Canine body language is more complex and nuanced than most of us realize. The same behavior can mean different things depending on the context, so it’s easy to misunderstand what your pet is trying to tell you.

To help build a closer relationship with your dog, here are five body language signals that are often misunderstood.

1. Tail Wagging

Everyone knows tail wagging means a happy dog…right?

Not always. In fact, this is the most common and dangerous myth about canine body language. Many people assume that if a dog’s tail is wagging then it’s safe to approach, but this isn’t the case.

A relaxed tail that wags in broad strokes usually does signify happiness. You’ll often notice the hips swaying with the tail too. But a stiff tail that’s wagged slowly or with a smaller width is a sign of insecurity or stress.

You should also watch out for a stiff, erect tail that’s wagging rapidly with small movements. This signals the dog is preparing to take action – including fighting.

Note: The tail is essential for canine communication – it’s used for much more than showing happiness. This is why docking or partial docking is such a cruel and damaging practice.

2. Exposing Belly

A relaxed dog may roll over for a belly rub. This shows a lot of trust, as rolling over is one of the most exposed positions a dog can put themselves in.

Turning over can also be a sign of extreme submission though. If a dog is in a stressful situation, he may instinctively flip over to show he’s not a threat. His tail may also be tucked between the legs.

It can be difficult to distinguish these behaviors, but it’s the context that matters. If you’re relaxing in the lounge, he probably wants a belly rub. But if he’s being forced into an interaction he’s not happy with, it could be a sign of appeasement.

3. Making Eye Contact

Eye contact can be a direct challenge when two dogs meet. Instead of staring into the eyes, a socialized dog will often glance to the side or even turn the head away.

This is also true when dogs meet humans. It’s never a good idea to look directly into a strange dog’s eyes, as this can be seen as a challenge.

The rule doesn’t hold for dogs with their owners though. Many pet dogs have been de-sensitized to looking into their owner’s eyes, often due to being rewarded for reacting to their name. Dogs will also look directly into the eyes to communicate they want something – or even to show affection.

4. Jumping Up

There was an old-school belief that a dog who jumps up is trying to dominate. This idea, along with many others related to canine dominance, came from studying wolves and applying the same behaviors to dogs.

As we now know, dogs behave very differently to wolves in most situations. When a dog jumps up, he’s actually showing a mixture of excitement and appeasement. The more the person shouts for him to stop, the more over-aroused he’ll become, which often leads to more jumping.

This behavior can be frustrating. But it’s important to understand why it’s happening so you can start a positive reinforcement training program.

5. Yawning

It’s natural to assume that yawning means tiredness – and, in some cases, this is correct.

Dogs also yawn when they feel anxious. This is called a displacement behavior, as dogs use it to calm down and relieve tension. If you notice your dog yawns after you pick him up, for example, it’s probably a sign that he didn’t enjoy the interaction.

Other displacement behaviors include sneezing, lip licking and shaking off. Just like yawning, these signs of stress are often missed by humans.


Dogs communicate with both conscious and unconscious signals. These signals can mean different things depending on the situation, however, which is why they are often misunderstood.

The next time you see your dog perform one of the behaviors in this article, pay close attention to the context. Did he yawn after you gave him a hug? What is his tail doing when he meets a dog in the park? And does he tend to jump more at people who scold him? You might be surprised by what your dog is trying to say.

Guest Post Provided By:
Richard Cross
Chief Editor of