Glossary of Canine Communication Terminology

Glossary of Canine Communication Terminology

Welcome to our comprehensive glossary of canine communication and body language terminology. Understanding how dogs communicate is essential for building strong, positive relationships between humans and our four-legged companions. This compilation aims to unravel the intricacies of canine expressions, gestures, and vocalizations, providing invaluable insights into their emotions, intentions, and needs.

Whether you're a dog owner, trainer, or simply a dog enthusiast, this guide will help you decode the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle cues that our furry friends use to interact with us and their canine peers.

Term Definition
Agonistic Pucker A facial expression commonly observed in dogs during conflict or aggression, characterized by the wrinkling or puckering of the skin around the muzzle. The agonistic pucker is often accompanied by other aggressive body language signals, such as tense posture and direct eye contact.
Airplane Ears A term used to describe a dog's ears when they are fully erect and pointing to each side, like the wings of an airplane. It typically indicates attentiveness, curiosity, or excitement.
Alerting Refers to a dog's behavior of actively drawing attention to a specific stimulus or potential threat. This can include barking, growling, or other vocalizations, as well as physically positioning themselves to face the source of the perceived danger.
Appeasement/Calming Signals Behaviors displayed by a dog to diffuse tension, avoid conflict, or communicate non-aggressive intentions. These signals can include lip licking, yawning, turning the head away, or exhibiting a soft body posture, and are commonly used in social interactions or during periods of stress.
Defensive Aggression Aggressive behavior displayed by a dog in response to a perceived threat or an attempt to protect itself or its territory. Defensive aggression often arises when a dog feels cornered or fearful and can include growling, snarling, barking, and biting. Generally, a dog’s posture is pulled backwards but that is not always the case.
Displacement Behaviors In canine communication, displacement behaviors are often observed when a dog experiences conflicting emotions or is unsure how to respond to a situation. These behaviors serve as a temporary outlet for the dog's underlying anxiety or frustration and can include activities like yawning, scratching, sniffing the ground, or licking themselves excessively.

Distance-Decreasing Behaviors

Actions taken by a dog to reduce the physical space between themselves and another individual or object. This behavior can be motivated by various factors, such as a desire for social interaction, curiosity, or seeking comfort and reassurance.

Distance-Increasing Behaviors

The opposite of distance-decreasing behavior, distance-increasing behaviors are exhibited by a dog to create more space between themselves and a perceived threat or source of discomfort. This can involve moving away, turning the body sideways, or displaying defensive postures to discourage further approach.
Fear Grin A facial expression displayed by a fearful dog, characterized by a closed mouth with lips pulled back in a grimace-like manner. The fear grin is often accompanied by other body language signals of fear, such as cowering, tail tucking, and a lowered body posture.
Flagging Tail Refers to a dog's tail being erect like a flagpole. This behavior is typically associated with high arousal, extreme focus, and a potential to attack.


The production of excessive saliva or foam around the mouth, usually as a result of intense excitement, exertion, or stress. Frothing is commonly observed during highly stimulating activities such as intense play or aggressive encounters.


A low, rumbling vocalization produced by a dog as a warning or threat display. Growling is a distance-increasing behavior used to signal discomfort, assert boundaries, or express aggression. The tone or strength of the growl can change based on the dog's emotion.
Hackles Refers to the raised fur along a dog's neck, shoulders, and back, which occurs in response to arousal, fear, or aggression. The raised hackles make the dog appear larger and more intimidating, serving as a visual warning to potential threats.
Helicopter Tail Describes a dog's tail wagging in a circular or helicopter-like motion. This exuberant tail wagging is often seen when a dog is extremely happy, excited, or anticipating something enjoyable.

Lip Lick

A behavior in which a dog quickly flicks its tongue over its lips, often as a response to stress, anxiety, or anticipation. Lip licking can indicate discomfort or a desire to appease or calm a potentially tense situation.
Lip Sweep A more exaggerated version of lip licking, lip sweeping refers to a dog using its tongue to sweep across its lips. This behavior can be a sign of stress or anxiety.
Mirroring A behavior where one dog imitates the body language or actions of another dog. Mirroring can occur during social interactions as a way to establish rapport, display empathy, or signal cooperative intentions, and is a healthy sign of play.
Nose Lick The act of a dog licking its own nose. Nose licking can be a self-soothing behavior or a gesture of appeasement and is often used in canine communication to diffuse tension or communicate non-threatening intentions.
Offensive Aggression Aggressive behavior displayed by a dog with the intention of initiating an attack or gaining control over a perceived threat or rival. This can include direct approaches, lunging, biting, or other offensive actions.
Paw Raise A behavior where a dog lifts one of its paws off the ground and holds it close to their body. Not to be confused with some breeds that alert with a lifted paw, paw raises are typically calming/conflict avoidance behaviors and are distance increasing behaviors.

Play Bow

A distinct body posture in which a dog lowers its front end while keeping its hindquarters elevated. This posture is an invitation to play and is often accompanied by a wagging tail and a playful expression. The play bow signals the dog's intention to engage in friendly, non-aggressive interaction.
Ritualized Aggression A form of aggression that follows a predictable sequence of behaviors and signals, often seen in social interactions or competitive situations. Ritualized aggression serves to resolve conflicts without causing serious harm.
Scanning Refers to a dog's behavior of visually surveying its environment, moving its head from side to side to gather information and assess potential threats or points of interest. Scanning allows the dog to gather information about its surroundings and make informed decisions about its actions.
Self-Handicapping A behavior exhibited by a dog to intentionally limit or restrain its own actions, often during social interactions or play. Self-handicapping can involve intentionally reducing speed, using less force, or employing inhibitory behaviors to maintain a balanced and non-threatening interaction.
Shake Off A quick, full-body shake performed by a dog, typically starting from the head and working its way to the tail. Dogs often shake off after experiencing stress, tension, or as a way to physically reset themselves after a challenging or stimulating event.
Snarl A behavior in which a dog directs its attention, gaze, or body movement towards a specific object, person, or location. Targeting can serve various purposes, such as indicating interest, establishing boundaries, or focusing attention on a specific task.
Targeting A form of artistic grooming where the dog's coat is creatively styled and dyed to create unique and eye-catching designs or patterns.
Tongue Flick The quick flicking or protrusion of a dog's tongue out of its mouth, often observed as a brief, subtle movement. Tongue flicks can be an indication of nervousness, anticipation, or mild stress, particularly during unfamiliar or challenging situations.

Whale Eye

A term used to describe the appearance of the whites of a dog's eyes (sclera) when they are visible, usually due to the dog turning its head while maintaining direct eye contact. Whale eye is often seen in situations where a dog feels threatened, anxious, or fearful, and it serves as a warning sign of potential aggression or discomfort.
Joseph Schifano Author Headshot
Joseph Schifano

Joseph Schifano is the President of The Academy of Pet Careers and the Founder of DogNerdly.

With over 20 years of professional pet experience, Joseph began his journey as the owner/operator of a successful seven-figure pet care business. He later acquired The Academy of Pet Careers, aiming to elevate the quality of care provided by industry professionals. This position enabled him to connect with leading experts in the field and deepen his knowledge in all aspects of pet care.