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Puppy Body Language: Understanding Puppy Communication

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Understanding puppy body language is crucial to having a great relationship with your pup.

Puppies communicate with us and each other all the time. We just need to understand what they’re communicating. 

Your puppy can let you know when he’s being playful, anxious, scared, deferential, or dominant by what he exhibits by his body language.

Puppy body language is shown by his facial expressions and various body postures.

Puppy Body Language - Golden puppy looking up

But remember: no one facial expression or body posture alone demonstrates how your puppy really feels. 

You need to read the whole picture–as well as any vocalizations and the situation–to determine what he’s trying to tell you.

When my Aussie mix Millie was a puppy, she would engage in many behaviors when she wanted to play with the other dogs in the household. 

When she wanted to play with the smallest dog, Lhasa apso Ralphie, she demonstrated more submissive body language. She lied down and rolled on her back. 

By doing this, Ralphie would play “bitey face” with her. 

But if she stood over him and was rough, he wouldn’t play. She understood that–and he understood if she rolled on her back, she would play more gently,

In this article, I’ll discuss why it’s so important to read your dog’s body language. And I’ll describe what various body positions and facial expressions mean.

But keep in mind that you have to look at the whole picture. No one body signal is definitive of a puppy’s state of mind.

Why It’s Important To Read Your Puppy’s Body Language

Puppies communicate with their body language and vocalizations. In order to truly understand what your puppy is feeling and is attempting to communicate, It’s important to be aware of what it all means.

Understanding what he’s trying to convey will help you to train him and to help with any behavior issues. You’ll also know when you should play with him or when to end play.

And, of course, knowing what he means will further your bond with your furry bundle.

You’ll also determine whether he’s fearful or happy with an event, person, or animal. And you’ll then be able to take appropriate action in accordance with how your puppy feels.

So understanding what your puppy’s conveying with his body language can help in his socialization program as well as any necessary behavior management.

Always take aggressive or fearful body language seriously or a bite may occur. 

Most young puppies who are a few months old are not aggressive to the point that a bite will occur. Instead, most teeth put on our skin is due to mouthing or learning bite inhibition. 

However, as a dog becomes an older puppy or adolescent, he may be more likely to present aggression depending on his genetic makeup and life experiences. 

Years ago, there was a young mixed breed puppy in a class taught by a colleague. Because I had more experience working with behavioral issues, I was called in to assess the puppy. 

Unfortunately, the puppy was only about four months old and truly aggressive. 

He lunged, baring teeth, with a deep-throated growl. The whites of the puppy’s eyes showed and he would freeze just before he tried to attack. 

I’ll discuss below what each of these body postures mean.

Some behaviors may be managed, but temperament cannot be changed. I recommended that the owner work with a behavioral veterinarian.

It’s also important to know what your puppy is attempting to convey with his body language because stress and anxiety can also affect his physical health.

Puppy Body Language: What Do Various Positions and Expressions Mean

As I discussed above, no one position or expression determines what a puppy is trying to convey. You have to look at the entire picture. 

But as you get to know your puppy better, the information in this article will help with your quest to find out what he’s attempting to communicate.

I’m going to set forth what various body motions and positions mean in and of themselves. Then I’ll give some examples of how to read some signs together.

Tail Set and Motion

As far as reading what a dog’s tail position and motion mean, you have to take into account what his natural tail set is. 

For example, a shih tzu or Lhasa apso naturally carries a tail high, curled over his back. This is expected. It doesn’t mean that he’s trying to be dominant or assertive. 

Similarly, a golden retriever’s natural tail set is low and lays flat against his rear and back legs with a slight curve. So, his tail being low doesn’t convey fear or stress in that position. 

But remember that the whole dog’s body language must be assessed to determine his state of mind.

It’s also important to not suppress the puppy’s behavior when he’s naturally conveying information. 

