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Pet Basics

Decoding Your Dog's Behavior

Is Fido happy, scared, or lonely? Two dog experts divulge the clues to reading canine behavior.

By Sean Cunningham
barking dogRobyn Lehr


A High, Quickly Wagging Tail

Although people tend to assume that a dog with a wagging tail is a happy one, she’s often declaring, “Back off,” says Coren. The higher a dog’s tail, the more dominance she’s displaying. The faster the tail is moving, the more excited she is. Be concerned if the tail is moving in a flicking motion, like a nervous twitch, which is potentially a sign of aggression, says Klein.

A Low, Slowly Wagging Tail

Remember how, after suffering yet another humiliation, Charlie Brown would hang his head and slowly walk home? Much as Charlie Brown’s body language told the world that he was miserable, a dog can communicate anguish through its tail. If the tail is low and moving slowly back and forth, it could mean that your dog is feeling insecure or is ill or distressed. This is also a sign that you might think about giving the iPad a rest and spend some quality time with your pet.

Staring at You

When your dog gazes at you with those big puppy eyes, it's tempting to think, “That’s adorable!” and reward her with a treat. Cute though she may be, your dog may not be saying “I love you” so much as “I’m boss around here.” And by giving her a reward, “you just proved it,” say Coren. Your dog will also stare at you when she wants to know what’s happening—whether it’s where you’re going to throw a favorite ball or whether or not you’re going to offer her a piece of your steak. This wide-eyed stare is different than the more casual look displayed when a dog is trying to figure out what you’re going to do next.

Staring at Nothing

A more ambiguous habit is when dogs stare off into space at nothing in particular. Common folklore holds that dogs can see the Angel of Death, says Coren. A less eerie explanation is that a dog may be listening or sniffing in that direction, since vision plays a smaller role in perception.

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