’t read this post and feel like you have a license to start approaching every dog you see on the street.

Certain types of body language can be obvious, like growling or hissing, but those behaviors are a last resort and if you can learn to notice more subtle displays there will be less stress for you and your pet.

Dog Behavior

Loose, relaxed stance; head and ears up; tail down. This is the body language of a dog that is calm. Contrary to accepted belief a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is happy. There are situations, especially when a larger dog is trying to assert dominance, that tail wagging can occur but there is also a threat.

A slight change in body position to leaning forward; a stiff, straight tail; eyes clearly fixated. These are all signs that your dog is alert. Something has caught his or her interest. Depending on the situation this may be a good time to remove your dog.

From signs of interest and alertness, we move into displays of aggression, fear, and stress. These are indications of a volatile situation and steps should be taken to calm the dog or remove it.

Signs that your dog is experiencing negative emotions include: ears laying back, their tail is raised and stiff, the hairs on their back and shoulders are raised and bristling. If your dog is fearful but not ready to submit he or she will take a lower more prone stance, dropping their tail and head.

If a dog is fearful, distressed and showing signs of submission they will begin to pant rapidly and appear to lick the air or the face of whoever or whatever they are submitting to.


Cats, dogs, rabbits, and humans, every animal unknowingly communicates their moods and feelings through body language. By being able to read your pet’s temperament through its behavior you will be able to identify situations that make it uncomfortable and hopefully de-escalate the situation before someone gets hurt.