1. Yawning- tired or…?
Why does my dog keep yawning? Dogs can’t use words to tell us how they’re feeling. So they use a bunch of whats referred to as “calming signals” or “fiddle behaviours” to let us know when they’re uncomfortable, nervous or just a little bit unsure of a situation.
Yawning is one of the most common of these behaviours that we see. Watch your dog closely when interacting with other dogs, new people in unfamiliar environments, or even at the vet. You may see them yawn, in an attempt to release some nervous energy and calm the situation when they are feeling anything but calm. (NB: not ALL yawning is a fiddle behaviour- if your dog is nice and relaxed at home and yawns, perhaps he just is tired).
2. Puppy dog eyes, that cheeky “guilty” look.
We’ve all seen the “dog shaming” memes and videos on the internet. Wide eyed Labradors staring up as their owners bellow down at them for the mess they’ve made. We assume the dogs are guilty, and are feeling ashamed of themselves for what they’ve done while their owners are away. This is a classic case of anthropomorphism- we are attributing a human behaviour to a non-human canine. Dogs don’t think like us and whilst they are capable of feeling emotions such as contentment, suspicion and love, there’s no concrete evidence to say that they are capable of displaying complex emotions like guilt and shame.
What your dog is doing is reacting to is your tone of voice and your body language. They are very much aware that you are upset, so they react with calming signals to diffuse the situation and avoid punishment. Watch those videos closely and you can see that as the owners scold them with things like “what did you do? Did you do this? Whose a naughty dog!”, the dogs nervously lower their heads and give a classic “whale eye”. Our canine friends live in the here and now, so they aren’t thinking “Oh no I’m in trouble because of that rubbish I ate three hours ago”, but more “Oh no, Mums really angry, I’m going to do what I can to diffuse this tension”.
3. Humping- it ain’t all fun and games.
Obviously the motion of humping itself is what happens when dogs do the dirty. But we’ve all probably seen older desexed female dogs do it too, so why do dogs hump? When dogs get excited and become aroused (definition of aroused being “evoke or awaken a feeling, emotion, or response”- not necessarily sexual), they sometimes just don’t know what to do with all this built up energy inside them. So they hump it out. The classic example is a dog humping a new visitor to the house. He doesn’t do that to his owners so why is he doing it now? Well for starters- he’s super excited to have a visitor and just can’t believe how cool it is to have this new person with these new smells in their house! WOW! THIS IS EXCITING. Cue humping. My dog Lulu sometimes humps other dogs- its not sexual, but she does it if another dog is being way OTT and Lulu’s feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.
Dogs can hump because they don’t know what else to do or because they find it fun, similar to other behaviours we find undesirable but they quite enjoy, like jumping up or barking. Keep in mind that for young, entire animals- humping CAN be sexual in nature (their hormones are kicking in and they are learning about their bodies!) and if an entire boy dog is humping an entire girl dog- they probably ARE indeed doing the dirty!
4. Extended eye contact- should I look away?
This is another classic calming signal. Extended direct eye contact for dogs can be very confrontational. Watch two dogs meet- they will look the other way, sniff each others bums or the ground and generally avoid front on eye contact for longer than a second. This is pleasant doggy language and well socialised dogs learn this very polite introduction and continue to apply it for all future dog meetings.
I know what you’re thinking- “Why does my dog stare at me then!?”. Our dogs do learn to look us in the eye over time because they trust us. Dogs learn from previous experience and “what worked last time”. Each time you’ve stared into their eyes you’ve probably given them a kiss so they’re not freaking out that looking at you is going to start a fight.
5. Aggression- is it all bad?
Aggression is one of the most misunderstood behaviours in our beloved pooches. The “alpha dog” or “dominance” theory is one that has unfortunately stood the test of time despite much more recent studies essentially rendering it untrue (this is another entire blog in itself). Oh he’s just being Dominant. It’s a Dominance thing. She’s the Dominant one. You need to be the Dominant over your dog. No! You DON’T!
Most aggression stems from fear and anxiety- which in its more severe forms is a medical condition that can require treatment. If your dog has aggression issues, speak to a vet who can refer you to a Veterinary Behavioural Specialist. And don’t go throwing around the D word.
6. Growling or lifting the lip- heed the warning signs!
Our dogs can’t use words to tell us how they’re feeling, they can only use the tools they have to let us know what they’re feeling. Lifting the lip, with or without a growl, is a warning sign that should be listened to. If your dog is uncomfortable to the point of growling, you best stop what you’re doing that’s making them so edgy. To change their mindset you need to change their environment (this can be as simple as calling them to the kitchen and asking them to sit for a treat from the fridge, or moving outside to play with a toy).
Respect the growl because the next tool in the tool kit is a bite. Dogs deserve the right to let us know when they’re unhappy, and stopping them from doing so is taking away their right to communicate their feelings. If you punish a dog for growling, next time it may skip the growl and go straight to bite.
Again, excessive growling or aggression is a behavioural issue that needs addressing, so see a professional if your dog is displaying these behaviours.
7. Full body shake- haters gonna hate, shakers gonna shake…..
Ever seen your dog do a full shake from head to tail? Just like they would after a bath? This full body shake is kind of like a doggy “reset” button. Perhaps after emerging from what they perceived to a be a stressful situation, they may shake it off. Maybe after being restrained at the vet for a needle, or after some rough play with another dog escalated beyond what they were comfortable with, a full body shake rids them of their nervous energy and allows them to start again fresh. Just like humping, shaking can calm internal arousal. So in the wise words of Taylor Swift, watch your dog next time they Shake It Off, and see if you can recognise common situations they do it.
8. Barking- its not always up the wrong tree
Dogs bark. It’s their voice. It’s okay. Imagine you are really concerned about something and you are yelling out to your family to warn them of impending doom and……they ignore you or tell you to shut up. Not cool! You would probably yell louder and with more urgency. If your dog is barking they are barking for a reason*. The trick is learning what the reason is and eliminating it. Or giving them something better to do. For bark busting ideas read our other blog on enriching your dogs environment….
*excessive barking for no reason can be a behavioural issue that requires treatment from a professional. But rule our boredom or the cat next door first.
9. Wagging tail- to pat or not to pat?
Wagging tail always means happy dog right? Wrong! A wagging tail can just as much be evident in an overly aroused dog who could potentially bite. Watch your dog next time they’re barking furiously at a delivery guy- their tail is most likely wagging.
Whilst MOST of the time, a tail wag is indicative of a friendly, welcoming dog; look at the rest of the body language of the dog- if it is paired with other “fiddle” behaviours that have been mentioned in this blog, it may be that this dog does not want to be approached and is feeling uncomfortable.
Recent studies have shown that happy dogs wag their tails to the right.
10. Lip licking- dinner time?
Another very common fiddle behaviour in dogs. Licking their lips, along with yawning and whale eye are three very common calming signals you will see dogs do (sometimes over and over again) in situations where they feel uncomfortable or confused. Watch your dog closely and you will probably see most of these behaviours at one time or another. It can be interesting and helpful for you as an owner to know the situations that make your dog anxious. Being consistent with the behaviour you expect from your dog and using positive reinforcement training can help make anxious dogs more confident.
Thanks to Kate from the Saltiest Dog for this fur-tastic blog. To read more blogs from Saltiest Dog, head over to https://the-saltiest-dog.com.au