Decoding Your Pet’s Body Language

Facial expressions. Posture. Gestures. Eye movement. Touch. The use of space around us. From researchers to career coaches, magazine articles to blog posts, modern science tells us that it is often what we don’t say that can leave the greatest impression, but have you ever wondered what you can understand from your own pet’s body language? 

Body language is the process of non-verbal communication through conscious or unconscious movements, gestures or mannerisms. While scientists have been observing human body language in one form or another for centuries, it is only recently that researchers have started to investigate what body language means for pets and their behaviour. 

Lee Niel specializes in animal behaviour and welfare at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), University of Guelph. She is studying what dog owners understand about their pet’s behaviour through their body language, and more specifically, what we can learn and how we can use dog body language as an indicator of fear and aggression. 

“Dogs, like people, can react very differently to certain situations,” Niel says. “We see this all the time in everyday life: some dogs may be relaxed and comfortable when company is over
or when they interact with other dogs and people they don’t know in off-leash parks, others may not. Dogs that experience fear in response to regular activities are more likely to have reduced welfare, so it is important that owners are able to recognize behavioural signs of fear and help their dog avoid situations that are problematic.” 

Not only is fear a threat to your dog’s mental well-being, but it can also put them at a higher risk of developing serious behaviour problems such as aggression. Niel says aggression often has a significant impact on the human-animal bond, and can alter the way we interact and connect with our pets. It can also pose a significant safety concern and sometimes lead to surrender, or even euthanasia, of the animal. 

“Understanding animal body language allows 
pet owners to recognize their pet’s patterns and needs,” Niel says. “It allows owners to provide an environment that reduces stress and fear and gives them the opportunity to avoid potentially dangerous situations for pets and people.” 

While understanding pet body language is important, recent research results from Niel’s group revealed that there are certain fear behaviours 
that are challenging for many owners to recognize, while others are more reliable, such as body posture, ear and tail position, and relatively subtle behaviours such as lip licking and avoiding eye contact. The research also found that most dog owners were good at rating dog fear and aggression, but surprisingly, a relatively high percentage were unable to correctly identify examples of moderate to severe fear and aggression. Niel says further research is needed to understand whether these owners are truly unable to identify dog fear and aggression, or if there is also some reluctance to negatively label dogs. This may be particularly true for dogs that show threatening behaviour without actually trying to bite – Niel’s study also showed that more than 25 per cent of participants were unable to correctly identify dogs showing threatening behaviour. But Niel says fear in pets can unexpectedly turn into aggression, and that reading these signals is key to adapting to your pet’s needs. 

“If you think about human behaviour we know that people are different when it comes to the activities they like to be involved in, and their thresholds are different for certain stimuli like noise and activity. Some people may enjoy attending a noisy music festival, or interacting with active children, some may not, and dogs are the same,” Niel explains. 

“In some cases, a dog might be exposed to a number of triggers that the owner is unaware of, which results in them feeling threatened and responding aggressively to protect themselves. However, if the owner was able to recognize the subtle, early signs of fear the situation might have been avoided before it escalated.” 

The ultimate goal of Niel’s work is to prevent and reduce fear in dogs by teaching pet owners to understand their animal’s needs and recognize when their pet is showing signs of fear and potential aggression. For example, if a child approaches a dog and a pet owner can identify early physical signs of fear, they can make adjustments, change the environment and make it a safer, more positive experience for their dog, the child and themselves. 

“Pet owners can use body language signals to avoid problems early. The ability to recognize how your dog reacts in certain situations is key.” 


Fear vs. Aggression


  • Panting, barking, whining, exaggerated yawning, lip licking, flinching, trembling, lifting a paw, avoiding eye contact, and attempting to hide, escape or retreat.
  • Crouched posture, ears back and tail tucked.
  • If a dog is panting and they are not overheated or have not just exercised they are likely stressed. 


  • Warning signs include: stiff body posture, growling, teeth baring and changing from avoiding eye contact to making direct eye contact.
  • Never punish a dog for showing these important signals. If the signals disappear, dogs can bite seemingly without warning. 

While understanding pet body language is importance, recent research results from Lee Niel’s team at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) revealed there are certain fear behaviours that are challenging for many owners to recognize. Niel says, “if you are concerned that your dog is overly fearful or showing signs of aggression, consult your veterinarian.”


Research Tails

What about the Wag? 

A wagging tail is often poorly misunderstood. Sometimes when a dog is fearful, they will wag their tail. Quite often, fearful dogs have a slow, low
tail wag. If the dog is also crouched
or tense and showing other signs of fear, a wagging tail does not indicate happiness, but rather that the dog is likely scared. A happy dog wagging
its tail will be more likely to have a loose, wiggly body, with a neutral body posture, Niel says. 

The Feline Fuse 

Similar to dogs, fearful cats often show an arched back, a tucked tail and ears that are pulled sideways or back. Cats typically have shorter fuses in the fear department when compared to dogs, and signs of aggression include direct eye contact, hissing and growling. 

Niel says a happy and engaged cat will typically have a neutral and relaxed body position, with their ears forward and tail in an upward position. However, studies assessing cat fear and aggression have received much less attention than that of dogs. In upcoming research Niel and PhD student, Courtney Graham, will be examining behavioural indicators of fear in kittens, and then assessing the effects of early kitten management on fear and aggression in adult cats. 

Early exposure to a variety of people, animals, environments and household stimuli is thought to be important
for preventing fear in cats and dogs. Unfortunately, cats don’t get exposed to the same stimuli as dogs. Niel says, “we still have so much more to learn about cats.” 


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