Are You Reading Your Dog’s Body Signals Correctly? The Top Misunderstood Dog Behaviors

By: Mikki Hogan

Understanding your dog’s body signals and behavior is a process that is often misunderstood. This is because we as humans have a completely different set of rules in social interactions. From birth we are taught by example that direct eye contact shows attentiveness in a conversation. We learn that stepping towards our peers to greet them is friendly and that bending over or “leaning” to be at eye level is a sign of respect and interest in the other person.

The years put into learning these communication skills works against us in the canine world where most of these “positive” communication tactics are viewed as threatening or dominant.  Take for example leaning over to be at eye level; this posture demonstrates a threatening position to canines and inhibits obtaining the proper interaction between man and dog.

The list of various body postures and the communication they portray is too lengthy for this blog post but I would like to note a few of the most misunderstood signals dogs portray on a regular basis and what they are really trying to tell us.

The Top Misunderstood Signals and What They REALLY Mean

Tail wagging: A wagging tail is frequently associated with a happy dog that is obviously in a pleasant mood. The truth is it doesn’t always mean your dog is happy. In fact it really isn’t a signal that you can associate with happiness at all.

A dog wags their tail in response to external stimuli, good or bad, comfortable or scary. For this reason it should never be used independently to determine your dog’s mood. Of course you can use more obvious positions, such as the tail is wagging down between the legs means they are submissive and a tail wagging straight up means they are confident. Some of the common tail wagging positions include:

  • Tail up and slow – this is often seen when a dog is exploring a new situation that has peaked his interest but it does not mean that it has peaked his interest in a good way. This is the time to observe other body signals such as head position, ear position and muscle tension to assist in knowing if your dog is relaxed or on guard.
  • Tail up and fast – this is the tail wagging that everyone associates with a “happy” dog but this isn’t necessarily true. It’s more accurate to associate this wagging with an excited dog. The excitement could be a result of positive stimulus like his family coming home or heightened stimulus like having company over. It can also be an excitement over too much stress, in which case your dog is actually unhappy with his environment. It’s important to use other body signals and external stimuli in determining if your dog needs a time out from the stress.
  • Tail tucked and wagging – this includes any down position with the tail wagging and is commonly seen in a dog that is submitting to the stimuli. You’ll see it often when a dog has been corrected by their master or fellow canine as they strive to get forgiveness.

Ear position: This isn’t necessarily “misunderstood” in body signals as much as it is ignored. Very few people realize the position of their dog’s ears can give them a real awareness of their current mood. A dog whose ears are flat and back is uncomfortable and wants the stimulus to go away. A dog whose ears are erect is on guard and being very attentive to this stimulus. If a dog’s ears are flat and to the side it indicates a submissive stance towards the stimulus.

You can use ear position to assist you in knowing if your dog is happy, unhappy, on guard or scared. It should be your window to assess the stimulus around your dog, other body postures and how readily your dog is responding to you.

Head position: Like ears is often overlooked when assessing a dog’s mood but it’s vital in properly understanding what your dog is communicating. A head that is dropped towards the ground coupled with a tail up wagging position displays a challenge stance where a head dropped with a crouched body shows submission. If your dog is holding their head tilted away from you they are letting you know they are not comfortable and want you to stop.

Head positioning alone can mean just about anything. It’s important to couple the head position with the tension of their body as well as tail wagging for a more accurate understanding. If you notice your dog’s head is down and his tail is up and wagging it’s important for you to step in and take control as this is a posture that could indicate your dog may bite.

Yawning: As would be expected yawning carries the classic “I’m bored out of my mind” label around the human population but in dog world it has a different meaning. Dog’s yawn when they are annoyed or frustrated. It’s common to see a dog yawning during a training session that is proving to be more challenging than others or when the owner is trying to keep them in one spot for too long.

You can use yawning as a signal that your current interaction should come to an end but don’t stop immediately. Rather shift the interaction to something positive, giving a treat or hugging the dog and then dismissing the activity.

Panting: This natural state of heavy breathing is perhaps the most misunderstood signal your dog could give you. When a dog pants we assume they are thirsty or hot but NEVER do we consider they are nervous or uneasy.  But if you take a moment to evaluate what happens when we are nervous, our heart elevates, our temperature rises and our breathing speeds up. An animal is no different with one exception, a nervous dog is a higher bite risk!

If you notice your dog, or any dog for that matter panting take a moment to determine if the circumstances warrant labored breathing. If a dog is physically active or the ambient room temperature is feeling a might bit warm chances are the dog is trying to cool off. On the other hand if a dog is inactive and the ambient room temperature is cool then that dog is panting out of fear or anxiety and should be show the respect you would give to an uncomfortable canine.

Homework for Mastering Your Dog’s Body Signals

While there are countless resources out there to help you learn to read your dog’s body language the best way to learn is by watching dogs interact with each other. Observe how they meet and greet new dogs. Watch them in play and in disagreements. Make a note (literally write it down) of how your dog is holding his head, tail, where he is looking and any other physical traits that stand out and note what the interaction was, i.e. new meeting, playing, eating, etc.

Then observe the other dog’s reaction to your dog’s posture making a note to every step of the way. As your notes build out so will your awareness of canine communication and your ability to use it in your interactions with your dog. By learning dog body signals, and more importantly your own dog’s signals, you will be a better trainer and better master for years to come.


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