How to Read German Shepherd Body Language

Categorized as Training and Behavior
Featured image for an article about German Shepherd behavior and body language

As a German Shepherd owner, understanding your dog’s body language is key to building a strong bond and trust. While German Shepherds are highly intelligent, they communicate primarily through non-verbal cues.

By learning how to interpret their body language, you can better understand their needs, emotions, and react appropriately. This guide will teach you how to read the most common German Shepherd communication signals.

Here’s a quick answer: To read your German Shepherd’s body language, observe their eyes, ears, mouth, tail and overall posture. Note signals like staring, tilted ears, lip licking, wagging tail, and hackles raised. Consider combinations and context to interpret the meaning, such as anxious, playful, or aggressive. Respond appropriately to reinforce desired communication and meet their needs. Reading your dog’s unique signals will strengthen your bond.

Why Reading Body Language Matters

Dogs rely far more on body language than verbal cues. While they can learn verbal commands, reading body language comes naturally to them. As their owner, you need to speak their non-verbal language to fully communicate.

Learning dog body language has many benefits:

  • Understand your dog’s emotions – Is your dog happy, anxious, angry or afraid? Body language makes it clear.
  • Identify needs – Your dog’s signals can tell you if they need to go out, want to play or be left alone.
  • Strengthen your bond – Reading your dog’s cues makes them feel understood and secure.
  • Avoid conflicts – Catching subtle signals of irritation or fear early prevents aggression.
  • Provide proper care – Changes in body language may indicate pain, illness or distress.

Dogs are always communicating through body language. Learn to interpret these signals, and you can become a better, more attentive owner.

How to Read Eyes, Ears and More

German Shepherds use their entire body to communicate. Here’s what key signals from different body parts mean:


StaringShowing attention, interest or aggression
BlinkingSeeking connection or anxious
Dilated pupilsExcited, anxious or in low light
Darting eyesAssessing risks, uncertain
Avoidant eyesDisinterest, establishing social order
  • Staring – A long, fixed gaze signals high engagement. It may show attentiveness during training or interest if your dog stares at food or a toy. Prolonged staring can also communicate aggression toward other dogs or people. Assess the context.
  • Blinking – Slow, exaggerated blinking seeks to make a social connection. It often solicits attention or affection. Rapid blinking indicates anxiety, especially during stressful situations.
  • Dilated pupils – In low light, dilated pupils help dogs see better. Dilated pupils during daylight suggest excitement or anxiety. Have your vet check eye health if dilation seems abnormal.
  • Darting eyes – German Shepherds quickly scan new environments to check for risks. Darting eyes indicate a dog assessing potential threats or feeling unsure about novel stimuli.
  • Avoidant eyes – Dogs avoid direct eye contact to communicate social order and compliance. Sustained avoidance signals disinterest, unwillingness to engage or establish rank in multi-dog homes.


ErectAlert and attentive
ForwardConfident and focused
RelaxedCalm and secure
BackwardFearful or anxious
FlattenedWorried or showing submission
  • Erect – Perked up ears facing forward signal an alert, attentive dog tuned into their surroundings. Erect ears show interest and readiness to respond.
  • Forward – Ears pricked forward communicate confidence, focus and intensity. It shows strong engagement with a person, task or environment.
  • Relaxed – Neutral or loosely dropped ears indicate a calm, secure dog. A relaxed ear carriage reflects low stress.
  • Backward – Ears tilted back suggest fear, uncertainty, anxiety or submission. The farther back the ears, the greater the dog’s distress.
  • Flattened – Partially flattened ears signal worry, apprehension or submission, especially around perceived threats. Severely flattened ears indicate intense fear.


