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Communication is at the center of your relationship with your canine. Your lives would likely go a lot smoother if you learned how to communicate effectively and better understand each other.
Since your dog can’t Google human behavior, it is up to you to research canine body language.
We’ll go through some of the most common canine behaviors here so that you can understand your dog (and perhaps communicate) a little bit easier.
Dog Behaviors and What They Mean
Dog behavior has been shaped by millennia of coevolution with people. Because of this, dog behavior is much different from wolf behavior, despite some misconceptions.
They have a unique ability to attune with their dog owners and communicate somewhat effectively, though we don’t always recognize their meanings right away.
A dog’s body can tell you a lot. Dog communication can include eye gazes, facial expressions, and body posture.
They can also communicate with other dogs in ways that humans can’t detect, like through scents and pheromones.
Studies have shown that adult dog behavior does vary. A dog’s height and body weight does seem to have a connection to their overall behavior.
For this reason, your dogs might not act the same, especially if they are significantly different sizes.
Our furry friends can understand human facial expressions and are likely better at understanding us than we understand them.
However, our misreading of canine social cues can get in the way of us having a good relationship with our dogs.
It seems that a dog’s want to communicate with humans is separate from their want to communicate with other dogs.
One study found that dogs in multi-dog households played with their humans the same amount as dogs in one-dog households.
Over the years, there have been many theories on dog behaviors. One that caught steam at the turn of the century was the alpha-dog theory.
This basically states that dogs have a dominant or submissive relationship with humans. Therefore, humans need to ensure they’re the dominant partner in the relationship.
However, this theory has been disproven time and time again. For example, studies have found no difference in a dog’s behavior based on whether or not they win the games they play with their people, like tug-of-war.
The only difference in behavior found was that dogs who start most games are less amenable and more likely to be aggressive.
Dogs have also shown that dogs have an empathetic concern. When in a room with their owner and a stranger, the dog was more likely to pay attention to the stranger if they were crying or distressed.
As you can see, dog behavior can be a bit more complicated than you might have first considered. Keep reading to learn about key behaviors your dog might exhibit and what they mean.
Common signs that your dog is happy
We all want our dogs to be happy, but sometimes it can be difficult to tell. Some dogs are very expressive and always wear their feeling on their sleeve.
Others don’t tend to express much emotion, which makes it hard to figure out if they’re happy or not.
Luckily, there are a few signs that usually point towards your canine being happy. Of course, these behaviors can have other meanings, but when many are paired together, it usually means that your dog is happy.
1. They greet you when you get home
Typically, if a dog is happy to see you, they’re happy with their current life situation. If they greet you at the door, they’re happy to see you and probably like spending time with you!
This also is true for other situations where you aren’t technically getting home, like when you wake up in the morning.
Of course, dogs may rush to greet you for other reasons, too – like if their food bowl is empty. However, if it’s a regular thing, they’re probably just happy to see you.
2. They expose their belly to you
A dog’s belly is a very vulnerable spot. However, dogs also love belly rubs, though they usually do not ask for belly rubs from people they don’t trust.
A dog that sticks out its tongue and rolls over is a very happy and comfortable canine.
This should not be confused with a dog rolling over because they are scared. If the dog shows its belly but is very stiff, they are likely simply trying to be submissive, not trying to get affection.
3. They mind their manners
Dogs can misbehave for all sorts of reasons. Often, it is because one of their needs hasn’t been met. A teething puppy may chew something up because their gums hurt, and they don’t have another outlet.
A Border Collie may decide to rip open the food in your cabinets because they are bored.
If a dog isn’t behaving appropriately, something is wrong, and they probably aren’t happy. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course. Certain bad behaviors like jumping aren’t caused by unhappiness – but excitement.
4. They cuddle up with you on the couch
A dog that likes to cuddle with you is trusting and happy. This behavior isn’t a sure giveaway, but it can be a clear sign of happiness when paired with other behaviors on this list.
5. They lean into you
Normally, this is a sign that they want affection. A dog that is seeking out affection is usually one that has had all its other needs met.
If a dog is hungry or bored, they will be fixing those problems instead of looking for affection.
6. They assume the “play bow” position
This stereotypical position involves a dog putting their front legs down and keeping their butt sitting in the air. Normally, dogs do this when they want to play.
Typically, dogs don’t want to play unless they’re content.
7. Their appetite is healthy
Stressed dogs tend not to eat – just like people who have anxiety. Because of this, a dog with a healthy appetite can usually be considered to be happy.
