A cat sleeping peacefully next to a dog's face.

PAWS in Translation: How to Read Your Dog’s Facial Expressions

You’ve heard the phrase “puppy dog eyes,” as in, “He gave me those puppy dog eyes and I just melted.” When a person gives someone “puppy dog eyes,” it’s generally understood to be an intentional action designed to elicit an emotion from the other person. In short, it’s used to persuade someone to do what you want.

But do “puppy dog eyes” work from an actual puppy? If their eyes are always puppy dog eyes, how do you tell when they’re actually making a face to try and tell you something? Body language can help you determine if your pet is stressed, but is it possible to read your dog’s facial expressions?

It is. To a degree.

Dog expressions? Or reacting? Does it matter?

“Why does my dog squint at me?” “What do dog expressions mean?” “Is my dog frowning or sad?”
These are all great questions about how dogs communicate with humans. Does it mean anything when your furry friends make eye contact, or should we not take human communicative cues into account when considering domestic dogs’ facial expressions?

The biggest hurdle with reading canine facial expressions is that we tend to apply human emotions, expressions and context to dogs, and that might be the wrong thing to do. Even though as pet owners we like to think we know our dogs and cats inside and out, we don’t really know what’s going on in those dog and cat minds, and their faces…are different than ours. If your dog were to give you one of those big, toothy grins that human faces are so great at, you might run for the hills.

For instance, you know that guilty look your dog offers when you catch him or her doing something wrong? The “puppy dog eyes” with real puppy dog eyes? 2009 research studies show that your dog might not be showing guilt at all. Instead, they are reacting to your face, and expecting to be scolded. That guilty look might not be an emotion so much as a reaction. Dog facial expressions are complex!

Either way, it’s a facial cue that is telling you something, and that’s what this post is all about. Here are some other facial “expressions” that can help you better understand your dog’s mood, courtesy of Bash Dibra, “pet trainer to the stars.”


Flat ears, positioned either forward or back on the head, squinted eyes, erratic eyebrow movement or an unbroken, challenging stare accompanied by bared teeth means that it is time to stand down and give your pal some space.


A wide-open mouth not showing teeth, big wide eyes and perked-up, forward ears mean that your dog is curious, even surprised or excited about something.


Similar to the “aggression” face. Flattened ears laid back on the head and narrowed, darting eyes with the teeth bared tells you that your dog is afraid of something. Fear and dogs don’t mix well!


Perky dog’s ears and wide, alert eyes might be accompanied by a “smile”; that open mouth that isn’t showing any teeth. This means that this relaxed dog is down for some pats.


This face looks just like the “friendly” face, but the ears might be more relaxed and there might be some panting. A happy dog is often easy to spot, though!


This face means that they’re beyond scared and in panic mode. The ears are back, the eyes wide and maybe rolling to show the whites. The mouth will be slightly opened and possibly drooling.

There are obviously a lot more “faces” your dog might make, but these cover the basics.

Dog Facial Expressions Chart for Dog Owners

We understand that it can be hard to tell what a dog’s facial muscles are doing based on simple descriptions of animal facial expressions, so we’ve created this handy chart to act as a visual guide to each dog facial expression.

An interior graphic depicting dogs' different facial expressions and what they mean.

Dog Facial Expressions Are Only Part of the Tale

Dog facial expressions can tell a big part of the story, but for any pet, it’s the whole package that tells the, ahem, tail. Dog body language extends beyond expressive eyebrows or facial movements. Canine communication contains multitudes, and encompasses everything from body posture, eye contact and other body language. Dogs produce all sorts of communicative function and nonverbal language, and animal behavior is far from an exact science. In the end, you know your dog’s emotions and emotional state better than anyone, and your first feeling about their body language cues is likely the right one.


If you need more information about your dog’s body language, stress level or anything else, be sure to contact your veterinarian.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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