PantingHot, excited or anxious
Licking lipsNervous or appetitive
YawningBored, tired or stressed
GrowlingWarning of aggression
SnarlingImminent aggression
  • Panting – As a cooling mechanism, panting is normal on hot days or after exercise. It also arises with anxiety, fear or high arousal, like during thunderstorms or fireworks.
  • Licking lips – Brief lip licks show nervousness or stress. Prolonged, repetitive licking reflects appetite or nausea. Consider context to determine the trigger.
  • Yawning – Yawning signals boredom, fatigue or drowsiness. Frequent yawning can also indicate anxiety.
  • Growling – Low, rumbling growls put others “on notice” and warn of impending aggression. Never punish growling, as this eliminates an important warning signal.
  • Snarling – Bared teeth, curled lips and tense mouth indicate aggression and foreshadow an attack. Take snarling seriously and remove your dog from the situation.


WaggingHappy or aroused
Straight upAlert and excitable
NeutralCalm and relaxed
LowSad, anxious or uncertain
TuckedFearful or submissive
  • Wagging – Rapid tail wagging reflects a happy, excited dog. Slower wagging indicates curiosity or uncertainty. Wagging also arises with anxiety, arousal and aggression.
  • Straight up – A tail held vertically signals an alert, highly engaged dog. It can also reflect dominance, territoriality or readiness to react.
  • Neutral – When relaxed, German Shepherds hold their tails straight out behind them. A neutral tail carriage reflects calmness.
  • Low – A mildly lowered tail indicates sadness, nervousness, apprehension or depression.
  • Tucked – Extreme fear and lack of confidence cause a dog to tuck its tail between its legs. It signals fearfulness and submission.

Other Body Language Cues

Hackles raisedAggressive, fearful or excited
Bowed posturePlayful or stretched
Crouched postureFearful, anxious or submissive
Rolling overSeeking attention or diffusing tension
Shaking offResetting or transitioning
PacingBored, anxious or containing energy
FreezingHypervigilant or startled
  • Hackles raised – The dog’s hair stands up along the neck, back and tail base when a dog feels aggressive, fearful or highly aroused.
  • Bowed posture – A play bow with front legs stretched forward and hindquarters in the air invites play. It may also precede stretching.
  • Crouched posture – By making their body low and small, dogs communicate fear, anxiety or submission, especially around threats.
  • Rolling over – Rolling onto the dog’s back signals a need for attention and affection. It also defuses social tension. Never approach a fearful dog in this position.
  • Shaking off – A full body shake helps a dog reset and transition between activities or emotional states. It signals disengagement.
  • Pacing – Repetitive pacing shows leashed energy, boredom or anxiety. Meet the dog’s needs based on the context.
  • Freezing – A sudden stiff posture reveals a startled or highly vigilant dog. Remain calm and don’t exacerbate their alarm.

Tips for Reading Body Language

Reading your German Shepherd’s signals accurately takes practice. Apply these tips to understand their communication style:

  • Learn your individual dog’s baseline – Their normal facial expressions, ear set, tail carriage and posture serve as a point of comparison.
  • Observe combinations of signals – Single signals can be ambiguous. Clusters of coordinated signals clarify meaning.
  • Note abrupt changes – Sudden shifts from calm to fearful expressions signal a new development.
  • Consider context – The situation and environment shape meaning. A dog barking near the door versus at a stranger conveys different messages.
  • Watch play carefully – Play signals like bows easily progress to overarousal. Learn when it’s time to calm your dog.
  • Identify displacement signals – Stress may manifest as lip licking, yawning or sniffing. These provide feedback on your dog’s state of mind.
  • Avoid making dogs more uncomfortable – Don’t stare down or tightly hug a fearful dog. Give anxious dogs space.

With practice reading the ears, eyes, tail and more, you’ll be able to interpret your German Shepherd’s signals. Paying attention to their body language makes you a more sensitive, responsive owner.

How to React to Common Body Language Signals

Once you understand your dog’s cues, respond appropriately to meet their needs and reinforce wanted communication. Here are tips for reacting to key signals:

Happy or Excited

Signs: Wagging tail, erect ears, focused eyes, relaxed mouth, squinty eyes, bowing.

