Canine communication: How to tell what your dog is trying to tell you

I never realised that my dog wagging his tail or yawning may also be signs of stress

My family is one of the many that got a pandemic pet, and Ozzy, our new, beloved German shepherd-Afghan hound-chow chow mix, has brought us joy during a very difficult time. A 2021 study found that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, people who owned dogs felt more socially supported and were less likely to have symptoms of depression than people who didn't own a dog but wanted to. Ozzy's rock star-like fur, which looks teased and crimped around his head (he's named after Ozzy Osbourne) and weird monkey-like noises make us giggle, and my kids love playing tug-of-war with him outside.

But Ozzy has also, at times, been a pain in the butt, doing things such as jumping on the kitchen table to steal my burrito and pulling his leash like a sled dog on walks. So a few months ago, my partner and I hired a trainer to help us figure him out. The first thing our trainer, Amber, taught us was that we were probably misinterpreting much of Ozzy’s behaviour, as most owners do.

“Dogs are always communicating with us, but most of the time we’re not listening, which can lead to behavioural issues,” she says. I was surprised to learn from her that when a pup rolls over, he doesn’t necessarily want a tummy rub – it could be that he wants some space. I’d always assumed that when a dog wags its tail, it meant she was happy, but it could actually mean that she’s amped up and about to lash out.

I wanted to know more about what makes dogs act the way they do, so I reached out to several scientists to explain what humans get wrong when it comes to dog behaviour. Here are some fascinating things I learned.


Recognising signs of distress

One key mistake people make is that they often miss signs that dogs are stressed or anxious – often a precursor to aggressive behaviour. According to the experts, a stressed-out pup may show she’s scared by licking her lips, yawning, lifting a front paw, shedding hair, scratching, shaking, panting or pacing. Her eyes can change, too. When we used to take our other dog, Henry, to the park, he would sometimes get what my partner and I referred to as “crazy eye” – his eyes would bug out, and you’d see more of the whites. I didn’t realise until recently that this is a phenomenon called whale eye, and it’s often a sign of doggy distress.

This doesn't mean that every time your dog pants, yawns or lifts a paw, he's on the verge of a breakdown. Dogs pant when they're hot, too. Some dogs, such as pointers, lift their front paws when they pick up a scent. Yawning can also mean, of course, that your dog is tired. To understand what a dog's body language and behaviour are saying, "you have to look at the dog's whole body, and you have to think about the context in which you're in," says Sarah Byosiere, a psychologist and director of the Thinking Dog Center at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.

The most common misconception, by far, is that tail-wagging definitely means the dog is happy

If your dog is out of sorts, what should you do?

First, try to figure out what might be causing his discomfort, says Angie Johnston, a psychologist and director of the Boston College Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory. Are you in an unfamiliar place? Is your dog meeting new people or dogs? Once you have an idea as to what might be making your pup uncomfortable, "pull back from that activity," she says, and see if those anxious behaviours dissipate.

Tail movements are another thing we think we understand, but typically don’t. “The most common misconception, by far, is that tail-wagging definitely means the dog is happy,” Johnston says. If a dog’s tail-wagging is fluid and relaxed, then yes, she’s probably content, Johnston says – but if the tail is wagging only slightly, and seems rigid, then it may be a sign that she is about to be aggressive. Research suggests, too, that when a dog’s wagging tail leans more to the right, she’s happy, but if it leans more to the left, she’s feeling hostile.

Managing your dog’s social life

Many of the mistakes we make as dog owners revolve around how we handle their social interactions. We often don’t recognise the signs – panting, stiff tail-wagging, lip-licking, yawning – that our dog is uncomfortable around other people or dogs and needs help. Responding to their cues might mean asking other people to give your dog space. Maybe it means leaving the dog park and going home. “Probably the worst thing to do is to not do anything,” Byosiere says. If you don’t step in, you’re also increasing the risk that they could become aggressive.

One reason we make these errors is that we tend to assume dogs are more extroverted than they really are. "People who love dogs love to meet new dogs. But not all dogs like to meet new people or dogs," says Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina who founded its Canine Cognition Center. If you want to meet a dog, first ask her owner if it's okay – and respect them if they say no.

If the owner says it’s okay, approach the dog slowly. Stop a few feet away, kneel or crouch down, and see if the dog approaches you, Hare suggested. If he doesn’t – and especially if he looks or walks away – take that as a sign that you shouldn’t get any closer. If you see some of the distress signals mentioned earlier, that’s also a sign that he’s feeling nervous and that you should back off. And don’t approach a dog with your hand outstretched, Hare says – this can trigger aggression in dogs that have been mistreated, and it could lead to a bite. Instead, hold your hand out in a fist, or don’t extend a hand at all.

Don’t anthropomorphise your pup

The experts tell me that we often attribute our dog’s actions to feelings they’re not really having. I have always assumed that Ozzy licks my face because he loves me. But – and boy, was I sorry to learn this – dogs often lick faces because they’re hoping to get a taste of what you recently ate, says Evan MacLean, an evolutionary anthropologist. (This stems from the behaviour of young wolves, who lick the insides of their mothers’ mouths so that their moms regurgitate food for them to eat. Which explains why dogs do gross things such as eat people’s vomit.)

Dogs have become really good at reading our emotions, but I don't think that it's worked as much in the other direction

Also, that guilty expression you see on your dog’s face after she has done something “bad”? Research shows it’s not really a sign that she feels sheepish – she’s probably just responding to your anger.

Ultimately, dogs understand us far better than we understand them, Johnston says. Over thousands of years of domestication, they’ve become “really good at reading our emotions,” she says, but “I don’t think that it’s worked as much in the other direction.”

To do right by our beloved dogs, we really need to get to know them – and their weird little cues. I realize now that Ozzy has been communicating his needs to us pretty clearly but that we just haven't been receptive – and now that we're paying more attention, he has become much better behaved. We're still working on his proclivity toward burrito theft, however. That one is harder to tame. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times