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Dog Body Language: The Face

One of the essential skills to interpreting how your dog is feeling at any given time is to be able to read their body language. Since they aren’t going to be using words any time soon, we must rely on the sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle signals they give us using their facial features, body and tail. Rarely do any of these elements work individually as an indicator, rather, a whole picture of your dog must be taken to see the full story. Since there is so much to cover, today we will start with tips from a Lincoln, NE animal hospital about how to read the face.


  • Eyes can be soft and relaxed, showing they are friendly and secure.
  • There can be a hard, fixed stare. Think of your dog when they see a squirrel, or other prey/chase item. This is not a friendly stare and should make you nervous. This can be a precursor to aggression.
  • Squinty eyes mean appeasement. This can be good or bad, depending on the rest of the body language. Appeasement is natural for a dog, but be sure they are not doing it out of fear.
  • In the animal world, direct eye contact is seen as a threat. If your dog is avoiding eye contact, they are trying to politely decline having anything to do with that (they want to avoid confrontation). This is generally a sign of fear.
  • “Whale eye” is when the white of their eyes show. This is commonly done during aggressive/fearful situations, but not always. Again, consider the rest of your dog’s body.

Ears: (note: dogs with cropped ears are more difficult to read correctly)

  • If ears are up and forward, that dog is alert and aroused. This could be playful, or aggressive. Full body language is key here.
  • Relaxed ears are loose. One may turn out even. This is a relaxed dog.
  • Ears back against the head are appeasement; again, this could be happy, fear or stress, so read the body.

Mouth: (short nosed dogs, like pugs or Pekinese, are harder to read)

  • A relaxed mouth can be slightly open, or closed. There should be no wrinkles around the mouth. This is a relaxed dog.
  • A tense mouth will be closed with tension wrinkles around the mouth. This is likely a precursor to aggression.
  • Panting can be done for two reasons. They could be trying to lower their body temperature on a hot day or after exercise. Stressful situations can trigger panting too, though that pant is often a shallower, shorter pant.
  • Licking can be several things: A greeting, appeasement, getting food, itchiness, stress. With such a wide range of interpretations available, please consider the rest of the dog.
  • Yawning can be due to being tired, or because another dog yawned. Stress yawns can occur too. Use the rest of the body language to decide.
  • Commissure is the corner of your dog’s mouth. You should know what this looks like when they are relaxed. If you notice it is pulled forward in a “C” shape, they are about to make an offensive strike. If it is pulled back in a “V” shape, they are prepared to act defensively. Be cautious, this dog is currently dangerous!
  • We all know a snarl. Pulling back the lips and exposing the front and eye teeth is a clear aggressive message.
  • A submissive grin is often confused with a snarl. Check body language. This is a rare behavior and is usually done dog to dog, but some dogs will share one with a human. This is not an aggressive dog.


  • A relaxed brow has no ripples or ridges, just smooth. This is a calm dog.
  • There can be tension in the brow when a dog becomes stressed, or aggressive. Facial tension of any kind is generally a threat.

If you have any questions about reading your dog, feel free to call or stop in to your Lincoln, NE animal hospital!


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