Dog Body Language: Understand What Your Dog Trying To Tell You

By Everything Shih Tzu January 15, 2023

Understanding a dog's body language can help you better understand your Shih Tzu.

Let's face it, these tiny little guys are so darn cute that we often forget to look for the subtle cues they give us when communicating through body language.

White Shih Tzu dog standing outside with a curious look

Dog body language is a form of nonverbal communication that dogs use to express their emotions and intentions. It is a combination of facial expressions, vocalizations, tail movements, posture, and other physical signs that can convey various messages. 

By learning to interpret these signals, we can deepen our connection with our canine companions and better understand their needs.

So, what can a Shih Tzu tell you? A lot! 

Keep reading to learn more about your dog's body language

What Is Dog Body Language

Dogs are incredibly expressive and can communicate a lot through their body language.

One of the most important aspects of dog-human communication is understanding the language that dogs use to express themselves.

Dog body language is a form of communication used by dogs to communicate with both humans and other dogs.

It’s a set of behaviors, postures, and facial expressions that can be used to convey messages about a dog’s emotional state.

By understanding dog body language, humans are able to better interpret their dog’s feelings and intentions.

It's remarkable how much information dogs can communicate to each other without the ability of actually speaking.

But thankfully, by observation our dogs, we can interpret their language and make sure our furry friends needs are not being lost in translation.

Ways Dogs Use Body Language To Communicate

Dogs communicate through a variety of visual, auditory, and smell signals.

Here's a look at the different types of body language that you should be aware of when trying to interpret your dog's messages.

Facial Expressions

The subtle expressions on a dog's face can reveal a lot about their emotions and intentions. 

For example, dogs will use their eyes to express emotions such as fear, aggression, and joy.

For example, a dog may raise his eyebrows to show excitement or squint his eyes to indicate fear.

The mouth can also be a great indicator of a dog's emotional state. 

For example, when a dog is happy, they'll often have a relaxed, open mouth with their tongue slightly visible.

On the other hand, a dog that's feeling aggressive may have their lips pulled back and teeth bared.


The way a dog stands or moves can also provide crucial clues into their emotional state.

Dogs may stand tall and alert when feeling confident or lower their body and tuck their tail when they're anxious or scared.

The frequency and intensity of a pup's movements can also give clues to their emotional state.

For example, a dog that's feeling relaxed will have slow, gentle movements. 

In contrast, a tense or aggressive dog may have more rapid and jerky movements.

Tail and Ear Position

The position of a pup's tail and ears can also help us gauge its mood.

For example, a relaxed puppy will often have a loose, wagging tail and soft ears, while a dog that's feeling scared or aggressive may have a tucked tail and lowered ears.

The speed of the tail wag can also give us important information.

For example, a slow, gentle wag often indicates contentment. In contrast, a rapid wag can signify excitement or playfulness.

Barks and Sounds

Dogs also communicate through vocalizations such as barking, growling, and whining.

The tone and volume of these sounds can provide essential clues to a pup's emotional state.

For example, a low, growling bark may indicate aggression, while a high-pitched, yapping bark could signify excitement or joy.

Common Body Signals From Dogs

When trying to read your pup's body language, there are several key signs to look for, especially when socializing your dog with other dogs and people.

Here's a closer look at some of the most common signals you should be aware of.

Relaxed Body Language

When a dog feels relaxed, they will often display friendly body language. Common signs of relaxation include a 

  • soft, low tail wagging gently side-to-side,
  • ears that are slightly back or relaxed and not alert,
  • bright eyes that appear content, and a
  • mouth that may be slightly open with the tongue visible. 
  • A calm dog may also sit or lie down with their paws tucked underneath them as if in a comfortable position. 
  • They may also pant slightly, with slow and steady breaths indicating a subdued state.
Relaxed tan Shih Tzu dog

Playful Dog Body Language

When a dog wants to play, they have a clear body language that can easily be spotted. 

  • Tail Wagging: One of the most obvious signs that your pup is feeling playful is when they wag their tail. If your pooch's tail is up and moving quickly from side to side, or even their entire body wagging, chances are they're ready for some fun! 
  • Play Bows: The classic "play bow" is another sign of playful behavior. This is where your pup lowers their front end and keeps their back end in the air, as if they're bowing down. This can be accompanied by a wagging tail, and is usually a great indication that your pup wants to play. 
  • They may also be bouncing around as if they were ready to burst with enthusiasm and might bark a few times or even bring you a toy, which is their way of saying, "Let's play!"
Playful black and white dog

Fear and Anxiety

When a dog is feeling fear or anxiety, they may display body language that is quite different from when they are excited to play. 

Common signs of fear and anxiety in dogs

  • Tail will be tucked between their legs
  • Their head will be lowered, perhaps with their ears pulled back slightly. 
  • They may also crouch down and cower in an attempt to make themselves appear small, as if they were trying to hide. 
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Shaking or trembling
  •  Licking lips and yawning
  • In some cases, dogs may even whine, bark, or growl when they are scared.

These behaviors are signs that a dog is uncomfortable and wants some space, so it's important to respect their wishes and give them the time they need to feel relaxed and secure again.

Signs of Aggressive Dog Body Language

Aggressive dog body language can tell a lot about how a dog is feeling at that particular moment. So, it is important to understand not only your dog's body language, but other dogs as well, as it can help you know when they may need some space or a change in environment.

Body language encompasses a variety of signs, including posture, facial expression, eye contact, and vocalizations.

Here are some of the common signs of aggressive body language in dogs

  • Barking and growling
  • Baring of teeth
  • Raised fur/hackles
  • Tail held high and stiffly wagging or completely still
  • Ears up and forward
  • Lunging toward the perceived threat
  • Stiff-legged posture with weight shifted onto back legs
  • Snapping at the air
  • Direct eye contact

When aggressive dog body language is observed it is vital to avoid making direct eye contact with the dog, as they may interpret this as a threat.

