Second Chance: Interpreting a Dog’s Body Language

Second Chance: Interpreting a Dog’s Body Language

Dear Pet Column,

I liked your column last week on interpreting cat communication and am wondering about ways to better understand my dog. For example, I am always baffled when he growls and wags his tail at the same time when meeting new dogs. How do I know what is he saying?


Baffled by Banter


Dear Baffled,

My name is Chap. I am the senior dog (10-year-old Maltese) here at the Second Chance shelter willing to share the wisdom of my years. Although I have learned to provide clear signals to communicate my emotional state, I also know people don’t always recognize or pay attention to them.

When interpreting a dog’s body language remember that we are experts at interpreting yours and that your movements have a direct impact on how we respond. The “bite that came out of nowhere” is typically precipitated by numerous warnings to your threatening body signals.

There are some very obvious clues that we provide to demonstrate a wide range of emotions from joy to anger to fear. I am going to break our communication system into six major areas that are most important to pay attention to when assessing a dog’s mood:  tail, ears, eyes, mouth, hair, and body posture. In breaking them down singularly it is important to recognize that signals work in collaboration, so you must pay attention to them collectively:


tucked under – submissive or fearful

low and still – relaxed

low-medium height & gently waving – relaxed & friendly

low-medium height & fast wag – appeasing, happy, friendly

high & fast wag – tense, aroused (play or aggression)


pinned back – submissive or fearful

back & relaxed – relaxed & friendly

forward & relaxed – aware, friendly

pricked forward – alert, aroused, (play or aggression)


averted, no eye contact – submissive or fearful

squinting or closed – submissive, happy greeting

soft, direct – relaxed & friendly

wide open – confident, assertive

hard stare – alert, aroused (play or aggression)


lips pulled back – submissive or fearful

lips relaxed – calm & friendly

lips puckered forward/lifted in snarl – assertive/threat


standing on end – arousal (aggression, fear, or excited in play)

Body Posture

lowered rump – submissive or fearful

standing at full height – confident & relaxed

shoulders lowered, hindquarters elevated – play bow, invitation to play

tense posture – alert, aroused (typically aggression or fear)

Attending to the various cues above, and to the environment that a dog is responding to, is the best way to begin understanding the communication of dogs.  Like me, most dogs just want to live happy and secure lives and we make every effort to attain this state.

This happy state of being has been somewhat elusive in my life and my friends here at Second Chance are committed to changing that for me.  They are searching for a new home for me where I can bond with a family willing to take the time to earn my trust.  Although a senior, I have plenty of spirit and playfulness left and I do love to cuddle.  I am seeking a gentle heart and hand, a quiet home with a soft bed, and forever companionship.


Editor’s note: It’s no secret. The Telluride region is dog heaven. Well, pet heaven. Unless you are one of our furry friends who gets caught in the maw of neglect and abuse. Then heaven is on hold until Second Chance Humane Society comes to the rescue. Second Chance is the region’s nonprofit dedicated to saving animals’ lives and promoting responsible pet parenting and human-animal bond. In her weekly blog, executive director Kelly Goodin profiles at least one, generally two of the many animals now living at the no-kill shelter, Angel Ridge Shelter, a dog and a cat, hoping to find them loving permanent homes. The column is sponsored by Ted Hoff of Cottonwood Ranch & Kennel, who from time to time exercises his skills as a dog whisperer, partnering with Kelly and her staff to help train a particularly challenging animal.

Ted Hoff with Cabella & Wilbur

By the by, there is no better place to park your pup or get your pup (or adult dog) trained than Cottonwood whenever you head out of town (for locals) or are heading to town and staying somewhere that does not allow pets. Consider joining Ted’s Very Important Dog (VID) Club for added benies. (Details on Ted’s website.)

Second Chance Humane Society Animal Resource Center and Thrift Shop are both located in Ridgway, but service San Miguel, Ouray & Montrose Counties. Call the SCHS Helpline at 626-2273 to report a lost pet, learn about adopting a homeless pet, or about the SCHS Spay/Neuter, Volunteer, Feral Cat, or other Programs. View the shelter pets and services online:

Vetting the Vet: Dr. Michelle Dally, DVM, J.D. is Medical Director of Second Chance Humane Society. She also has a private practice, Dally Veterinary Medicine, 333 S. Elizabeth Street, Ridgway, Colorado. Her service area is  San Miguel Mesas, Placerville, Ridgway, Ouray, and Montrose. For more on Dr. Dally, go here.

Michelle & Wallowby

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