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How to Understand Your Dog's Facial Expressions

Dog expressions (1)


Guest Author: James Woller 

As humans, we have the innate ability to understand what other people – even strangers – may be thinking and feeling simply by examining their facial expressions.  The human brain is capable of analyzing the combination of eyes, nose, mouth, and facial muscles to make a rapid assessment of a person's feelings.

Despite spending so much time with our dogs, and despite our dogs having basically the same facial elements as our own, most people would say that their dog does not display easily recognizable facial expressions.  Instead, people are more interested in knowing what a dog's body language means, without placing much importance on a dog’s face in isolation.  

However, dogs do display a wide variety of facial expressions to convey their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  By simply by knowing what to look for we can learn to understand our dogs better, forming a closer bond with our pooch at the same time.


They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and this is no less true in dogs.  Learning to understand a dog's eye expressions will help you to understand the emotions and feelings they're trying to convey.

Soft Eye Contact

When your dog's eyes are rounded and soft, your dog is likely feeling friendly, confident, and social.

Hard Eye Contact

Hard eye contact is like an intense stare and usually features unbroken prolonged eye contact.  This is a clear warning sign that a dog is feeling aggressive and may be getting ready to attack.

Showing Whites

If your dog is showing the whites of their eyes, it means that they're looking in one direction while pointing their nose in another direction.  The most common situation for this to occur is if your dog is protecting something – usually a toy, treat, or food – and pointing its nose at what it is protecting, while sizing up someone or something else to evaluate what kind of a threat they might be.



As humans, we tend to not be able to do too many party tricks with our ears.  Dogs, however, can show a wide variety of thoughts and feelings by positioning their ears in certain ways.  Here's what to look for.


Relaxed dog ears are an easy sign that your dog is also feeling relaxed.  Of course, dog ears come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but whether your dog is naturally prick-eared, floppy-eared, or an adorable combination of both, if your dog's ears are sitting in a relaxed position, so too is your dog.

Pricked Forward

Ears that are pricked forward are a sign of alertness and arousal.  Whether this means that your dog is eagerly ready to accept the next command or waiting for you to throw a ball, or is alert in a more aggressive way, will depend on the surrounding circumstances.  Either way, pricked ears signal alertness.


Pulled Back

No matter what type of ears your dog has, every dog is capable of visibly pulling their ears back.  This signal typically means that your dog is feeling fearful, which can lead to avoidance behaviors or aggression.


By understanding the variety of mouth positions your dog uses in different situations, you can pick up some simple clues on how your dog is feeling.


Panting can be a sign of recent physical exertion or that your dog is overheating.  To work out whether your dog's panting is a cause for alarm, notice the speed and depth of the panting.  Slow, deep panting is a sign of happy relaxation, and probably means you've just come back from a walk or it's a warm but not uncomfortably hot day.  Short, fast, shallow panting is a sign of distress, and action must be taken.

Facial Muscles

You may not have ever considered it, but your dog has a complex system of facial muscles, very similar to that of humans.  Changes in facial muscle positioning can be difficult to spot at first because of a dog's facial hair, but once you know what to look for, you can understand just how much meaning your dog is conveying by displaying tension lines and stress in their facial muscles.

Panting dog


Like some humans, dogs carry worry and tension in their brow line.  If you notice that your dog's brow is tensed or wrinkled (except, of course, in always-wrinkly dogs like pugs or the Chinese Shar-pei), notice what might be causing your dog to feel tense or worried.  For most breeds, a relaxed dog has a smooth brow line.

Mouth Lines

When a dog is feeling relaxed, their lips will be flat and unwrinkled.  Any unusual wrinkles around your dog's mouth can be a sign of tension and a precursor to a growl or snarl.


Dog faces

By now you understand that the language of cats and dogs is so much more than body language alone.  By looking for key indicators in your dog's facial features you will go a long way towards understanding how they're feeling and what they may be trying to tell you.  As with any new skill, learning to read your dog's facial expressions takes time, but it's an exercise that is guaranteed to bring you closer to your pooch.


About The Author:

James Woller is a long-time dog enthusiast, and owner of Release the Hounds and Jet Pet Resort, professional dog walking and boarding companies in Vancouver, Canada. On his days off from running his companies, he enjoys learning and writing about topics that are of interest to caring pet owners.

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