During an aggressive display, it’s critical to remain calm and avoid any sudden movements; slowly back away from the aggressive dog and give it space. 

If you’re able, try to distract the animal with a toy or treat to counter its aggressive behaviors, note that this may or may not distract the dog, but if it does safely put as much distance between you and the aggressive dog.

Growling is a warning sign that should not be ignored; it means your dog feels threatened and needs space. If the growling continues, removing yourself and your pet from the situation is best.

Submissive Body Language

Submissive dogs generally have body language that communicates their desire to avoid aggressive behavior, and show respect and deference to their handlers or the animals they are interacting with.

The most common signs of a submissive dog include: 

  • crouching to make itself look smaller and unopposing
  • tail tucking
  • rolling onto their back with legs spread out
  • and avoiding eye contact

This behavior is designed to demonstrate harmless intentions and can be seen in a variety of situations, such as when a new dog is introduced to the pack or when two dogs are competing for resources. 

Submissive behavior can also be observed during playtime and when a dominant dog approaches. 

In addition to these physical signs, submissive dogs may make vocalizations such as whimpering or whining that indicate their submission. 

Dog Vocalization

In addition to body movements, dog vocalizations can also be an important signal of dog emotions. 

Dogs use a variety of noises, such as 

  • barking, 
  • growling, 
  • whining, 
  • yelping, 
  • and howling

Barking is often used as an alarm or warning sound or can even be used in play, while howling can be an expression of joy, sadness, or loneliness.

So, take note of the dog's tone and frequency when trying to interpret their vocalization.

Tips on How To Read Your Dog's Body Language

Learning to read your dog's body language can take time and patience, but it is a skill that will pay off in the long run, as it will help you understand how they're feeling and what they need from you.

Here are a few tips to help you read your dog's signals more effectively:

  • Get to know your pup's unique body language. Each dog is different and may have their own "language."
  • Pay attention to the context. Your pup's body language may mean one thing in one situation and something else in another.
  • Look for clusters of signals. A single sign may not always tell the whole story, so look for a combination of signals to get a better sense of what your pup is feeling.
  • Pay attention to facial expressions: A Shih Tzu's face can tell a lot about how they are feeling at that moment. Different expressions can indicate fear, excitement, aggression, and more.
  • Listen for vocalizations: Just like humans use different tones of voice to communicate how we feel, dogs also use various sounds, such as barking or whining, to signal their emotions.
  • Observe tail movements: The tail is one of the most important signals when it comes to understanding your Shih Tzu's body language because it expresses a large range of emotions, including happiness, nervousness, and even danger cues.
  • Notice changes in posture: When trying to decode what your dog may be feeling, look at their overall stance, as this will give clues into their emotional state, such as if they are tense or relaxed.
  • Track eye contact patterns: Eye contact between two dogs is often considered an aggressive move, but with humans, eye contact usually means that there is interest or trust present in the relationship, depending on the intensity of the gaze being exchanged.
  • Watch for calming signals: Calming signals are behaviors, such as lip licking, yawning, averting their gaze, tucking their tail between their legs, or freezing in place. These calming signals are used by dogs when they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed with a situation, and they want reassurance from another animal or person that everything is okay. 
  • Take note of physical contact: The way your Shih Tzu interacts with other animals and people can tell you a lot about their feelings and intentions in that situation. For example, if they accept petting but then suddenly move away, it could mean they are uncomfortable or not interested in the interaction.
  • Don't make assumptions. If you're not sure what your pup is feeling, it's best to give them some space and let them relax.

Common Misconceptions About Dog Body Language

Despite its complexity, a few common misconceptions about dog body language are worth noting. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Dogs don't show emotions. While dogs may not express their emotions in the same way humans do, they do experience a wide range of emotions and use their body language to communicate them.
  • Tail-wagging always means happiness. While a wagging tail can often indicate joy, it can also signify fear, anxiety, or even aggression. Tail wagging can be an indication of joy, fear, anxiety, or aggression. To accurately decipher a pup's tail-wagging, additional body language signs including their posture and facial expression should be taken into account.
  • A relaxed face means your pup is calm. Just because your Shih Tzu has its eyes closed and seems relaxed does not automatically indicate contentment or comfort in any situation—even if they remain motionless for an extended period of time! This could actually be an indication of stress instead, so pay attention to other body language clues like their ears and mouth movements that might help you assess how they're feeling more accurately.
  • Standing tall with legs spread apart mean dominance – It's false; rather than trying to assert dominance over others, dogs usually stand tall in order to appear bigger when threatened by another animal or person in order to defend themselves better against potential danger! So before assuming anything about domination, take a step back and observe your pup's other body language cues.
  • Barking is always an expression of aggression - Not necessarily! Dogs bark for different reasons, such as being excited or happy, lonely, playing, and so on. So the next time your pup barks at something, pay attention to their body language and environment to assess the situation better.
  • Dogs always show their teeth when they're aggressive. While baring their teeth is a common sign of aggression, it can also be a sign of fear or uncertainty.

Understanding the body language of your Shih Tzu can help you create a better connection with them and make it easier to communicate. 

A dog uses facial expressions, vocalizations, tail movements, posture, and other physical signs to signal their emotions or intentions. 

By learning how to interpret these signals correctly, we can understand our dog's needs more effectively and respond appropriately. 

Now that you have read this article on understanding different types of dog body language, key postures to look out for, and common misconceptions about canine behavior – why not take some time today to observe your dog? 

You may be surprised at what they are trying to tell you!

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