It is almost a reflex action for dog owners to project what they believe their dog is saying or thinking just by looking at their eyes or facial expression. This is not psychology as much as it is that people believe they are engaged in two way communication with their dog. Our normal way of communicating with other humans is through looking at the expressions of other people’s faces and learning that they are happy, mad, glad, sad, etc. So it’s natural to extend that to our furry friends.
But more people know about facial language than body language. When it comes to dogs, experienced dog owners know that dogs are very good at hiding the fact they are in pain. So reading their behavior is not as easy as a new dog owner might think. But dogs are dogs, and there are definite ways an owner can know what their pet is communicating to them. And dogs do not understand English, Spanish, or the Urban Dictionary. Your body language is key to communicating with them.
Some behaviors on this list will have longer explanations. The more there is to read, the more you can accept the fact that the behavior is generally more reliable and consistent for all dogs no matter what the breed. Here is a list of 20 universal dog behaviors owners should know. I inserted a few video clips to make things interesting.
1. Dog raises their hind legs and bows before you.
There are two times you are most likely to see this behavior – when you wake up in the morning and when you come home after a few hours away. The thinking is that Dogbert is acting like a human, giving themselves a good stretch after a period of inactivity. Nope. This is how dogs will greet you, like a human saying “Hi!” Owners suggest that to confirm this behavior, pay attention to how your dog greets a stranger. Chances are, Dogbert won’t because he is not comfortable with the stranger. At least you know your dog likes you. But if you have a dog with a long body, like a Dachshund, it will be harder to notice this because they just aren’t very good at it.
2. Dog is pawing – at you or another dog
Pawing is their way of saying they are interested in some play time. They are likely to continue to paw at you until they get some type of response. Puppies are usually more persistent, until they learn that you turning over on the couch means you’re not really interested now.
3. Dog’s ears are straight up.
This is one behavior even non-dog owners know. Dogbert is listening and attentive to what is going on around him. But it is not necessarily a sign they are happy. A dog’s hearing in four times sharper than a human’s, so what they are paying attention to you will have no clue. But there are dog owners who will have the dog’s ears cropped so they always are straight up. Knowing this will help you avoid misreading the attitude of a friend’s dog.
[This dog’s ears are up, but for a different reason.]
4. Dog’s ears are back and flat against his head.
There are a couple of possibilities here, though most of the time the ears back means Dogbert is being submissive. If he is growling or showing teeth, then he is not comfortable being submissive and you have to proceed with caution. For owners who have had their dog for even a few months, they are likely to have seen Dogbert’s response after he has done something wrong. They will either go into retreat or look at you for forgiveness and reassurance. When their ears point up, see #3.
5. You can see the whites of Dog’s eyes.
This is a behavior that needs to be interpreted combined with other behaviors on this list. (Yes, dogs can be complicated.) If the dog’s ears are down and you see the whites of their eyes, they are being submissive because they are afraid. But if white is showing, their ears are back, and they are growling, they are not a happy camper. This interesting behavior is instructive because most owners will look their dogs in the eye (or more generally, look at their face) when trying to communicate with or understand their behavior. For example, just seeing a dog wagging their tail does not, by itself, tell us the whole story.
6. The wagging tail.
Most people consider a dog to be happy when they see their tail wagging. But research has shown that the direction of the wagging tail is an indicator of whether they are having positive emotions or negative ones. Yes, I know that most people pay zero attention to this detail, and with some dogs their tail is so small it’s nearly impossible to tell. (We are talking to you, Mr. Boston Terrier.) But sometimes it’s easy to tell by, once again, combining behaviors on this list. If a dog’s tail is wagging but their ears are down, chances are it is a negative emotion and they are looking for your forgiveness/approval. But I have seen dogs wag their tails when they are down. This means that the dog is prepared for interaction with a person or a group, but not necessarily an indicator of happiness.
[Notice the wagging tails, but also their ears.]
7. Dog tilts or cocks their head.
The knee jerk interpretation is that Dogbert is being a curious canine and is looking for more information. This is partially true – and partially not. The general consensus is that it is more of a hearing thing than a seeing thing. Dogbert depends on his ears much more than his eyes. If you doubt this, give a command to your dog when his head is turned the other way. The other line of reasoning is that they are looking to see around their muzzle, which on some dogs can be quite long. (Word of the day: Dolichocephalic dogs are dogs with long noses. A shoutout to Shetland Sheepdogs.) If you say that Dogbert is looking for more information, you get partial credit.
