Dog Facial Expressions and Body Language Explained by Science

A dog’s facial expressions and the body language that goes with it are crucial to understand if you want to know how your dog is feeling or what he is trying to communicate to you. Learning about dog facial expressions and the body language that goes with them is the key to understanding your canine companion.

Wolves evolved an intricate system of facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language to communicate with each other. Dogs also use this to communicate, but if you can learn to translate this language, you will be able to ‘communicate’ with your pet and easily solve many behavioral problems that may arise.

This knowledge can also deepen the relationship you have with your dog. Opening the door to communication with your pet will strengthen your bond. You will both learn to trust each other, making your relationship more special than you ever anticipated.

Dog Facial Expressions and Body Language

Dog Facial Expressions Explained by Science

Science goes to the dogs…

You may have heard of a project that began in the late 1970s called FACS – Facial Action Coding System [PDF]. This taxonomized all the expressions a human face can make. In recent years, a handful of researchers have attempted to increase human understanding of the shared language between humans and their pets by improving the accuracy with which people read dog facial expressions.

Research in DogFACS only began a few years ago, but 11 ‘Action Units’ and five ‘Ear Action Descriptors’ have so far been identified. An Action Unit is a movement of facial muscles involved in expression, whereas an Ear Action Descriptor is, you guessed it, ear movements that are part of a dog’s facial expression.

Those puppy-dog eyes

At this point in time, there has just been one study done and published by DogFACS in a real-life context. In an experiment, the scientists filmed 27 dogs interacting with strangers at a shelter. Interestingly enough, there was one facial expression that corresponded with the speed of adoption – puppy-dog eyes.

The dogs who raised their inner eyebrows were adopted faster than others, and those who made the face more often during the interaction found homes the fastest.

It’s not hard to imagine why. We all know the sad and desperate look we sometimes get from our dogs. You know, the one that melts your heart, and you can’t help but give your dog whatever it desires?

Anthropomorphic misunderstandings

As humans, we often attribute human characteristics or behavior to our pets. For example, a dog’s bared teeth can easily be mistaken for a smile by children. This can be a dangerous situation as the child might move closer and get bitten.

Dog Facial Expressions ExplainedScientists, like the famous canine researcher and author Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, are trying to untangle the anthropomorphic assumptions from expressions of dogs. She is interested in whether attributions of understanding and emotions of dogs are sound or unsuitable applications of human psychological terms given to non-humans.

Take, for example, the guilty look ascribed to pets after bad behavior. In Horowitz’s study, the behaviors of 14 domestic dogs were videotaped and analyzed for elements that correspond to the guilty look as identified by the owners. Results indicated that the so-called guilty look is a response to the owner’s cues rather than the dog showing acknowledgment of a misdeed.

It is a good idea to read as much as you can about your dog's facial expressions and body language to avoid any misunderstandings and possibly dangerous situations for your children or visitors to your home.

Let’s break it down…

So, what should you be looking for when learning to understand dog facial expressions? What are some of the most common dog facial expressions, and which body language signs typically go along with them?

We can separate them into two categories—negative and positive facial expressions and body language.

NEGATIVE dog facial expressions and body language

Dog Facial Expressions ExplainedDirect eye contact can get you in trouble or cause shy and tense dogs to back up. That is why it is always good to read other body language signs to find out if you are dealing with an aggressive or scared dog.

If you find yourself face to face with a dog with his tail high and curled tightly over his back, and his focus is solely on you, then you are dealing with a tense dog. Watch the whites of the dog’s eyes.

A dog showing what is called ‘whale eye,’ where the whites of his eyes are showing, is often anxious and may even be about to snap. Be aware of the facial muscles; are they tense, is the dog’s mouth tightly closed, or do you see teeth with a curled lip or a snarl?


When meeting a new dog, he will likely approach you to sniff you. His body weight won’t be distributed evenly but back over his haunches. He will stretch his neck in your direction. If you look down and meet eyes, he will back up quickly and might even start barking. Try to avoid direct eye contact until the dog has had a chance to get to know you.

A tightly closed mouth is also a sign of tension. When out for a walk in the park and your dog lunges at another dog on a leash with a jaw that is tensely shut, he is about to lose self-control.

Dog Facial Expressions ExplainedIf the corners of his lips move forwards, watch out, as things will escalate quickly, and the situation could become aggressive. Move away from anything at the first sign of tension in your dog’s face. That will save you both a lot of stress.

