CFAES Give Today
Ohio 4-H Youth Development

Ohio State University Extension


PetPALS Dog Behaviors

Dog Behaviors

Dogs have a complex system for communicating. They communicate through vocalizations, smells and scents, body language, and direct contact. Below are some examples of different behaviors dogs display when they communicate with people, other dogs, and other animals. A dog does not express all of these behaviors in each situation. Remember to observe the complete picture within the dog’s environment when interpreting these behaviors. Variations between individual dogs, as well as between breeds, must be considered when interpreting behaviors.

Relaxed Posture

relaxed dogA relaxed dog displays a natural body posture. This dog is not worried or threatened by what is going on in his immediate surroundings. He is content and reasonably happy. Knowing what a dog looks and acts like when he displays this posture serves as a foundation for determining his other behaviors.

  • Eyes relaxed and slowly blinking
  • Ears pricked (up) but not forward, or relaxed slightly down and back
  • Mouth loose, corners relaxed, mouth may be slightly open
  • Tongue may be slightly visible or hanging over lower teeth
  • Soft muscle tone
  • Weight evenly distributed on all four feet
  • Tail down and even, may show relaxed sweeping back and forth
Alert Posture

alert dogAn alert dog is aroused by something interesting in his environment. He is standing at attention, ready to react depending on what happens next.

  • Eyes open wide, alert eye contact (however, this may signal aggression from a strange dog)
  • Ears pricked and forward, may move back and forth
  • Mouth closed
  • Tail pointing away from dog, almost horizontal, not stiff or bristled
  • Leans body slightly forward
  • Stands tall on toes
Playful or Play Bow Posture

playful dogThe play bow invites others to play. Dogs may also use a play bow to communicate that any prior rough behavior was not intended to be threatening. Dogs may also assume this posture if they have done something wrong, to let you know they meant no harm and really just wanted to play.

  • Ears pricked, may move back and forth
  • Lips pulled back, mouth open, tongue visible
  • Slight grin
  • Front end lowered 
  • Forepaws bent and extended
  • Hind end up
  • Tail up, may give sweeping wags
  • May stutter bark or give high-pitched short barks
Submissive-Fearful or Active Submission Posture

submissive dogA dog displaying active submission behaviors is offering signs of submission to a superior dog or person to avoid any additional threats or confrontations. This dog is a bit fearful and hopes the superior individual will either retreat or show signs of friendliness.

  • Ears back
  • Indirect and brief eye contact, may blink
  • Corners of mouth drawn back and up (submissive grin)
  • Mouth slightly open
  • Licks at mouth or face of dominant dog or in air
  • May nudge dominant’s dog’s muzzle with own nose 
  • May make nudging movement without touching dominant dog
  • Skin on forehead and nose unwrinkled and smooth
  • Raises one forepaw 
  • Body lowered, hind end low
  • Tail down, slight tail wag, small swings
  • May whimper 
  • May leave sweaty paw prints
Completely Submissive-Very Fearful or Passive Submission Posture

very fearful dogA completely submissive dog is very afraid of a confrontation. He is signaling to the dominant individual absolute surrender assuring that he is of no threat. Some dogs may show complete submission, exposing their inguinal (groin) region, as a friendly gesture deferring to their owners or their animal friends.

  • Ears flattened back 
  • Eyes narrowed and averted eye contact
  • Skin on forehead and nose smooth
  • Mouth closed, corners drawn back and up (submissive grin)
  • Rolls onto back exposing underbelly
  • Uppermost hind leg raised to expose inguinal (groin) area – may do this in sitting or laying position
  • Exposes throat
  • Tail tucked between legs, may slightly wag
  • May urinate or defecate
  • May whimper
  • Remains completely still if touched
Aggressive-Dominant or Offensive Threat Posture

aggressive dogThis is a very threatening posture communicating confidence and dominance if confronted. Dogs in this posture are preparing to attack and, if pressed, will bite and will fight.

  • Ears forward, lifted as high as possible
  • Direct eye contact, fixed stare
  • Corners of mouth and lips pushed forward (snarl)
  • May curl upper lip, exposing some teeth, mouth mostly closed 
  • May curl upper lip, baring teeth to reveal incisors and canine teeth, mouth partly open
  • May curl upper lip exposing teeth and gums
  • Nose slightly or very wrinkled
  • Stands as tall as possible, leaning stiffly forward on toes, putting weight forward on frame
  • Neck arched
  • Hackles on neck and back raised
  • May push with shoulder or hip
  • Tail up high, stiff
  • Hair bristled down tail or at tip
  • May have sharp bend in tail or near tip of tail
  • May wag tail with short and fast wags
  • May stalk (stiff-legged walk)
  • May warn with bark or low-pitched growl
  • May snap or bite
Aggressive-Fearful Dog or Defensive Threat Posture

defensive dogBe very concerned about dogs in defensive threat posture. These dogs are showing signs of fear or submission and aggression. Dogs displaying this behavior are afraid and may attack if pushed. This is the posture assumed by fear-biters, dogs who bite out of fear. People often read them wrong, thinking they are harmless because most of their facial expressions show signs of submission. They do not look beyond the facial expression to the rest of the dog’s posture to see what he is really communicating. Defensive threat is the most dangerous body posture of dogs.

  • Ears flattened back against head
  • Direct eye contact, fixed stare
  • Eyes large and round, dilated pupils
  • Corners of mouth drawn back, lips slightly curled (similar to submissive grin)
  • May slightly expose teeth
  • Nose wrinkled
  • Weight shifts to hind feet
  • Body lowered, crouching position
  • Hackles on neck and back raised
  • Tail tucked, may slightly wag
  • Growls, raises and lowers pitch