8. The de-wrinkled forehead.
Some people see this behavior when Dogbert appears to pull his head back a little. He is not curious or surprised, but confused. It’s like him communicating, “Whaaaat?!” The problem with a confused dog is that he may come to his own conclusion about what really is going on, and he will store and retrieve that message later on. This may be one of those universal behaviors that require immediate attention on the dog owner’s part. If you realize what is confusing the dog, it is not time to have a sit down and explain things. Your job is to show the dog what it is you are communicating or give them a simple command to make clear what they are seeing or hearing.
9. Dog is smiling at you.
Yes, some dogs do smile at their owners, but never at other dogs. You can tell when they are smiling because their lips are slightly pulled back, as opposed to when they are snarling and their teeth are showing. Some people pooh-pooh the idea of a dog actually smiling, but the thinking is that because dogs are a quick study when it comes to their owners, they are imitating (or trying to) their smile. The technical name for a dog’s smile is “submissive grin” which doesn’t sound all that friendly. I prefer smile, and that’s that.
10. Dogbert eats grass.
There are several theories why (nobody seems to have nailed down one specific reason) but the simplest explanation is that dogs are animals, and animals eat grass. Puppies are more likely to indulge than older dogs, and you will find Dogbert eating grass at least once a week if the opportunity is there. One theory has Dogbert eating because he is sick to his stomach. But this is generally not the case. The best guess is that there is a diet deficiency (which would explain while puppies are more likely to eat grass than older dogs, because they are growing). But if we are honest about it and use common sense, dogs eat just about anything. Why would grass be a dietary taboo?
11. The dog is licking their nose.
It is important to tell this behavior apart from the times after Dogbert has just finished eating or drinking, or when they have a runny nose. The behavior is constant, so it’s not just a one-time deal. Licking the nose is a sign that the dog is stressed – likely overly stressed. The cause of the stress can be from pain or environmental stimuli, such as people fighting or arguing constantly. Some owners give plenty of evidence that their dogs will intervene when people are arguing, either by barking or physically imposing themselves between the verbal combatants. Consider nose licking a passive response to a situation.
12. The stalking position.
If you stop and think about it, most dog owners see their dog either actively up and about or laying down. The stalking position is an exception to these normal behaviors (unless you are hunting). It is similar to the #1 behavior on the list, except they are more upright and their eyes are fixed on something. That something could be a squirrel or other animal, or it could be the rubber ball you just threw. This is their ancestral hunter side.
13. The frigid pose.
Cats are curious, dogs are suspicious. When a dog’s body is rigid and tensed up, their ears are pointed up, and their tail is raised, this behavior means that they are in fight mode. They feel threatened by something in or around their environment and are prepared to take action. Sometimes it’s because another dog appears to be threatening their territory – or their owner. The more protective the breed, the more likely you are to consistently see this behavior. It is one reason why you will see Rottweilers and Dobermans in this stance – they are among the top 5 of breeds who are loyal and protective.
14. Dog is circling with another dog.
OK, we know that there is the mating season, and we all know about the butt sniffing routine. But what we as people see is not the same as what the dogs understand. Sex is not always on Dogbert’s mind. The circling, with both dog’s bodies in a curved position and their tails are up and/or wagging, is a social interaction letting the other dog know they are being friendly. It is the human equivalent of a handshake. It may be a prelude to mating (we have already said dogs can be manipulative) so if you aren’t prepared for any romantic interlude, you will want to get ready to separate them before they get stuck together.
15. Dog is doing that disgusting scooting thing across the rug.
Unless your dog has double jointed hind legs, he cannot scratch his butt. (Even humans find seeing people who scratch their butt disturbing.) This universal behavior is one that all dogs do when their butt or anus itches. To be honest, it is common sense because how else are they supposed to scratch it? It could be a sign of a bigger problem, such as a parasitical infection, so if the behavior ends up being a regular thing, it is time to take them into the vet to have the problem properly diagnosed. Don’t be cheap or mean. You know what it is like when your butt itches.