A tightly closed mouth may also indicate physical discomfort. Always check your surroundings, and if you do not see anything that might be the cause of tension in your dog, consider a physical ailment as a possible reason for his distress.

If you spot your dog licking his lips, and we're not talking after chewing on a juicy bone, it can generally be seen as an appeasement signal. Appeasement is not necessarily a bad thing, as some dogs try to placate their owners more regularly than others.

However, if appeasement gestures are given over and over again, it tells you that something in a situation is making your dog unhappy. Accompanied with severe drooling, this might signal fear, and you should try to remove your dog from the particular situation to see if he calms down.

Panting can happen for several reasons. Evaluating the rest of his body language will help you figure out why your dog is panting. Is it because he may be overheated, is he excited, or might it be due to stress?

Ears alone won't tell you if your dog is excited, happy, alert, or aggressive, and are best read together with other body language. For example, ears that are pinned back against the head can mean happy appeasement, fear or even stress.

POSITIVE dog facial expressions and body language

A dog who is feeling confident and friendly will have squinting eyes, round or almond-shaped, with pupils dilated according to available light. This relaxed behavior will be accompanied by a curved and wiggling body with a slight tail wag.

Dog Facial Expressions and Body Language ExplainedWhen your dog is happy and relaxed, her mouth should be closed or slightly open. The skin around her mouth should be wrinkle-free, this of course does not apply to dogs with flat faces like Boston Terriers, Bulldogs, or Bullmastiffs.

A happy dog face is easy to spot. Your dog's facial muscles will be soft and look relaxed. You might even see her muscles curl up into what can be called a ‘smile,' of course, without any teeth showing!

Her eyes will be squinting and soft, a sort of sleepy contentment. When happy and excited, her face may be full of excitement in anticipation of playing ball or going for a walk. As said before, always read your dog's facial expressions together with their body language to make an accurate assessment of your dog's mood.

A quick recap on dog facial expressions and body language

With the help of Paws Across America, here is a summary of dog facial expressions and body language.

Aggressive Dog

Ears Forward or back, close to the head
Eyes Narrow or staring as if to challenge
Mouth/Jaw   Lips open, drawn back to expose teeth bared in a snarl. Possible snapping
Body Position Tense. Upright. Hackles on neck up. Completely dominant
Tail Straight out from the body. Fluffed up
Vocalizations Snarl. Growl. Loud bark


Anxious Dog

Ears Partially back
Eyes Slightly narrowed
Mouth Closed or slightly open in a ‘grin'
Body Tense. Slightly lowered in a submissive position
Tail Partially lowered
Vocalizations Low whine or moaning-type bark


Curious/Eager/Excited Dog

Ears Perked-up, forward-pointing
Eyes Wide open
Mouth Mouth open, teeth covered. Possible panting
Body Normal stance. Possible wiggling, standing on tiptoe, or pacing
Tail Up. Wagging
Vocalizations Excited, short barking, whining


Fearful Dog

Ears Laid back flat and low on the head
Eyes Narrowed, averted. Possibly rolled back in the head, whites showing
Mouth Lips drew back to expose teeth
Body Tense. Crouched low in a submissive position. Shivering, trembling.
Tail Down between legs
Vocalizations Low, worried yelp, whine, or growl


Friendly Dog

Ears Perked-up
Eyes Wide open. Alert look
Mouth Relaxed, possibly slightly open, ‘smiling' mouth
Body Normal posture. Still, or possibly wiggling of the whole rear end
Tail Up or out of body. Wagging
Vocalizations Whimpering, yapping, or short, high bark


Playful and Happy Dog

Ears Perked up and forward, relaxed
Eyes Wide open. Sparkly, merry-looking
Mouth Relaxed and slightly open, teeth covered. Excited
Body Relaxed, or front-end lowered, rear-end up in the air, wiggling in a play-bow. Excited, bouncing, and jumping up and down. Circling around
Tail Wagging vigorously
Vocalizations Excited barking. Soft play-growling

READ NEXT: Dog Body Language – The Pet Owner’s Guide to Understanding Dogs

Kristina has graduated with a Master's degree in Psychology over five years ago, and since been researching and writing about animal sciences and dog training. Her main goal is to present the most truthful science-based information to as many pet owners out there as possible.