Snoqualmie Valley Pets 101: Understanding Dog Language

It is helpful to understand how dogs talk.  When they meet, they collect a great deal of information about each other.  They learn the sex, age and health of the other dog, among other things, and decide if they will play or move on.

Greeting Behavior

  • Dogs naturally like to approach each other from the side in a curved or semi-circular arc.   This is the polite way to approach one another in dog- speak. Some dogs will be cranky with one another when greeting on a leash.  The reason? They are forced to greet head on.  In dog-speak this is considered threatening and rude.  In addition, many humans pull back on the leash and hold it very tightly – communicating tension to the dog through the leash and making the dog feel cornered.
  • Dogs then progress to the sniff and circle.  This includes sniffing noses and rear ends.  It may seem rude to us, but this is how they learn about each other.
  • Following the sniff and circle there may be gestures of social status that acknowledge or establish dominance.

Examples of dominant behavior may be:

  • Paw over the back of other dog
  • Chin on back of other dog
  • Humping: Not sexual! Though not an attractive behavior, it is a “polite” way for dog to sort out status/dominance.  Excessive humping should never be allowed.  If your dog has a tendency to hump other dogs, you should stick close by the dog and redirect this behavior

Examples of submissive behavior are:

  • Crouching or slinking on belly.
  • Ears back
  • Tail down, hind end tucked
  • Licking or nudging the muzzle of the other dog
  • Rolling over on back
  • Sprinkling a little urine
  • Looking away or at the ground from the other dog
    • Once they go through the sniff and circle, they will generally go about their separate ways or play.
      • They will typically do a play bow and all of the following actions are considered play-no harm intended.
        • Some dogs may raise a paw and bat at the other to initiate play.
        • If a dog accidentally gets too rough, he may drop into a play bow again to let the other dog know no harm was intended.
        • Play behaviors may look like ones that are more serious but the bow defines the actions as fun.  The dogs may roughhouse, chase, fight, bite and bark but as long as the dogs look relaxed and they take turns chasing and being chased-being top dog/bottom dog while wrestling and fighting-the play is acceptable.
        • Some dogs are very noisy and sound very fierce during play.


  • A wagging tail means a dog is friendly.  Understand a wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly.  In fact, certain tail wags can be a warning to back off.  You need to look at the tail wag in context of other body language.  Is their body stiff?  What are their ears doing?  Are they up or back?  Pay close attention to their mouth, are they showing teeth or starting to?  If you see a tail wag combined with any of these other signals – the tail wag is not a friendly gesture.
  • Humping is always a sexual behavior.  If a female is in heat, then yes it is a sexual behavior.  Any other time it can mean an expression of dominance or it can be just a habit.
  • Dominant dogs start fights to establish their dominance.  If a high-ranking dog is confident, he or she will not fight to enforce their status; it is much more subtle than that.  Most fighting comes from middle-ranking, not confident pack members.
  • When a dog’s hackles are up, it means they are mad.  Once again, this must be taken in context.  If the raised hackles are coupled with bared teeth or a wrinkled muzzle, then yes it could be a warning.  Otherwise, it could mean the dog is excited, surprised or afraid.

By becoming a proficient student of our own dog’s body language (and dog language in general) you can understand and head off any possible problems during play. Comprehending what all dogs are saying can help you and your pooch lead a happier and conflict free life.


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