Body Language

Knowing what your puppy is trying to communicate to you will make both of your lives much easier. Knowing when a puppy is scared, frustrated, seeking help etc will allow us to handle the situation much more effectively for the future. 
Dogs use lots of body language to express how they feel and ensuring we know what they are trying to say can hugely help their quality of life. Body language is extremely complex with similar signals being used to express different intent and emotions and therefore all signals must be read in context, with the whole body being taken into account.


There are several emotions that underpin behaviour responses in dogs i.e. these emotions are the driving force behind the behaviours you see. These are:

(Positive state of mind)
  • Seeking –  desire system, traditionally called the “brain reward system”
  • Play- Physical social engagement system
  • Lust- Sexual Lust system
  • Care- Maternal nurturance system
(Negative stage of mind)
  • Rage (Frustration)-  Anger system, provoked by preventing a dog’s freedom of action
  • Fear (Anxiety)- This circuit helps to unconditionally protect them from pain and destruction 
  • Panic- Separation-distress system 
  • Pain- emotions indicative with pain
It is important that you as a dog owner can read and understand your puppy’s body language in order to identify if they are in a negative or positive state of mind. This will benefit any interactions going forward and have a huge effect on longer term behaviour responses.  


Generally when a puppy’s body is loose and floppy this signals a puppy is in a positive state of mind. Loose and floppy will look different depending on your breed of dog and so knowing your puppy’s neutral is a good starting point.  Look for curves, curvy mouths, soft eyes, floppy/soft ears, muscle relaxation, neutral height and soft moving or held tails. Watch your puppy when not a lot is going on, can you identify your puppy’s neutral?

“Play is a kind of language. When we regularly break up what we consider ‘inappropriate’, are we doing our dogs a service or confusing them by constantly butting into their private Conversations?”

Play behaviour is usually made up of motor patterns characteristic of predatory, agonistic and courtship behaviour. Research suggests that animals play to help form social bonds/cooperative relationships, enhance cognitive development and motor skills, exercise and practice coping skills for life’s unexpected situations. All of these benefits, if real, are important to our puppies.

But what does play look like? Understanding what play actually looks like, can help you be sure that you’re intervening at appropriate times.

What is it?

Reciprocal and role reversal
Lose self handy-capping (belly roles)
Soft Mouthing
Fluid movements
Loose Body Chasing

What is it not?
Hard staring 
Tense belly roles
Target bites (to particular parts of the body)
OTT behaviour (this can signal anxiety)
Tense bodies and static movements

Rugby tackling, T-baring, Pinning, Paws On – these all depend on the individual dogs and the kind of relationship they have with each other. Generally speaking, these are not ‘ideal play’. However some dogs of particular breeds enjoy doing this style of play with others they know well.

Be careful of arousal- play behaviours can turn to non-play behaviours when mixed with a bucket of arousal. Play needs to be managed to ensure arousal doesn’t cloud any good judgement. If you are ever in doubt, you can choice test. Hold the ‘player’ and see what the ‘victim’ does next. Do they come back for more? Do they think ‘thankyou for that’ and wander off?

It is good to interrupt play when it becomes a bit too energetic, especially when puppies are young, there is an age difference and especially if they are new to each other. There’s nothing wrong with helping puppies learn to regulate themselves. But we also need to let them have the time to develop the ability to have a conversation. This takes knowledge in knowing when to intervene and when to let them talk. Watch your puppy, listen to what they are saying and this will become second nature.


When worried, dogs will display signals to keep themselves safe. These signals will either aim to instantly remove the threat from the situation (Fight), remove themselves from the situation (Flight), gather more information (Freeze) or decrease the threat but allow for social interaction (Fiddle). Dogs’ choices will vary depending on their experience and the situation. E.G. If on a lead, a dog is going to be more likely to Fight as its options for freeze and flight are reduced or usually ignored. An inexperienced puppy will probably opt for the other 3 Fs first and foremost. It is therefore important we read, recognise and respond to these to prevent our puppy learning to escalate to risky behaviours to keep themselves safe from harm.