If a deep-throated growl or dominant body language is suppressed, a bite may occur. And it may seem to come out of nowhere

The following are examples of what a tail set and motion mean:

  • Tail wagging means that a dog is emotionally aroused and can mean excitement or frustration
  • Wide, slower wag means the dog is happy
  • Wagging more to the right means an even happier dog
  • Tail wagging in a circular, spinning motion means that the dog is happy
  • The higher the tail is held means that the dog is being more assertive
  • The tail held high can indicate confidence or even aggression
  • The tail held high and with a sharp quick motion can indicate an aggressive intent
  • The tail tucked between the dog’s rear legs indicates that the dog is fearful or stressed
  • A relaxed tail in normal breed set means that the dog is relaxed

Body Position and Posture

The puppy’s weight distribution can also tell you something about his state of mind and mood. These include the following:

  • Cowering or hunched body posture (trying to appear smaller) indicates that the puppy is fearful or stressed
  • Rolling on his back and exposing his belly indicates submission and he’s telling the person or canine that he means no harm
  • Rolling on his back may mean that the puppy is considerably stressed and anxious
  • Rolling on his back and urinating is a sign of appeasement
  • The puppy’s weight shifted forward may indicate that he wants to get closer to something
  • The puppy’s weight shifted forward (trying to appear larger) may indicate an offensive intention (especially if accompanied by other aggressive body language)
  • A play bow in which the puppy’s front end is lowered and rear end remains high indicates that he wants to play
  • Wiggly body language indicates playfulness
  • Freezing in place with a tense body can indicate fear and can precede aggression
  • Urinating when approached or stared at can be a sign of excitement or submission
  • A raised paw can be pointing behavior in some hunting dogs like an English setter
  • A raised paw can mean that a puppy is uncertain about a situation and may be insecure
  • A puppy pawing at you may mean he wants to play or tell you something
  • Drooling can be an indication of excitement when a puppy wants something such as to eat or can indicate that the puppy is stressed
  • Puppy looming over another dog with head, paws or chin over a subordinate pup expresses dominance
  • Crouching low can indicate fear, insecurity, or submission (he’s trying to appear smaller)
  • Exaggerated play behaviors like play bows or nose bump and retreat are pretend aggression and indicate that the puppy’s not really being aggressive (he’s communicating that he’s “just kidding”)
  • Snarling while full body wiggles and with a play bow is play behavior
  • A deep-throated growl while accompanied by anxious or aggressive body language can mean a bite is imminent
  • Shaking off as if trying to dry himself when wet means that the puppy’s attempting to decrease anxiety after a stressful event (it’s resetting an interaction)
  • A head that’s tilted to one side usually means that the puppy’s curious about something
  • Trembling generally means that a puppy’s scared or fearful of something 

The Hair of the Puppy 

Even the puppy’s hair and skin can help you to determine his emotional state. The following are involuntary behaviors:

  • When the hair on the back of the puppy’s back is raised (raised hackles and called piloerection), it can indicate that he’s upset or stressed or even that he’s excited or intensely interested in something
  • Dandruff suddenly appearing on the puppy can indicate that he’s stressed or anxious
  • Pads that leave wet footprints that aren’t temperature-related are an indication of stress
  • A furrowed, wrinkled brow or tight facial muscles indicate that the puppy’s worried or stressed

Facial Expressions: The Mouth

Just as you want to take into account the above body postures and expressions, you also should take into account the puppy’s facial expression when determining his emotional state.

When we smile, people can tell that we’re probably happy. When we wrinkle our brow, it can indicate that we’re confused or disapprove of something. 

Really observing your puppy’s facial expressions can also help you “read” his state of mind. These include the following:

  • Yawning can mean that the puppy is trying to calm himself or others (as with us, a yawn is “contagious”)
  • Lip licking if not after a meal can mean that the puppy’s anxious
  • A tongue flick indicates discomfort with a situation
  • “Smiling” with skin pulled back on lips exposing teeth (showing the puppy’s “weapons”) can mean an aggressive intent, especially if accompanied by a growl
  • “Smiling” when exposing some teeth can be a submissive grin especially if accompanied by loose, wiggly body language indicates a peaceful intent
  • A partially opened mouth with a relaxed tongue sticking out indicates a relaxed and happy state
  • Pulling the lips back especially when a puppy’s nipping indicates an over-aroused state
  • Panting can indicate that the puppy’s stressed or anxious if not related to his attempting to cool off
  • Drooling means that a puppy is stressed (assuming he doesn’t see his meal orr a treat that he desires)
  • Chattering teeth generally means that a puppy’s excited or stressed by something

Facial Expressions: The Eyes Have It

Just as people can have “smiling eyes” or a suspicious squint, the puppy’s eyes are windows to his soul. 

A puppy’s stare can be hard or soft. I’m sure that you’ve seen a puppy who’s playful has the soft stare. 

