Body Language and Behavior in Dogs


Ru Chen

- Updated May 11, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Pet owners should know common canine body language and vocalizations
  • Context and personality matter (e.g. wagging tail doesn’t always mean happy)
  • Changes in a dog’s behavior can indicate health problems
Body Language and Behavior in Dogs

Dogs can convey happiness, distress, and a complex set of emotions and needs through their body language. From a wagging tail to tucked-back ears, growling to barking, dogs display a wide array of behaviors. Knowing how to decode your dog’s style of communication lets you deepen your bond with your furry friend and notice if there is something wrong.

Let’s go over how dogs communicate through body language, worrying behavior and health symptoms, and essential dog care tips.


Dog Body Language and Behavior

Understanding Common Dog Body Language Signals

1. Facial Expressions

You can read a lot about a dog’s emotional state through their ears. If a dog’s ears are in their natural position, they’re probably feeling relaxed. Floppy ears will hang down and slightly forward, while pointed ears will stand upright.

Eyes are the windows to the soul. With fearful dogs, you can see the whites of their eyes and they might stare in the direction of the perceived threat. Meanwhile, a happy dog will have relaxed, soft eyes.

Dogs pant when there is a temperature change or increase in activity. Relaxed panting or a closed mouth can indicate relaxation. However, a dog might also begin panting or pulling back the corners of their mouths tensely in times of fear and stress.

2. Tail and Body Posture

A tail wagging widely in a sweeping motion means that the dog is relaxed and happy. When dogs are playing, their tails often wag slightly higher.

If the dog’s overall stance is loose and relaxed, this is a good sign that the dog is feeling relaxed and happy. A tense frame means the dog might be alert, anxious, or aggressive.

Wagging tails don’t always mean a relaxed dog. A rapidly wagging tail combined with a stiff body posture may mean agitation, alertness, and stress.

A dog feeling sad or fearful might get low onto the ground, trying to seem smaller.

3. Vocalizations

Dogs can bark for many reasons. A high-pitched bark may be a way of greeting, whereas a lower-pitched bark may be a noise of warning.

Whining is a sign of an unhappy dog in distress. If your dog is whining, check to see if they are sick or hurt.

If you hear a low, perhaps menacing rumble from your dog, that’s the telltale sound of a growl. While growls are often a noise of frustration or annoyance, dogs may also growl when they’re having fun during play.

4. Gestures and Movements

Gestures can be as varied as situations demand. Dogs may make gestures to convey they want food, play, or are soothing their own anxiety. To appease you, they might give you a paw. Of course, dogs can also be trained to carry out adorable and clever motions.

Interpretation of Dog Behavior in Different Contexts

It’s important to take the context into account when decoding a dog’s body language. A wagging tail, the quintessential happy cue in dogs, isn’t always a sign of happiness. Look at the rest of your dog’s signals to see what they’re expressing and consider the context around them.

1. Playfulness and Happiness

We all love to see our beloved canine friends playful and happy. If it’s playtime with your dog, a little bit of growling would be normal play behavior. Panting and a sweeping tail might indicate an eagerness to play and regular physical exertion.

2. Fear and Anxiety

A stressed or frightened dog might exhibit calming signals that are meant to soothe themselves. This may involve looking away, yawning, freezing, lip licking, or raising one paw as an appeasement gesture. The dog’s body posture and expressions will be filled with tension.

3. Aggression and Dominance

An aggressive dog might bite or growl at others. They will stand their ground and potentially chase others down. An aggressive dog might have their ears pointed forward or to the side and a twitchy tail that is held high above their body.

4. Submissiveness and Relaxation

Appeasement behavior appears submissive and relaxed. A dog engaging in appeasement might roll over onto their back to expose their stomach, lower their body to the ground, and try to appear as small and harmless as possible.

Importance of Individual Variation in Dog Behavior

Dog behavior isn’t always clear-cut. Context and individual personality are crucial to correctly understanding your dog’s behavior and body language cues.

Always observe your dog’s behavior. When do they bark? When do they keep a lowered body stance? What expressions does your dog make when playing, and what about when they feel stressed? Take note of their usual patterns and habits. Learning about your dog’s unique personality allows you to understand their body language and vocalizations better.


Warning Signs of Potential Illness in Dogs

Changes in Appetite and Eating Habits

If a dog is suddenly thirstier or hungrier than usual, this increased appetite could be a sign of sickness. A dog might stop eating due to cancer, dental disease, or gastrointestinal disease.

However, just as easily, an appetite change could mean your dog doesn’t like the kibble or feels stressed by an environmental change. Since a change in eating habits could be a wide variety of reasons, it is best to visit the vet for a health check-up if you notice your dog is eating significantly more or less.

Altered Sleeping Patterns or Excessive Sleeping

If your dog’s sleeping patterns have changed, this could be an indicator of an underlying medical condition, stress, or aging. Insomnia may be caused by stress or disease. Some dogs are more sensitive to changes in the environment, such as a new sleeping location or a temperature shift.

Age influences how much a dog needs to sleep. Senior dogs tend to sleep more and wake up earlier due to the need to urinate. Puppies sleep more as they’re expending all their energy to grow and explore.

Excessive sleeping in dogs should also be addressed. Some breeds are also more prone to excessive sleeping, such as the large Mastiff.


Lethargy can be a sign of a serious health issue in your dog, such as organ disease, diabetes, or cancer. If your dog has suddenly become lethargic and shows no interest in their favorite activities, it’s a good idea to visit the vet for a checkup.