Fight- (triggered by the rage system)
Often the last resort
  • Growling
  • Stiffness 
  • Muzzle wrinkle
  • Deep barks 
  • Tense body
  • Weight forward and prominent if confident in technique 
  • Weight backwards and head/body lowered if unsure
  • Air snaps, snapping, biting and escalations of 
Flight/avoidance– (triggered by the fear system)
  • Head turns away
  • Movement and shifts away
  • Whale eye (whites of the eye showing) or squinty/slit eyes 
  • Mouth closed and tense
  • Base of the ears back 
  • Concerned/frowning eyebrows
  • Tail tucked
  • Body weight shifted backwards
  • Head lowered and tense
  • Still body
  • Paw lifts 
  • Avoidance/ head gaze away
  • Tenseness throughout the body
Normal behaviours out of context like the person that cracks the joke at an inappropriate moment, the nail biter or the ‘anyone for tea’ –  it’s their way of dealing with stress. These help to defuse the tense situation but enable social contact to continue. 
  • Toileting/Marking
  • Sniffing around (sudden and aimlessly)
  • Humping 
  • OTT play and greetings (‘rude’ dogs are usually stressed by a situation) 
  • Barking and play bowing

Frustration is usually triggered when a puppy’s actions are thawed and can escalate quickly. Quick, exaggerated, repetitive movements can be seen in dogs that are frustrated. Some bark, often at a high pitch in quick succession.  Some jump and grab, some grab and shake, some perform obsessive behaviours as a redirection, while some dash around on the end of the leads.

Teaching your puppy about everyday expectations is super important to see less frustration in our puppies. We also need to be aware of barriers we put in their way (such as leads) that can be frustrating when not taught how to cope with such situations. 


Seeking is characteristic of forward locomotion, sniffing and investigation. Seeking motivates animals to move to places where they have more potential of finding and consuming resources needed for survival. Predatory behaviours fall under the seeking system.


Behavioural responses of panic can include agitation, trembling, hiding, panting, pacing, active escape behaviour, increased out-of-context, potentially injurious motor activity. It can also include high pitched barking of long successions (inc howling) and quick movements that are almost scatty. This is the type of behaviour indicative of dogs struggling with separation behaviours and loss of human contact. 


Wagging tail- dogs use different wagging speeds, motions and tail heights depending on how they are feeling, not all wagging tails are displayed by happy dogs. Positions: Generally speaking tucked tails are associated with fear, low tails (lower than neutral) are associated with worry, horizontal tails signal alert, high tails (higher than neutral) signal confidence in what they are doing (often defensive). Tense tails signal a dog that’s unhappy whereas relaxed motions signal neutral or happy. Slow speeds can signal alertness or relaxed, fast tails can signal alertness or excitement. To get the best picture of how a dog is feeling, we need to read the whole body position in context rather than one part of the body.

Play bow – while this is readily known as a play signal to start or continue play, current research suggests that dogs also use this signal to increase distance from something that worries them. It is therefore important to read the situation. If a dog is play bowing while performing other stress signals e.g. running away in between bows, this may suggest they want distance. If performing bows with a loose body and followed by bouts of play, this may suggest a play signal.

Tummy rolls – this mis-communication is often why a lot of people get bitten. Again the whole body needs to be looked at here. Dogs that roll onto their tummy, with body tension, tucked tails and potentially showing whale eye, want distance not belly rubs.

‘Let them get on with it’ – this can often be dangerous, risks knocking your dog’s confidence and prevents the ability to learn appropriate social skills. Everyone needs a teacher, and someone that helps learning take place most effectively. Guess work doesn’t come into it here. Ensure you match your dog’s play friends well. Choose dogs that are able to help them learn what is play and what is not, BUT be sure to step in and prevent your dog getting told off for getting it wrong. Continual telling off is not fair on the other dog but also not fair on yours. Set them up to succeed and get it right from the start rather than allowing them to guess and then get told off for trying.