Tail. There’s one common misconception about a dog’s tail: the idea that a wagging tail automatically equals a happy dog. Yes, dogs often wag their tails loosely when relaxed or happy. But, a raised or stiffly wagging tail may suggest arousal, excitement, confidence, or even aggression. On the flip side, a lowered tail, especially one tucked between the legs, is often a sign of fear, stress, or submission.
Ears. Dogs communicate with their ears in a variety of ways. Upright, forward-facing ears “at attention” often show interest or arousal, while pinned back ears may mean a dog is afraid. As with other body language, ear movements can have conflicting meanings. So, it’s important to consider the situation and the dog’s other movements when deciphering ear position. In general, dogs with erect ears, like German shepherds, display a wider variety of ear movements than a floppy-eared breed, like Labrador retrievers.
Eyes. Eye contact is an important sign for dogs and the intensity of a dog’s eyes matters. A soft or squinty stare often suggests happiness or relaxation. A hard, direct stare, can often mean an aggressive dog. A dog averting their eyes or looking away can be a common sign of stress or fear. They’ll often display the whites of their eyes, a gesture known as “whale eye”, in response to stress or anxiety.
Mouth. Dogs display facial expressions and mouth movements to communicate in several ways. Many of us recognize relaxed dogs by their slightly open mouths and panting tongues. But, several mouth movements can often suggest signs of stress or even nausea. Yawning and/or licking the lips are often displacement behaviors. This means the dog is anxious and suppressing the urge to do something else, such as bark or bite. A more concerning sign is when dogs display their teeth in a snarl or “smile.” While it may look funny to us, this often signifies aggressive behavior.