Of course, some dogs will eat no matter what, so this isn’t a fool-proof behavior that signals your dog is happy.
A lack of appetite can also signal illness since most dogs don’t eat in pain. If your dog suddenly stops eating, you should contact your vet.
8. They tilt their head when looking at you
If a dog tilts their head, they’re likely paying careful attention to what you say. An unhappy dog will likely be more worried about other things.
Furthermore, a dog that pays careful attention when you’re talking is a dog with a strong relationship with you, which increases the chances that they’ll be happy.
9. They get excited when the leash comes out
Many dogs like to walk. However, if a dog is stressed or in pain, they probably won’t look forward to their walk nearly as much.
For this reason, a dog enjoying their walks is typically a sign that they are happy and content. An unconfident dog doesn’t typically like to walk.
10. They get the zoomies
The zoomies are a sudden release of energy many dogs experience. This is a common behavior among all types of dogs and usually involves them running around seemingly uncontrollably.
There are many reasons dogs may get the zoomies. However, stressed and anxious dogs usually don’t get them.
11. They do a full-body wag / Rapidly wagging tail
A full-body wag occurs when a dog wags its tail so hard that its butt starts to wag as well.
This is a fairly common behavior, especially among smaller, excitable dogs. But it can also be a sign that they are happy since they’re getting pretty excited about something.
12. They appear calm and relaxed
There are many reasons why a dog may not become relaxed or calm. However, if they are relaxed, they are likely content and don’t have much to worry about.
13. Floppy Ears
Dogs can communicate a lot through their facial expressions, which usually involves their ears. Whenever they are scared, their ears tend to become sleeked back.
.They may try to make themselves smaller to appear less of a threat to whatever they are scared of.
When they are angry, they will have stiff ears, though they may be straight up or sleeked back. Floppy ears are not stiff or rigid, making them an indicator of contentedness.
14. Soft Eyes
Dogs with soft eyes blink often and have relaxed eyelids. They are not concentrating on anything in particular, which likely means they aren’t worried about anything at the moment. A relaxed dog is typically a happy dog.
Some dogs “smile,” while others don’t. Usually, it depends mostly on the breed. Either way, all dogs will have a relaxed mouth when they are happy.
If your dog’s mouth is open and some teeth are visible, it is a good sign they might be happy.
This should not be confused with panting or snarling, which can be a sign of anxiety or aggression.
16. Lots of Sleep
Relaxed dogs sleep. If your dog is relaxed, it means they aren’t stressed. Typically, this signifies that they are happy and aren’t worried about much going on in their lives.
Just like people, stressed dogs tend to have a hard time sleeping.
What are common dog behavior problems?
1. Hyperactivity and Unruliness
If your dog is overactive and excitable, they need more exercise.
Typically, when a dog’s exercise needs are not met, they tend to run around whenever they get the chance, making them seem hyperactive. However, the basis of this behavior is an unmet need.
It really isn’t something you can “train out.” You simply need to exercise your dog more. Leaving your dog in a backyard is not the same as helping them get enough exercise.
Dogs usually won’t get enough exercise if just left to their own devices.
2. Excessive Barking and Whining
A dog barks for all sorts of reasons. Some dogs howl instead of bark, like Huskies. Typically, smaller dog breeds tend to be noisier than large dogs.
Luckily, quietness is something you can teach dogs. This starts by simply rewarding them for being quiet.
Whenever they start barking, grab some treats and give them one whenever they pause. You can also connect a command to this, like “quiet.”
Aggression is a hard behavior to overcome, as it can have many different causes. Many dogs are aggressive when they are scared. Therefore, to keep them from being aggressive, you need to help them conquer their fears.
Some dogs are territorial. Sometimes, this is innate in the breed. Some breeds just don’t get along with other dogs.
Socialization is always helpful in this case, however. Start slow and simple. Walks in areas with other dogs can be a good place to start. Working with a dog trainer is recommended.
4. Destructive Chewing
Destructive chewing is usually caused by two things: teething or boredom. Bored dogs will find a way to entertain themselves, and sometimes this involves chewing on things they shouldn’t.
The best way to avoid this is to keep them entertained. Puzzle toys can be beneficial in this regard.
If your puppy is teething, then you may want to try teething chew toys and other pain relief ideas to prevent bad habits.
5. Pulling on the Leash
No dog is naturally going to know how to walk on a leash. Instead, you have to teach them. Pulling on a leash is very normal until dogs are properly taught. Dog training is essential in this regard.
There are many ways you can go about this. You can teach them to follow one of your legs, refuse to move unless they aren’t pulling, and a slew of other training ideas.
6. Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is fear-based. Therefore, to prevent it, you need to desensitize your dog to his fears – namely that you won’t come back. This can actually be done very easily through training.
Simply leave just like you normally would, and then come right back in the door. Treat your dog, and then do it again. Eventually, you will be able to increase your time to hours.
7. Begging for food or stealing food
The best way to counter this is to teach the “leave it” command. Once it is taught, you can teach your dog to leave just about anything alone – food, people, other pets. This is an effortless command to teach as well.
Simply put a piece of food in a closed fist. Tell them to “leave it.”
When the dog leaves your hand alone for a second, say “good” and then give them the food. Build this up to an open hand, and then dropping the food on the floor.
8. Jumping up on people
When a dog is excited, they may jump on people. This is a widespread behavior. Luckily, the “leave it” command can help with this as well. Some people also teach their dog “calm,” but this is a bit harder.
9. Playing Too Rough
Some dogs seem to know innately how rough to play with people. This isn’t true for all dogs, though. Sometimes, they need a little bit of help figuring it out.
Luckily, you can use the “leave it” command in many of these situations as well. If a dog grabs your arm a little too roughly, you can tell them to “leave it.”
We recommend not playing with dogs with your hands or arms, as this sends mixed signals about what they can put their mouth on. Instead, use toys.
Tell your family members to do the same. This can prevent nipping and mouthing, as well.
Digging is usually caused by boredom. Give your dog something else to do, and they won’t dig as much.
You can also make digging seem undesirable by putting smelly things dogs don’t like in the holes they have dug, like citronella.
11. Inappropriate Urination and Defecation
A lot of things can cause this. It is important to treat the root of the problem, as that’s the only way the behavior will correct itself.
Separation anxiety can cause these behaviors – actually, they are one of the major symptoms of this mental illness. Luckily, separation anxiety is treatable, usually through desensitization, as we discussed.
Health problems can also cause this issue. Even if your dog doesn’t seem otherwise sick, it can hint at a deeper health condition. Dogs are very good at hiding their illnesses.
If your dog is otherwise okay and not fearful, they will likely need to be potty-trained. Sometimes, even older dogs need a redo. Just take them outside, when they use the bathroom, praise and give them a treat.
12. Growling and Biting
Typically, growling is absolutely okay for a dog to do. It is how they communicate. If you punish your dog for growling, they’ll eventually skip the growling part and just jump to biting instead.
It makes dogs more aggressive if you punish them for growling, as you’ve taken away an acceptable way for them to express fear or frustration.
However, biting is not okay by any means. To discourage biting, you can do many of the things we discussed in the rough play section. Consider seeing a dog behaviorist as well.
Often, this is just an innate instinct. Some dogs are born to chase. It’s what they do! If you have a dog that belongs to a breed that chases, don’t let them off the leash, and don’t assume you can train them to stop chasing.
Recall training that helps your dog come when called can be helpful but isn’t fool-proof.
14. Food Guarding
Food guarding is fear-based. The easiest way to “cure” it is to drop food in your dog’s bowl randomly as you walk by while they’re guarding. Don’t even look at the dog when they do it.
This conditions the dog to think you walking by their food is a positive thing.
All dogs yawn; it shouldn’t be considered a behavior issue. If your dog is yawning excessively, they probably just need some rest!
16. Eating poop
Eating feces is usually called pica and is often caused by a vitamin deficiency. It’s likely a sign that you need to switch your dog’s food to something a bit higher quality.
Some health conditions can cause this behavior, including diabetes, thyroid disease, and Cushing’s. Typically, it isn’t solely a behavioral problem.
Panting is either a sign of pain, stress or overheating. Typically, you should treat these underlying problems to prevent panting. Hot weather will probably always cause weather, as well as lots of exercises.
Stress can make many dogs pant. If your dog isn’t eating, seems uninterested in affection, and is panting, they are probably stressed. However, these same behaviors can indicate pain.
You usually need to look at a dog’s life situation to determine whether they are in pain or simply stressed. You should also check them over for potential injuries.
Scooting is a sign of a health problem. Typically, food allergies, parasites, and anal sac inflammation are the most common causes of this behavior. In either case, it is a good idea to call your vet.
Infographic: Doggie Language
If we can understand our dogs a bit better, it can only help our relationship with them. Many of the “negative” behaviors dogs exhibit are caused by health problems or unmet needs.
By learning how to interpret our dog’s behaviors, we can fix them more easily and live calmer lives together.