Just like people, dogs have unique and wonderful (and sometimes and not-so-wonderful) personalities. They experience feelings just like us humans, but the way they communicate those feelings can be very different. It would make things a lot easier if they could just talk to us, but since that’s not going to happen any time soon we humans need to learn to understand their language. Because knowing what they’re “saying” can make your future with Fido a lot less frustrating.
The Loop spoke with Behaviour Therapist and Master Trainer Bill Lawson from Bark Busters, and he explained some common yet misunderstood actions. “Any dog’s behaviour is shaped by his or her temperament, past experiences, natural instincts, owner interactions, breed, sex, health, age and diet,” said Lawson.
The better and stronger the bond, the more peaceful life will be. So if you want to build a better relationship with your dog, you can start by learning some of the most common dog behaviours. Because there’s a good chance what they’re saying doesn’t mean what you think.
TILTING THEIR HEADS
What you think it means: They’re freakin’ adorable!
What it actually means: Well, yes. But aside from the cute factor, dogs are actually tilting their heads in such a way to empathize with you, or at least try to, and read how you are feeling. “The dog is trying to figure something out and orienting his head and ears gets more auditory information,” explains Lawson.
What you think it means: He’s sleepy.
What it actually means: Sure, she might need to go down for a snooze, but it all depends on the situation. “It can be a sign of calming down, similar to a person taking a deep breath,” Lawson says, adding that it’s “common in stressful situations as well when they’re dealing with adrenaline increase.”
What you think it means: She’s trying to torture you during your walk and/or destroy your yard/garden.
What it actually means: They’re bored and it’s their way of releasing anxiety and energy. Some breeds dig to cool off or stay warm (Huskies, Chows), others are natural diggers that were bred for hunting (think Terriers, Hounds and Beagles), while some are instinctively foraging for food. Lawson adds that some breeds can hear sounds in the ground (insects, underground pipes or wires) and are simply curious.
What you think it means: He’s trying to annoy you — and it’s working.
What it actually means: They’re kind of like your very own alarm, so a dog “feels that there’s a threat and is dealing with it himself, or alerting the pack (his family) to potential threat.” Now if a dog is barking AT the owner it’s a sign of disrespect, their way of demanding that their human comply. Um, no.
What you think it means: He’s exhausted.
What it actually means: It’s how dogs cool themselves. But in the absence of physical activity or warm temperatures, “it is often a sign of stress by more timid or fearful dogs,” warns Lawson.
What you think it means: He hates you.
What it actually means: In puppies, they’ll bite to get a reaction because they’re learning their own language. It can also be chalked up to teething as baby teeth are being worked out as new teeth are coming in. But with older dogs, it typically happens when they feel threatened or vulnerable, or when people have been physical with them.
What you think it means: She is so happy to see me!
What it actually means: While it can be an attempt to elicit some affection from you, “more commonly it is an attempt to be assertive and have the person lower their height, because that communicates your submission to the dog.” Lawson insists owners should “never” bend over to push down or pat the dog because what the little rascal has learned, usually from puppyhood, is that “this gets a reaction and can be a way to dominate and gain control.”
CIRCLING/DIGGING/SCRATCHING BEFORE LYING DOWN
What you think it means: They want to destroy your carpet/hardwood/chair/couch.
What it actually means: “The dog is instinctively creating a cozy bed to lie in,” explains Lawson.
What you think it means: She has to go do her business.
What it actually means: Not all whines are created equal. Once pain or any other kind of physical distress is ruled out, it could be something as simple as having to go relieve herself. It can also mean she’s excited, frustrated, anxious or fearful; again, one of those “big picture” behaviours. Whining is also a sign of submission, or that she wants something — particularly if this behaviour has worked for them before. Whoever said dogs aren’t like kids…
WON’T LEAVE YOUR SIDE
What you think it means: Aw, she doesn’t want to be alone.
What it actually means: Sure, the dog is likely timid or fearful. But some dogs view their owner as “vulnerable and weak” and feel its their job to protect them because they’re “worried about their owner not being able to care for themselves.” Lawson calls it a common characteristic in separation anxiety cases. So, yes, annoying… but kind of cute, no?
What you think it means: He must love me!
What it actually means: You’re not wrong — generally speaking. But there are different movements that mean different things. Wagging means anticipation; if it’s elevated, he has an assertive mindset. If it’s lowered, he’s respectful. Tucked under, commonly along their belly, translates to fear or timidness. Lawson notes that it’s important to view the entire dog. “Tail is only one part of body language. The key to emphasize here is that a wagging tail does not mean friendliness. The height of the tail is the indicator of how the dog is feeling.”