Responses: Praise calmly, engage in play, provide an enriching activity, redirect overexcitement.

Fearful or Anxious

Signs: Ears back, lip licking, panting, yawning, crouched posture, avoidant eyes.

Responses: Speak softly, avoid eye contact, distract gently, retreat from trigger, praise calmness.

Aggressive or Dominant

Signs: Hard stare, high stiff tail, erect ears, hackles raised, deep growl.

Responses: Avoid eye contact, turn sideways, stay still, leave, firmly say “no”, seek professional help.

Uncomfortable or Irritated

Signs: Ears back, brief growl, head turn away, prolonged stare.

Responses: Give space, approach slowly, discontinue unwanted handling, redirect their attention.

Attentive and Focused

Signs: Erect ears, sitting posture, staring eyes, straight tail.

Responses: Reward with praise, affection or treats, initiate training or play.

Making Training More Effective

You can use your dog’s signals to improve training.

For example, a dog with a relaxed mouth, lowered head and soft eyes is ready to learn. Erect ears and partially closed eyes show engagement. Mark and reward these receptive, attentive signals.

Conversely, a dog with a tense mouth, panting and backward ears is too anxious or distracted to focus. Pause and try again later in a calmer state.

Training methods should account for body language. Use positive reinforcement, not punishment or dominance. Force and confrontation cause dogs to exhibit fearful, submissive postures that disrupt learning.

Reading your dog’s signals lets you know when to progress, pause, or revisit skills using new techniques.

Changes to Note and When to See the Vet

Subtle changes in your German Shepherd’s body language can indicate pain, illness or distress. Contact your veterinarian if you observe:

  • Lethargy, depression, decreased appetite or activity level
  • Increased pacing, trembling, restlessness or panting
  • Aggression when previously friendly and calm
  • Loss of housetraining abilities
  • Disorientation, stumbling or inability to settle
  • Discomfort when touched or handled
  • Signs of pain like lip licking or whining when moving

While behavior changes aren’t always connected to health issues, sudden shifts warrant an exam. Your vet can ensure there is no underlying physical cause.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to learn dog body language?

It takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to master reading body language signals. Learning your own dog’s cues goes faster than interpreting all dog behaviors. Stick with it, and you’ll soon find reading dogs becomes second nature.

Are body language signals universal across breeds?

Many signals are common across breeds, like play bows, lip licking and tail wagging. But some breeds show nuances. For example, Chow Chows and Shiba Inus are less facially expressive. Getting to know your breed’s tendencies helps.

Can I reinforce my dog’s body language signals?

Absolutely! Reward wanted behaviors like sitting politely or maintaining eye contact. Avoid rewarding unwanted behaviors like jumping up or demand barking. Reinforcement teaches your dog how to better communicate with you.

Should I use verbal commands if my dog understands body language?

Yes. Use both in combination. Verbal cues give your dog direction while body language demonstrates you understand their communication. Consistent verbal and non-verbal messaging helps reinforce training.

How do I correct my dog’s body language if needed?

Never punish fearful or anxious behaviors, as this increases distress. For inappropriate social behaviors, use redirection and positive reinforcement of wanted alternatives. Some signals like aggressive displays require professional intervention.

The Takeaway

Like any language, learning to read your German Shepherd’s body language takes time and dedication. But this investment pays off through a strong bond built on mutual understanding.

Pay attention to your dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, tail and posture. Note changes and what prompts them. Reacting appropriately makes your dog feel supported.

With consistent positive reinforcement of the signals you want to see, you’ll be fluent in speaking dog in no time!

By Andrew Garf

Andrew Garf has loved dogs, especially German Shepherds, since he was 10 years old. Though he also loves burgers, training dogs is his real passion. That's why he created the website - to help dog owners learn how to properly train, care for, and bond with their German Shepherd dogs.