Understanding the Body Language of German Shepherds

German Shepherds are known for their loyalty, protectiveness, and overall high intelligence. But as German Shepherd Dog (GSD) owners know well, each dog has a personality all their own.

Understanding the body language of German Shepherds and how your dog communicates will help with both bonding and training.

Understanding German Shepherd body language
Star, Owner Jeanne Melanson

If you’re thinking about getting a German Shepherd then first check out this puppy checklist which covers everything you need before bringing home a new pup.

German Shepard Body Language

While the body language of dogs is a large topic, there are several quick tips you can learn very quickly. Our complete overview of German Shepherd body language is below:

Natural Abilities and Inclinations

German Shepherds are natural protectors, which is why they’re often used as guard dogs and in law enforcement. This natural ability to protect is why they’re often an excellent choice to help with security around the house too. Unfortunately, sometimes a GSD’s inherent suspicion of the unfamiliar can lead to unwanted aggressive behavior.

The best way to prevent this is to socialize your dog at a young age. Get your GSD used to being around people and other dogs. They’ll be far less likely to grow into an aggressive animal, although their natural instinct to protect your household will remain – only in a far more positive manner.

Every GSD is Unique

Your dog’s personality will be reflected in their body language, which means there is no such thing as rules like, “When a dog does trait X he or she is feeling emotion Y.” Instead, you want to notice relative differences in your dog’s overall behavior – these differences in body language will reflect their mood and thoughts.

German Shepherds: Man’s Or Woman’s Best Guardian

The Tail’s Tale

As explained in an issue of Current Biology, a dog’s tail does a lot of his or her communication. The muscles on the right side of the tail display positive emotions while the left shows negative. If your GSD wags his tail more to the right of his or her body, that dog is happy. More to the left and the dog is nervous, anxious, or aggressive.

Tail Positions:

Tail wagging fast and wide – This means the dog is excited, happy, and energetic. For instance, this type of tail wagging usually occurs when a GSD sees his or her owner after an absence.

Tail held high and straight – This means the dog feels confident and in control of a situation. The dog is feeling good.

Tail lowered – This means the dog is relaxed. However, while the tail is lowered, it is not between the dog’s legs.

Tail lowered between legs – This signifies that the dog is afraid. The dog may also be upset or embarrassed.

Tail held loose and horizontal – This is when a dog is unsure about a person or thing. They’re not necessarily ready to challenge the uncertain person, but they’re not quite willing to make friends yet, either.

Tail wagging slowly – A dog does this when he or she is trying to determine if you’re a friend or an enemy, and this is common when a dog meets a person for the first time. It’s a slightly more affirmative action than a tail held loose and horizontal.

Tail held horizontally, but stiff and with a fast wag – This is an aggressive stance. The dog is agitated.

Canine Body Language - A Photographic Guide, Understanding the Body Language of German Shepherds

Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide

Body Positions

Beyond the tail, there are many other ways a dog can express their feelings and intentions. Some common body language signs include:

Belly-up with exposed neck and/or genitals – This is a sign of submissiveness. The dog is telling you that you’re in charge.

Bowed down on front paws. Rear held up with wagging tail – When a dog does this, he or she wants to play and interact with you. Dogs will do this to people and other dogs. Additional signs of wanting to play include pawing in the air and barking.

Lying down with one paw tucked under the body – This is a relaxed dog. He or she feels happy, safe, and content, and is usually an invitation to pet the dog.

Frozen or stiff body – Be wary around this dog. He or she is uncomfortable, doesn’t want to be touched, and may bite if approached.

Bristled fur along neck and back – Don’t approach this dog. When a dog raises his fur, he’s scared, submissive, and probably feeling cornered. A dog like this might even attack, so be careful.

Facial Features:

Like people, you can also tell a lot about a dog by their facial expressions. Here are some common ways a dog uses his or her ears, eyes, and mouth to convey feelings:

Raised upper lip, bared teeth – This is a warning, usually accompanied by a growl. If a dog is snarling at you, don’t approach any further, and don’t make any sudden movements because this is an aggressive move.

Corners of the mouth pulled back – Different than a snarl. A dog pulls their mouth back when they feel happy, relaxed, and comfortable around you. In many ways, this is basically a smile.

Cocked head and twitching ears – This dog is confused about something and trying to learn. Typically, this shows interest but be careful as it may also indicate fear. You’ll have to look for additional body language cues to determine what the dog feels.

Ears forward – This one is pretty straightforward. The dog is trying to figure out what a sound is or where it’s coming from.

Whites of eyes exposed in a half-moon shape – This dog doesn’t want to be bothered. The dog may feel threatened, cornered, or scared. Just leave the dog alone and, without approaching, try to alleviate whatever may be upsetting the dog.  

If Your Dog Could Talk …

… then we’d never have to guess how he or she is feeling. But body language is still a great substitute. By understanding how dogs use their face, tail, and body to express themselves you can always have a general idea of how a dog — even an unfamiliar one – is feeling. When you apply that general knowledge to a dog whose personality you know well, you can gain an even greater understanding of that dog.

Understanding your German Shepherd dog’s use of body language helps with bonding, training, and even identification of medical issues. So just because your dog can’t talk doesn’t mean he or she has nothing to say. You just have to know how to listen. Here’s to excellent communication between you and your four-legged friend.

