This article was originally published by our colleagues at RSPCA Queensland. Animations by Meryl Holloway.

While our canine companions can’t speak to us verbally, we can learn a lot about what they are saying through body language.

It's important to look at all the cues your dog is giving you, rather than just one in isolation. A dog that is panting might have just had a good run and is enjoying themselves, but it could also mean that they are anxious and stressed if the panting is tight and rhythmic, and is accompanied by a tucked in tail and tense and uncomfortable posture.

Also, ensure you're always aware of your surroundings and try to understand how your dog is reacting too. If in doubt, create a space where you know your dog is relaxed and at ease.


Happy and Playful

Happy dogs will typically face forward, sometimes with their mouth open, a loosely wagging low tail, soft eyes and relaxed ears.

Playful dogs usually have a ‘play bow’ pose with their front legs bent and wagging tail.

Content dogs have a relaxed body with a sight curve, alert ears, soft eyes and a low tail wag.


Relaxed or Very Relaxed

Does your dog do these behaviours?

Relaxed dogs are lying down with a loose low tail wag, soft eyes and curved body. Their ears could be close to their head, pulled back or alert.

Very Relaxed dogs are upside down on their back with their belly exposed, a loosely wagging tail and ears back, sometimes their tongue will be out too. Super relaxed dogs will sleep in this position.


Stressed or Unsure

These are signals you really want to understand in your pooch. Especially when you take them on outings or have guests at your home.

Appeasing dogs have a tense body with a low tail and a slight wag. Their ears will be back and they’ll have a curved back. They may avoid eye contact and have a tightly shut mouth.

Anxious dogs have a tense body with a tucked in tail and a rhythmic pant. Their body may be turned to the side, avoiding eye contact.



Frightened dogs will be showing you the whites of their eyes and avoiding eye contact. This is known as ‘whale eye’. Their head will usually be turned away, their tail may be tucked and ears pulled back.

Terrified dogs have escalated from frightened and are shaking with their tail tucked, ears back and head down.


Fearful and Aggressive

Give these pets space!

Fearful dogs will have a low stance, their weight shifted towards the back, ears back, tail tucked, and growling. This dog will prefer you just move away and do no harm.

Aggressive dogs will be leaning forward on all paws with pricked ears, a high tail and potentially barking or growling. They are ready to defend their area. This is the last warning for passers-by or other dogs to move away. Even these body language cues can be subtle and you can miss them.


Common Myths

Sometimes a wagging tail can be mistaken for a happy or friendly dog, this is why it’s important to look at more than just the tail action.

Yawning doesn’t always mean tired either. Stressed dogs will use this to try to calm themselves down, sometimes in new environments or when given too many options.

Smiling might be perceived as happiness, but a dog with the corners of their mouth drawn back and closed or almost shut with teeth showing, may have fear or anxiety. Tucked tails, repeated blinking and ears pulled back may also be signals here.

Dog owners and people interacting with dogs should have a basic understanding of dog body language. Dogs can’t tell us how they’re feeling, so if we can at least try to understand, our companions will thank us for it!

Do you think your pooch could use a brush up on their training skills? Book them into a class at RSPCA WA Dog Training.