Understanding canine body language can help translate your pet’s behaviors

Sometimes a yawn isn’t just a yawn. Do you know what this dog is trying to say?

Do you speak dog?

Dog Body LanguageOur dogs have a lot to say but the meaning can get lost in translation. Understanding dog body language goes way beyond looking for a wagging tail, a signal that doesn’t always mean “happy dog*”. Dogs work hard to decipher everything that we say to them, so it’s only fair that we do a better job of translating their language. Here’s a quick primer.


It’s easy to overlook this signal – dogs yawn because they’re tired, right? Often, yes, but it’s important to look at the context clues that surround the behavior. If it’s late in the day and you just spent a few hours at the park, it’s likely your dog is yawning because he’s exhausted. If your dog yawns when someone leans in to give him a hug (most dogs don’t appreciate hugging), or when another dog rushes up to meet him without the appropriate preamble, it means your dog is feeling uncomfortable with the interaction.

Shaking off

A dog that shakes off as if wet is trying to signal a behavioral “reset.” It’s an unmistakable way of diffusing tension and inviting calm. My dogs wrestle hard, and occasionally 30-pound Olive will overpower 14-pound Millie. When they separate Millie shakes off her body to say, “That got a little hectic and I’m glad it’s over now!” Olive will usually shake soon after as if agreeing. (I actually taught them to shake off when asked, which helps when they’re coming in on a rainy day. I also ask them to shake off when I notice that they’re playing too roughly with each other and need to take it down a notch.) You might notice your dog shaking off after a stranger pets him on the head too roughly, or after you take off a jacket that he doesn’t like wearing.


Panting is another behavior that needs context to accurately translate it. If your dog pants on a hot day, or after a run, he’s panting to cool down. If he starts panting the moment you walk him into the exam room at the vet, he’s panting because he’s stressed. A stress pant usually looks different from a cool-down pant; the hot dog’s tongue is usually far out of the mouth and lolling, while the stressed dog might hold his mouth more tightly with the tongue behind the teeth. I worked with a greyhound a few years ago and during the Q&A portion of the session, the dog noticed that we repeatedly said his name and glanced his way. He didn’t like the attention, and he started panting even though he was hanging out quietly in his bed!

There’s a lot more to cover, so look check out another post on dog body language!

*A wagging tail only indicates a willingness to interact, it’s the position of the tail and type of wag that signal intent. If the tail is held high and seems to vibrate, the dog is issuing a warning. A happy welcoming dog holds his tail at mid-mast with a loose, relaxed wag.