However, a dog with a defensive stance would stare with a “hard eye.” Things to look for include the following:

  • Soft eyes have a relaxed lid almost like they’re sleepy, indicating a calm, happy puppy
  • Hard eyes have a cold, intent, unblinking stare for a while indicating a negative state of mind (often accompanied by “freezing” body language)
  • Eyes looking away and averting eye contact can be an attempt to defuse or calm a situation
  • The whites of a puppy’s eyes showing (called a “whale eye”) is a sign of anxiety or stress
  • Excessive blinking can be a signal of stress and is used to let you know that he means no harm (an appeasement signal)

Facial Expression: The Ears Hear You

Of course a puppy’s ears help him navigate the world as he reacts to the sounds around him. But they also can indicate his emotional state. These include the following motions to look for:

  • Pinned back ears indicate that a puppy’s nervous or unsure but can indicate that he’s relaxed and submissive if accompanied by a happily wagging tail and wiggly body language
  • Ears pulled forward especially in dogs like shepherds with prick ears can indicate alertness or even aggression depending on the pup’s other body language

How To Help a Fearful, Stressed Puppy

If you determine that your puppy’s stressed by or fearful of a person, animal, or event, there are steps you can take to help him. 

Although you need to socialize your puppy to new beings and events, it’s also important to not rush the process. 

Each puppy moves at his own pace. Even within the same breed, they’re individuals. 

My sheltie Amber loved everyone and everything when she was a puppy. She readily wanted to greet and be petted by everyone and noises didn’t bother her. 

But when my sheltie Gracie was a puppy, I had to take her introductions to new people and situations much more slowly. 

She was more standoffish as shelties can be and somewhat noise reactive. 

With careful socialization, each made great progress. And they both turned out to be sweet, intelligent, social adults. 

But it was in Amber’s genetic makeup to be naturally more receptive to new people and situations.

So, when socializing your puppy, introduce him to new situations at his own pace. Don’t rush the process. You have his whole life to progress.

When introducing your puppy to new situations, people, or animals, don’t force the interaction. If he’s reticent or fearful, add distance from the scary event or being.

If being five feet away is too close, then go as far as you need to for him to feel safe. 

Distance really matters regarding how confident or stressed your puppy will be regarding new things.

Dogs also read our body language and the tone of your voice. So, if you see that your puppy is scared, try not to tense up. 

If you’re tense, your puppy will be too. Use a happy voice and act like the feared event or being is no big deal. 

And don’t tighten the leash. A tight leash can convey to your pup that something’s wrong.

If you need help, seek assistance from a qualified behaviorist or positive reinforcement trainer.

What To Do About “Puppy Tantrums”

Did you ever see a puppy who won’t settle down? It’s not a pretty sight. 

It’s like a tornado rushing around nipping and barking. This is worse than normal puppy zoomies to burn off energy. 

Instead, the puppy becomes destructive and almost seems like a toddler having a tantrum.

This often occurs when a puppy becomes too tired. So, before he becomes overly tired, help him calm down before he has a full-blown melt-down. 

If you see him becoming too excited and starting to become unruly, end the play. Take him on a potty break, as he may become unruly when he has to go to the bathroom. 

Teach him to settle down on cue. 

Just like a toddler may misbehave when overly tired and need a nap, so too can your puppy. He may need a nap in his crate or exercise pen. 

But remember: don’t ever use his crate or exercise pen as punishment. He should see them as positive places that he wants to be in.


How can I read my puppy’s body language?

You need to study the entire picture. His body posture, ear set, facial expression, and tail motions can all be pieces of the puzzle when analyzing what your pup feels.

Does my puppy wagging his tail mean that he’s happy?

Not necessarily. A loose tail that’s wagging can mean that he’s happy–depending on his other body language, such as a happy mouth with loose lips and a lolling tongue and a waggy body.

But a sharp, overly fast tail wag that’s carried high can mean that a dog’s stressed and even being aggressive. The entire body language tells the picture.

What does it mean when the hair on my puppy’s back is suddenly raised up when he sees something?

It’s called raised hackles and can indicate that he’s upset or stressed or even that he’s excited by or intensely interested in something.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to be able to read your puppy’s body language. Understanding why he’s behaving a certain way will help you know how to socialize him and train him. 

This is important so that he has the best life that he can have. Excess amounts of stress and anxiety can affect his behavior and health. It also will further your bond with your puppy.

Are you able to read your puppy’s body language?

Tell us about your puppy in the comment section below.

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Puppy Body Language - Understanding Puppy Communication - Golden puppy looking up

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