Have you ever wanted a doggie translator? A dog’s actions speak a thousand words—but interpreting them correctly is a learned skill.
Read on for a helpful illustrated guide to dog behavior that’ll teach you how to have a conversation with your dog. Illustrations are by awesome artist Lili Chin. See more of her work in this well-known puppy training guide and for sale on Society6 and at her Etsy store and website.
The meaning behind common dog behaviors
1. “Welcome back!”—When you come home or wake up in the morning and your dog greets you with a stretch, he’s not waking up from a nap or doing puppy yoga, he’s saying hello. This is only used with people he is comfortable with—you won’t see a dog greet a stranger with a stretch.
2. “I’m shy”—Many dogs can be timid around new people, and there are some obvious signs that a dog is shy or nervous. If a dog’s ears are backward and flat against her head, and she is shrinking back to the ground trying to make herself small, she is uncomfortable.
To make friends with a shy or nervous dog, turn sideways and kneel on the ground. Don’t lean over the dog—keep your back straight. Let her come to you and sniff. You can hold out your hand while keeping your arm still so she can comfortably learn your scent from a little farther away. Avoid reaching over the dog’s head. If she’s comfortable with you trying to pet her (i.e. her ears don’t go back again), pet her back instead of her head.
Stressed or sleepy? Yawning can mean both
3. “I’m stressed…but it’s going to be okay, right?”—Canines—wild or domestic—have a series of signals that ask for reassurance when they’re stressed. Another canine, doing the same signal back, is reassuring them. Behaviorists call these “calming signals.” These behaviors seem ordinary to humans, but a dog can do them very deliberately.
A yawn, a lick of the lips, and slow blinking are all signals that a dog is uncertain or stressed. If your dog is frequently anxious or suffers from separation anxiety, talk to your vet or trainer about a plan. Some helpful tools to combat a dog’s anxiety include:
- Crate training
- ThunderShirt or other pressure wraps
- A regular, loving dog sitter or walker
- Calming collar: dog-appeasing pheromones are backed by research; not all dogs respond the same way to them, however.
- Rescue remedy or aromatherapy
- Medications (in consultation with your vet)
Play or prey? On dog bowing behavior
4. “I wanna play!”—Every dog owner has seen their puppy or adult dog bow when they want to play. The play bow is a great way for dogs to communicate with each other, and for you to encourage your dog to play. Typically her body language will be loose and wiggly with a wagging tail. The human version of a play bow is to quickly crouch into a squat, and if your dog does it back, it’s time for a game.
5. “Squirrel?!”—There’s another version of the doggie bow: the prey bow. This looks similar to a play bow, but your dog’s body and tail will be stiff and his eyes wide open and concentrated on the prey object, whether it’s a tennis ball or a small woodland creature. Stalking is another form of body language in reaction to prey. Your dog’s head and neck will be level with the rest of his body, ears pricked forward, and legs bent.
Because of pack mentality, dogs are more likely to display prey behaviors when in groups. These are especially important to watch for when there’s a group of off-leash dogs together.
Aggressive or threatened dog behavior
6. “Don’t come any closer!”—There is one display that universally says, “I mean business, so don’t cross me.” When a dog’s entire body is stiff, her tail up in the air like a flag, with her head and neck raised high and back, she is alert, suspicious, and likely moments away from getting into a fight. Sometimes the hackles (the fur on her back) are raised.
If her behavior leads to a fight, there are safe ways to break it up. The ASPCA suggests trying to startle the dogs out of it. You can use a sound like a loud clap, shout, or air horn. You can spray water or citronella on the dogs. You can also physically separate them with a barrier like a folded lawn chair, trash can, or piece of plywood. The most important thing: do not grab the dog’s collar, as that may result in a bite.
Friendly dog behavior and communication
7. “Let’s be friends”—A friendly dog greeting involves the dogs circling each other with loose, wiggly body language. There are many situations where you would need to introduce two new dogs, including Meet & Greets before Rover stays. Their bodies should be curved and tails wagging. They may even play bow or play bark. Watch for signs of shyness or stiff body language, and ensure the dogs have enough space to separate if they are done greeting.
Learning more about dog behavior
Want to go further? For an excellent guide to how dogs think, feel, and behave, Alexandra Horowitz’ Inside of a Dog can’t be beat.
Understanding your dog’s behavior can be the first step in addressing behavior problems, and determining if what you’re experiencing are behavioral problems or one of many health issues that can present as bad habits. For more on common dog behaviors, we welcome you to explore our extensive selection of dog psychology and dog training articles.