Decoding Puppy Body Language: 8 Common Behaviors Explained

Puppy rolling on back
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If your puppy's on his back, it could mean he's relaxed or that he's scared and submissive.

It's pretty obvious what a puppy with a wagging tail, wiggling body and licking tongue is saying when he comes to greet you — but not all puppy language is so easy to decipher. If he's making low "grrrr" sounds when you're playing tug, is he becoming aggressive? If he rolls onto his back, is he scared? It all depends on the context in which he's doing these behaviors and the other signals his body language is putting out.

Common Signs, What They Mean

  • The play-bow. When a dog pounces so that his front legs are flush with the floor, his rear end is still up in the air and he looks at you expectantly, it's an invitation to play!
  • Making a "grrrr" sound. Growling can, of course, be a sign of aggression or the reaction of a dog who feels threatened and is trying to protect himself or someone else. But when a puppy is playing and makes this low throaty sound, it can also mean he's having fun, particularly when playing competitive games, such as tugging or wrestling. Unfortunately, many owners misinterpret it as a growl and even punish their puppy in the belief they must put a stop to this aggressive threat. 
  • Showing their teeth. Similarly, don’t confuse some teeth showing for a snarl; it may be a canine grin of submission. One way to tell the difference: Typically with a snarl, the lips go up, revealing the front canine teeth, while a submissive grin is more of a horizontal retraction of the lips and will cause wrinkles at the corner of the puppy's mouth.
  • Running away from you. Because play is often mock scenarios of fighting, chasing and being chased, it's sometimes hard to know when the line has been crossed from playing scared, for example, to really being scared. If your puppy runs away from you, he may want you to chase him, so he can play keep-away. If it's all in play, he'll keep looping around, enticing you to try again. His posture will be erect, his ears forward and up, and his tail high and wagging slowly. His mouth will often be open and panting, and his tongue may even loll to one side. But sometimes it passes beyond play, and he gets scared. In this case, he'll try to stay farther away or hide. His posture will be lower, his ears back and down, and his movement slinkier. His tail will be tucked or down, and if he wags it, it will be quick short wags. His lips may be drawn back in a "worried" expression, and he will lick his lips often. If he exhibits these behaviors, stop doing whatever it is you're doing immediately. You may inadvertently be using body postures that are frightening your pup.
  • Rolling onto his back. If he's rolling around as if scratching his back, or if his head is lolled to one side, mouth open, rear legs flopped to either side and tail wagging slowing, then he's probably relaxed (and often inviting you to rub his belly!). But if he's lying partly to one side, with one front and one rear leg raised, head twisted but held off the ground, mouth closed, tail either still, tucked or wagging quickly, and especially if he urinates on himself — he's scared and submissive.
  • Yawning. Like humans, dogs can yawn when they're bored or sleepy. But if your dog is in a stressful situation, a yawn is an indication that he's anxious or upset.
  • Mounting. Though it may be an embarrassing action — especially when you have company over — mounting isn't always a sexual behavior. Mounting one another is normal for puppies at play, and occurs in both male and females, and to both same and opposite sexes. Often, it's a declaration of who is temporarily the winner of the game. Puppies may also mount people, especially when playing or when simply excited about something. Though the behavior should be gently discouraged, rest assured that it's part of normal puppy play. Simply detach him and give him something more acceptable to play with.
  • Suddenly stops playing. If your puppy is playing and suddenly stops, he may have to urinate — try to take him outside. It's also possible that he's tired. Remember, puppies are still young and may have short bursts of energy, followed by the need to take a nap. If he seems to tire too easily, he may have low blood sugar and need to eat more often (some toy breeds need to be fed every two to three hours for the first six months of life) or he may have heartworms. Call your vet if you think your puppy is abnormally tired.

The more you understand what your puppy is trying to tell you, the better you can work to create a happy household for both of you. And you might as well learn it now; he’ll probably keep this same basic body language throughout his life, just adding a few more messages to his repertoire as he matures.

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