16. That gaping yawn.
When we yawn it is because we are usually tired – or bored. With dogs the behavior is much more complicated. One reason is that research shows that the sound of a human yawning can trigger a dog to yawn. A simple reason is that, just like people, the dog is tired. But it also can be an indicator that the dog is fearful or stressed. If you see your dog yawning for no apparent reason, look around to see if there is anything or anyone new in the home environment. Dogbert may not be comfortable with a house guest or they may not be completely familiar with something new you introduced to the house (a cat?). If you recognize what is new, take some time to comfort Dogbert and see if that changes their yawning pattern.
17. Dog sleeps at your feet when you go to bed.
A personal story that serves as an example. I bought a friend one of the smaller size Sheltie’s for her birthday. He was about 5 months old, so training him was more than fun. After a couple of weeks I noticed he would lie down at the foot of the bed in her bedroom (not jump on the bed). Once he knew she was asleep (he heard her?) he would leave the room and return to his own bed. This is a protective behavior, but I also learned it is a submissive behavior. A dog (or more likely, a cat) who positions themselves over your head is seeking to dominate you. With aggressive breeds this can be very dangerous, so be sure to pay close attention to where you find Dogbert before and after you go to sleep.
18. The playful bite.
This is not the defensive/aggressive I’m-going-to-bite-your-leg-off kind of biting. It is a sign of being playful or wanting to play with you. Some people overreact to this behavior, thinking there is a problem with Dogbert. It can be a problem if you are done playing and he continues to use your arm or leg as a teething toy. Puppies go through their teething stage, and that is a different kind of biting that needs to be brought under control. (Personal story #2. When the Sheltie had just come home, he was exploring the house. I had left a pair of quality Grado quadrophonic headphones on the pillow in the bedroom. We lost sight of him for just one minute, and when we found him he was playfully chewing the wires in pieces. Nice doggie.)
19. Dog digs digging.
I went a bit retro with “digs” but I thought it was cute. Anyway, most of us have seen the cartoons where dogs are burying their bones to retrieve at a later date. Whether they remember where they put all those bones is uncertain but it is a very natural and normal behavior for dogs. It can become a problem if you have spent the time creating a beautiful garden that they decide is to their liking. The best approach is to fence it off because dogs will be dogs. But digging can simply be a way for the dog to entertain itself. Some owners find dogs like to dig inside their home, whether it is on a carpeted living room area or a tiled kitchen floor. Yes, this last one is a bit strange, but again, dogs will be dogs.
20. Dogs bark.
If you are thinking I took the easy way out by putting this one at the end – you’re right. OK, almost every dog barks. There is the Basenji, whose vocal cords are narrower than most dogs, so while they don’t bark in the conventional sense of the word they do make noise. Dogs bark for several reasons: to get your attention, as a warning, or because they become aware of an unfamiliar sound or noise. Some dogs bark more than others, and you can do an Internet search to find lists of the quietest breeds. What is important to know about Dogbert barking is that you do not want him to think barking is always wrong. It is as natural as digging (and humans talking) and it will do more harm than good to silence Dogbert completely.
If you didn’t agree with all of these canine body language interpretations, you are not alone. Nothing is 100%. Every dog, like every person, has their own unique way of communicating. (Some of the behavior interpretations on this list actually came from Psychology Today.) But overall you will find most of these match up with your own dog.
As has been noted in places in the list, the best interpretation of a universal behavior is to A) know your dog very well, and B) combine your knowledge of these behaviors with others on the list to get a better idea of what Dogbert is communicating to you. Barking plus scooting is a different message than just seeing the scooting behavior on its own. Avoid trying to read the dog’s mind because he is not trying to read yours.
If you are in the process of buying your first dog, this list is a good start and will get you ahead of the game. Remember that dogs expect you to understand their communication behaviors. You are supposed to train them, not the other way around. Dogs can be manipulative, which is one good reason to spend a lot of time with your dog so you learn what is going on.
A final word. You have heard stories about how some dogs show erratic behaviors and harm babies, children, and even adults without warning. A domesticated dog is still a dog, and while some breeds are more likely to exhibit consistent behavior, there is no way of knowing for sure what they will do at any given time. This is not a reason to be afraid, but aware enough to sense when something might be amiss.