For more info on dog body language, visit us at Shepped.com.  Also on Twitter and Facebook

Guest Author: Andrew James 

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24 thoughts on “Understanding the Body Language of German Shepherds”

  1. My GSD is 9 mo and a few times something is spooked her outside to the point she won’t go outside and just stays inside. She acts scared and jumps at every noise. I got her a thunder jacket that seems to help a bit but she is just so scared, not sure what to do to help her

  2. I have a 9 week old GSP female I just brought home. My older dogs are trying to set boundaries with her but sometimes she is not listening. I don’t want anything to turn aggressive amongst the dogs. Do I step in as pack leader or let the dogs handle it?

  3. My GSD’s first reaction to a new dog is the hair going up. It’s an involuntary response and sign of stimulation or over stimulation instead of aggression. His trainers have said the same thing while noting his super high prey drive and herding instincts as a working line vs a pet or show line GSD.

  4. I have a gs mix.she was a resuc she hated my pug who also female .she kept getting lose in the house and attacking the pug .she ended up killing my pug I gave her to another person who didn’t have pets they dumped her so I feel so bad she is at humain society I feel bad I contactacked them gave them info on her .not sure why she attacked the pug all the time

  5. I have a 13 month old gsd male, when I am sitting down he constantly wants to chew his toys or his bone on my lap,he is not aggressive in any way while doing this, is this normal behavior or does he just trust me

  6. Hell my baby is a huge pain in my butt. But I love him. He is so affectionate toward me, not my wife or step son though. He lays at my feet and almost always puts his feet around my leg and lays his head on my foot. He follows me everywhere. I don’t really mind it cause I really really do love him so very much. Why does he lay like that kind of hugging my foot and using it as a pillow. Also why does he constantly, constantly go between my legs all the time. It’s kinda cool. Just wondering.


  7. Hi!! I have a boy German Shepard named Buddy and he lives outside in a pen. He howls when the train comes when I’m in the house and barks when he thinks we are gone for a while. Is that a sign he loves us? He also bows down at our feet, stands on his hind legs a lot and eats. A lot.

  8. Hi Jeanne, when my German Shepherd, Annabelle, approaches me (while I’m sitting on the floor), she butts her head gently on my chest and then lowers her forehead nearly to the ground and just leans in and stays there for a long while. Any idea what this means?

    • If her head is low, paws stretched out, and hind end in the air, she wants you to play with her. If it’s not that, I don’t know. It sure sounds sweet, though. I wish my Shepherd puppy (8 months) was gentle. She’s a bull in a china shop. All the best to you, and thanks for stopping by.

  9. Our new female German Shepherd is well-bred smarter than most humans just an extreme joy and pleasure however unlike the seven other Shepherds that we’ve had we were unable to and it’s not an excuse I understand acclimate her to people and other animals so we can’t go to dog parks we can’t jog without her trying to go after people she’s not aggressive it’s more of a curiosity and I don’t know if that 4 years old we can retrain her any tips?

    • Hi Sam. It sounds to me like you haven’t had her for 4 years then? If so, it’s no doubt a result of some past experience. Being 4 years old, she could be difficult to retrain but it’s not impossible. Do you have Obedience classes nearby? They are a good way to socialize and be around people and dogs without being threatening to her. Are you on Facebook? If you are, there are plenty of German Shepherd groups where you might find some good advice. Just search for German Shepherd training groups. I hope this helps?

  10. My male german shepherd is always by the back door whimpering and whining because my female labador is outside and every time we let him outside he hopping on her and she does not want puppies either how can I stop this.

  11. Hi Jeanne , my dog Max is a real delight and turned 6 months old today ! My concern is that he is nipping a little and I provide him with enough toys to distract him . My vet said that Max see’s my hand as an extension of the toys , but what about my feet !!!
    Thank you
    Frank Zee

    • Hi Frank, I imagine your dog Max sees your feet as quite tempting to nip at. All those wiggling toes, and such. Cats love toes too. All I can say about the nipping is to stay consistent and take your dog’s attention away from doing that. Redirect him to a toy. Good luck, and thanks for visiting my blog.

  12. I have a 6 month old GSP named Max . He is being trained by a very well known trainer and I am seeing great results . My concern is that he still snips and occasionally tries to chew on my slippers ( while I’m wearing them ) and still bites my hand . I’m trying to figure out either what I have done wrong or what should I be doing . Max’s trainer said just say no and ignore him . That doesn’t help .

    • Hello Frank. As far as Max chewing on your slippers, my advice is to give him an alternative — a toy he CAN chew on. He has to understand that only certain things (his toys) are allowable. So when you see him start on you slippers, say ‘no’ and give him his toy. Never give him another shoe that you care for, thinking that’s okay. That sends the wrong message. As for biting, also a big “no”. Be adamant. Be consistent. Be patient. Don’t give in. I hope this helps. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Hello,
      I have two white female German Shepherds, they are now 2 years old. They both insist on laying on me at night. 1 loves to be between my legs, the other has to be around my head on on my chest. I love them to death but when they do this I am pinned down. What does this mean.


  13. Hello I just have a question. I have a three year old Shepard (Kiara) that my boyfriend and I got when she was two. Kiara and I connected immediately, it became very easy for me to understand her. But when she is around cats ( no longer have any cats) and my newly adopted chicks she tremors and shacks. She have full focus on the animal that is difficult to break. I worried that she’s thinking of a snack or if it’s her being protective. Thanks for reading and can’t wait to hear back from you

    • Hey Kris. I had a dog that did that too – shook and trembled when around another, smaller animal. She had attacked and killed some goslings that I had when she was just a young dog. I really let her know that I was NOT happy! After that, she never went after any of my chicks, bunnies, or kittens, but she sure did seem focused like yours does. It may be that yours had the same experience. Maybe she’d love to “play” or snack, but knows she can’t. Hope that helps.


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