Decoding Doggy Talk: A Parents Guide to Canine Behavior and Body Language

Canine Behavior and Body Language. Understanding the body language of dogs.
My daughter Elizabeth used to come into work with me when I worked at a dog daycare. Her and Maddie the Doodle were just taking an afternoon break.

I have not only joined Military Mom Collective as a mother and a military spouse, but I am also a Veterinary nurse. We were called vet techs, but my schooling and experience are the same as an RN in the human side of medicine, so I say nurse because people tend to understand that better. I not only was a nurse anesthetist, x-ray tech, laboratory tech, shot giver, IV specialist, nose booper, cuddle giver, and poo and pee picker upper, but a huge part of my job was also education of the clients. Dog body language is one thing that I educated about on a regular basis.

I no longer work in that field because, well, being a mom and the Army spouse life changed that. I still have a head full of things that can use my college education and years of experience. I also used to teach a weekly online class to kiddos about canine behavior and body language for a couple of years. Teaching kids about how to properly interact with dogs is very important because a little understanding can go a long way. Let’s be frank, it’s downright dangerous in some situations for a kid that does not know the proper way to act around dogs. I know firsthand how dangerous animals can get if not approached properly as I did it daily for a job and the dogs were not always happy to see us.

According to the CDC, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year and roughly 800,000 of those bites need to receive medical care. Simply put, a large chunk of those bites are easily prevented, and education is the key not only for adults, but it’s almost more important to educate children. Since children are smaller and tend to be more curious, teaching them about canine body language helps them to grow up with a healthy respect of canine boundaries.

Dogs are body language masters; they can actually read human body language better than humans can.

Dog behavior and body language
This is Bo, He was probably reading my body language from the other side of the wall. I took this picture at the doggie daycare I used to work at.


A Tiny Anatomy and Physiology lesson

Let’s start with a teeny tiny anatomy and physiology lesson… I will make it as painless as possible! It all starts with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and its activation of the fight or flight response. This is an extensive network of nerve cells that regulate some involuntary responses, meaning physiological responses a dog can’t help. When the SNS is activated, it sends a cascade of reactions from all the organ systems in the body, which prepare the dog to deal with an emergency.

What happens in the body during fight or flight?

Increased heart rate
the tubes that lead to the lungs dilate
Pupils dilate
Possible emptying of the bowels and bladder

In fact, the human fight or flight response reacts in the exact same way. When something scares the daylights out of you, remember how that feels. A dog’s “fight or flight” response is no different. These are super important points to bring up to your child. “If someone jumps out behind you and scares you, how does that make you feel? Dogs feel the same way if you sneak up on them or scare them.”

Look at 4 parts of the dog’s body in this order: Ears, Eyes, Mouth, Tail.


If the dog’s ears are pinned back and tense against their head, beware. This sign tells us that the dog is uncomfortable.

Canine Body Language ears
This little guy I took a picture of at an animal shelter. His little ears are pinned back because he feels very uneasy.


If the eyes are wide open and the pupils are very dilated, that is not good. If the dog is giving you a look out of the corner of their eye showing a large portion of the whites and they are cowering down and they are afraid, this is called the Whale eye.

Whale Eyes in a dog
I took this photo at the animal shelter when I was volunteering to take pictures to get dogs adopted out. This little girl was feeling very uncomfortable and she is showing the whale eye perfectly.


Heavy panting (this can be due to heat, too, which means they need water and some shade). Constant heavy panting is how dogs deal with pain. If a dog is in pain they can be very grouchy. If your dog starts to pant more than normal, it may be time to take them into the vet. Yawning, excessive licking of the nose and lips, excessive drooling, and believe it or not, sneezing can be “calming signals.” If the mouth is closed tight and the corners of the mouth are pushed forward and tense, they feel threatened and could turn very aggressive. This usually turns into the muzzle being wrinkled, curled up and showing teeth and this is usually accompanied by a growl. If a dog gets to this point, do not engage and get an adult.

Yawning dog for canine behavior and body language
Took the picture of this little Chihuahua at an adoption event and he was defiantly a little stressed out! with yawning and stretching


A tail tucked far underneath the body is a fearful dog and fearful dogs will bite. If the tail is straight up and very stiff or wagging very fast, the dog may be signaling for you to leave them alone. Making a wagging tail not always a good indicator especially if the wag is tense and fast. Of course, not all dogs have a nice long tail too! On some dogs from the base of the tail all the way up the spine, their hair can stand on edge like a mohawk called raising their hackles. This means the dog is feeling afraid or aggressive. Stay away!!

