Decoding Your Dog's Behavior

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

barking-dog
Photo by Robyn Lehr

Unless your dog is Lassie, you probably can’t always tell what your beloved pup is thinking. Stanley Coren, Ph.D. (stanleycoren.com), whose books include How Dogs Think ($16, amazon.com), The Intelligence of Dogs ($20, amazon.com), and How to Speak Dog ($15, amazon.com), and Jonathan Klein, founder of the “I Said Sit!” School for Dogs, in Los Angeles, offer their expert opinions on interpreting a dog’s expressions and behaviors.
 

Smiling

Ever looked at your dog and thought, She's grinning at me? It turns out she is. Like humans, a dog “smiles” when it’s content. The muscles in the body are relaxed, which you’ll notice most by observing the face: Instead of clenching its teeth together, the dog lets its mouth hang open. The tongue is relaxed and hangs loosely, so that it’s visible over the front of its teeth. The eyes are soft and the ears are straight. Bottom line: When you see your dog smile, she’s content, and you should be, too.
 

Growling With More Teeth Visible Than Gums

When a dog growls, he’s letting you know that he’s uncomfortable. He’s either scared or trying to show dominance. Look at his mouth to determine which is the case. If it’s open in a C shape—displaying lots of teeth and little gums—he’s essentially showing his weapons. The dog is sending a clear message: “I’m the boss around here. Back off, give me space,” says Coren. You can defuse the situation by doing just that: Give him room by backing away slowly.
 

Growling With a Lot of Visible Gums

If a growling dog's mouth has an elongated shape with a good deal of the gums visible (it looks as if you “took the corners of the mouth and pulled back,” says Coren), your dog is probably frightened and prepared to defend himself. His ears may also be flattened. A growling, fearful dog is often more dangerous than a dog showing dominance, because his survival instinct is to lash out. While backing away from a scared dog is your best option, it may indicate weakness to the dog. If he charges, stand still, keep your arms folded and make no eye contact (stare up at the sky, for example). Under no circumstances should you turn your back on the dog.
 

Standing Tall

In general, someone who wants to tell the world, “I'm in charge!” will try to make himself as big as possible. The same holds true for dogs. A dog with a taste for power will stand “very tall with legs quite straight” and its body will be tensed to allow for maximum height, says Coren. The dog may also raise its tail over its body like a flag to make certain that no one fails to notice him.
 

On Its Back

If a dominant animal goes high, it makes sense that a frightened one goes low. A scared dog will lower its body and drop its tail. If it’s extremely anxious, it will roll onto its back, displaying its belly and throat. A dog who adopts this pose is essentially announcing, “I’m just a wee puppy, don’t kill me,” says Coren. If your dog is this distressed, make sure you—and anyone else nearby—slowly back away until she calms down.
 

 

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.