How to Train a Dog

By: Dr. William Fortney

Understanding a Dog's Body Language

Okay, we all know a wagging tail means a dog is friendly, right? Not necessarily. Dogs say lots of things with their tails -- and not all of them are nice. A dog who is wagging her tail might be happy, interested, or confident, but she also may be scared, confused, or ready for a fight. In this section, we'll tell you how to understand a dog's body language. If you learn this skill, it will make communicating with a dog much easier. And that, in turn, will make training a dog much easier.

When you see a dog whose tail is wagging wide and fast, the message is almost always, "Glad to see you!" This is a happy, excited dog. On the other hand, a dog holding her tail loosely but horizontally wants to know a bit more about you. She might not be ready to welcome you with a big lick, but she's not going to challenge you either. The same is true of a dog whose tail is wagging slowly. She's still deciding whether you are a friend or foe. Watch out, though, for a dog whose tail is bristling or is held high and stiff, wagging fast. This dog is agitated and probably aggressive -- and boy, does she mean business.


The position of a dog's tail tells a lot about her, too. A dog with her tail erect is confident and in control. The exact opposite is the dog with her tail tucked between her legs. Whether she's talking to you or to another dog, the message is the same: "I give up!" Just because a dog's tail is down doesn't mean she's frightened, though. A relaxed dog may keep her tail lowered, although not between her legs.

Dogs communicate with both ends of their bodies. A cock of the head or twitch of the ears indicates interest or alertness but sometimes fear. When a dog hears or sees something new or exciting, her ears will go up or forward. Because the canine sense of hearing is so sharp, your dog often knows about the approach of a person or car long before you do. That's what makes her such a great alarm system. Her ears are built in such a way that they can be pointed in different directions, allowing the dog to quickly figure out where a sound is coming from.

Is a dog's head down and her ears back? She's scared or submissive. Sometimes, the fur along the neck and back of a frightened or submissive dog will bristle, too. Be especially careful approaching a dog in this mood. She might be timid or shy, but if she feels cornered, she's capable of launching an attack in self-defense.

A dog's pack instinct makes her a good observer who pays close attention to everybody and everything around her. You might not realize it, but your dog watches and listens to you all the time and learns your patterns of behavior. Sometimes it seems as if she can read your mind, but her ability to predict your every move is really just good observation skills at work.

Watch your dog's facial expression for more clues on how she's feeling. You might even catch her smiling -- pulling the corners of her mouth back to show the teeth. Don't confuse this look with the snarl, a raised upper lip and bared teeth. A snarl is a definite threat gesture, but dogs probably smile for the same reason we do: to let folks -- or other dogs -- know they don't mean any harm.

Sometimes a dog uses her entire body to deliver her message. Rolling belly-up, exposing her neck and genitals, means "You're the boss!" An especially submissive dog may also urinate to express her deference to you or to another dog. The play bow is the classic canine invitation to fun and games: down on the front paws, rear end in the air, tail wagging. She may even paw the ground or bark in the attempt to lure you or another dog into play. The best response is to play bow back and then pull out her favorite toy or ball.

Body language is one thing. A dog's barks, yelps, growls, and other noises are yet another -- full of meaningful messages for dog owners. We explain what these messages mean in the next section.