Dog body language Tail
A Picture of my chihuahua Athena. Her tail is straight up in the air because she is alert and paying close attention to something.

Here is a good video to show your kiddo on body language to look out for.  

Calming Signals In Dogs

When dogs are stressed out and feeling a little pressure, they have what is called “calming signals”. These little things that a dog does are to shake off the stress. Not all stress is bad stress, though! When a dog is learning new tricks, they can also be seen using calming signals because learning new things can be stressful- just like it can be for us! I don’t know about you, but I am good at sighing and being all dramatic with it and I would consider that a calming signal for me especially in traffic. If calming signals are ignored, however, the situation can escalate into something more serious. Teach your kiddos to calm down and relax when a dog starts to show some of these signals. These signals are dogs trying to de-escalate the situation before they go over the edge. Dogs do these things to each other, so they don’t get into a fight as well.

A few Calming Signals to look out for

Yawning is the biggest one.
Giving a big full-body shake
Licking the nose excessively
Raising up one paw taking a pause (if the dog is a pointer they could actually be pointing)
Them turning away and walking away from the situation.
Walking slowly towards you while cowering
Lowering their body to look smaller.

Dog Eye Contact

Dog eye contact
I took this picture while working at the doggie daycare. This is Jessi and she made eye contact with my camera but only because I was making crazy noises and she wanted to know what the weird thing on my face was.

Eye Contact is a big topic, so it gets a paragraph of its own. Us humans view eye contact as a polite way to show interest. Dogs, however, see this as a sign of dominance and aggression. Never stare a dog down or put your face in their face because that is a very fast way to get bit. Two dogs will rarely make prolonged eye contact with one another because it’s threatening and rude. When I worked with dogs that were extremely fearful I would actually approach them with my head slightly to the side and my eyes averted so I would seem less threatening.

In a nutshell, never approach a dog you don’t know and ask the owner of a dog before you pet their dog if it’s ok. If the owner says no, there is a good reason. If your own dog is showing signs of stress, don’t push them because even the sweetest of dogs can be pushed too far. I also suggest not leaving a child alone with any animal until you know they can understand how to interact with an animal properly. A large dog can do a lot of damage or even kill someone so please have a good respect of what they can do if scared or threatened. Animals are going to be animals and kids are going to be kids, but adult humans should know better and make sure all parties are comfortable.

For a great blog here on Military Mom Collective check out  dos and don’ts PCSing with pets to read up on moving with your furry family members.


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Nicole Cowan
Nicole Cowan, or Nikki to those that know her well, is an active-duty Army spouse for nearly 17 years and a mom of a teenage daughter Elizabeth, as well as a 5-pound Chihuahua named Athena. Nicole and her husband Matthew are high school sweethearts and have been together since 1998. Recognizing the challenges of maintaining stability in education amidst the military lifestyle, Nicole homeschools her daughter. She is a huge homeschool advocate and believes that it is important for parents to have that option. With a background in veterinary nursing, Nicole's love for animals runs deep. Although she no longer works in the field, she still tries to find ways to put her time in the veterinary field to use by answering any questions people might have. She believes that educating the public about animals is crucial for fostering a better understanding. Originally from Fort Collins, Colorado, Nicole's heart belongs to the mountains. Nature has always been her inspiration. She used to have her own photography business, specializing in lifestyle photography of children and animals, as well as macro nature photography. Although she no longer does photography as a business, she still is very much a photographer and does it for fun now. Animals, nature, and kiddos are still her favorites to photograph. Nicole is currently the owner of Sweetellabella (a nickname she has for her daughter) where she makes jewelry and other fun gifts all inspired by nature for the lover of flora and fauna. She has a booth in 3 Painted Tree locations in Virginia and in Arizona. She also has her work on her own website and sells on a platform named Spouse-ly where all the vendors are military, and first responder affiliated. When she's not working on her creative projects, Nicole enjoys spending time with her family. One of their favorite pastimes is exploring antique stores on the weekends.


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