Unusual Bathroom Habits

Elimination issues are an indicator of health problems. Watch out if your dog is having difficulty urinating, diarrhea, or constipation. Abnormal bathroom habits could be a sign of a bladder infection, food poisoning, and other serious issues.

The inability to urinate and other abrupt bathroom issues should be treated as an urgent matter. Contact your vet or bring your dog to the emergency vet to diagnose what the problem is.

Changes in Coat Condition

A dog’s coat condition depends on their grooming routine and breed. Changes in a dog’s coat condition are often a sign of an underlying condition, such as dermatitis, muscle issues, autoimmune disease, and hormonal imbalances. A dog’s coat may be affected by the following conditions:

  • Mange
  • Matted fur
  • Alopecia
  • Dull coat
  • Dry and brittle hair
  • Loose hair
  • Ticks and fleas

Lifestyle changes can enhance your dog’s coat to keep it clean and healthy. Your vet may also prescribe parasite prevention medication to improve your dog’s overall health, including their coat condition.

Vomiting or Diarrhea

Vomiting and diarrhea are clear signs of a health concern with your dog. While a little bit of loose stool or disagreement with food can be normal, vomiting and diarrhea should typically be seen as a medical emergency. Reach out to your vet and bring your dog to urgent care if they are vomiting or suffering from diarrhea.

Persistent Coughing, Sneezing, or Breathing Difficulties

Dogs may cough, sneeze, or struggle to breathe due to a wide range of health concerns. A vet can perform screenings and tests to see whether a dog is afflicted with respiratory problems, either chronic or acute. Since acute lung issues can be a serious health concern, it is a good idea to give urgent vet care to a dog with respiratory distress.

Behavioral Changes

Dogs are people’s best friends and family members. If your furry companion is acting differently, such as being more aggressive, withdrawing from food and play, or cowering away from others, these could be signs that your dog is going through something that requires veterinary attention.

Recognizing Subtle Signs of Discomfort or Pain

No matter how well we know our canine friends, dogs can be good at hiding pain. They might not bark or whine in clear distress. Instead, pet owners need to watch out for more subtle signs. For example, if you notice your dog seems more reluctant to carry out regular activities, such as climbing the stairs, this could be a sign of a hip or joint problem.

Pet Insurance Coverage for Dog Health Issues

Understanding Pet Insurance Coverage Options

Pet insurance provides valuable financial assistance to pet owners by covering vet bills. There are three main types of pet insurance for dogs:

1. Accident-only Coverage

Accident-only pet insurance covers vet expenses related to accidents. This includes urgent treatment for broken bones, lacerations, and toxic ingestion.

2. Accident and Illness Coverage

Comprehensive coverage (AKA accident and illness pet insurance) covers vet expenses for both accidents and illnesses. Commonly covered illnesses include cancer, arthritis, and diabetes.

3. Wellness Plan

Wellness plans provide preventive care for dogs. These plans are typically sold as an insurance add-on and can cover dog vaccinations, spay/neuter, routine vet visits, and dental cleanings. It is highly recommended that dog owners obtain a wellness plan add-on since the expenses covered are necessary instead of unpredictable.

How Pet Insurance Can Help with Health Issues in Dogs

Financial Assistance for Veterinary Bills: Pet insurance can cover a significant amount of veterinary expenses. From urgent to routine bills, pet insurance reduces your overall pet expenses so you can afford the medical care that your dog needs.

Coverage for Diagnostic Tests and Treatments: Tests and treatment plans can get more expensive as your dog grows older. Pet insurance covers a wide variety of diagnostic tests and treatments.

Access to Specialist Care and Emergency Services: Emergency vet bills and specialist vet services often pose a financial hurdle to dog owners. Pet insurance can provide robust coverage that covers specialist vet care and emergency vet expenses.

Peace of Mind for Pet Owners: Knowing that an urgent vet bill could be around the corner is stressful for pet owners. Having pet insurance coverage can go a long way in alleviating your stress as you take care of your dog.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Pet Insurance for Dogs

Coverage Limit: This is how much a pet insurance policy will pay out to you within a policy year. Pet owners often choose an annual limit of $10,000.

Exclusions: Pre-existing conditions are usually excluded from pet insurance coverage. This means if your dog gets diagnosed with any condition but doesn’t have active insurance coverage, treatment expenses for this diagnosis will not be covered by new insurance.

Premium: The pet insurance premium is how much you pay for insurance. Pet insurance for dogs costs around $66 a month, with accident-only insurance starting as low as $10 a month.

Deductibles: The pet insurance deductible is how much you need to pay out-of-pocket before insurance coverage kicks in.



Knowing how to decipher a dog’s body language and behavior allows you to better meet the needs of your dog. As you spend more time with your furry companion, you will naturally become familiar with their personality and behavioral patterns.

If you notice any sudden shifts in your dog’s behavior, be proactive and take your dog to a veterinarian. Changes in behavior can signal a potential illness in dogs and early detection improves the effectiveness of treatment.

Pet owners worried about the high costs of vet services should consider obtaining pet insurance. Insurance coverage can greatly reduce the annual vet expenses for taking care of a dog, and also makes emergency vet care more affordable.

About The Author

Ru Chen

Ru Chen

Content Writer

Ru Chen is a content writer with several years of experience in creating engaging and well-researched articles. She mostly writes about insurance, business, digital marketing, and law. In her free time, she can be found watching horror movies and playing board games with her partner in Brooklyn.

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