It can be tough to know what your dog wants sometimes — they don’t speak English and we, of course, don’t speak bark. Thankfully, though, some very smart pup pros and veterinarians have dedicated their lives to helping us decode what every sniff, paw, tail wag, and head-turn really means.
“People are verbal, and not really great observers,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinary professor at Texas A&M University, and executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “Animals, on the other hand, are the opposite.” Bridge the communication gap with your dog by keeping a keen eye out for these telling behaviors.
1. He licks his lips or yawns — but he’s not hungry or tired.
These seemingly innocent behaviors are actually early indicators that your dog is uncomfortable or stressed in his current situation. “Most people only realize there’s an issue when more overt behaviors are displayed,” says Dr. John Ciribassi, a veterinarian at Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants and co-editor of the book Decoding Your Dog. “Aggressive behaviors like barking, growling, baring of teeth, snapping, and biting are obvious, but they’re the end product of stress gone undetected.”
Other often overlooked stress signs might include a raised paw, a furrowed brow, and a refusal to look at the source of his frustration (perhaps another dog, some kids, or possibly even you). If these cues go unnoticed, and the perceived threat remains, the situation can deteriorate, and “… the dog is forced to escalate and provide behaviors that people do understand,” says Dr. Ciribassi.
2. He’s curled up and his ears are flat or his tail is tucked in.
“When you notice these sort of reduced-size postures, your dog might be trying to get away from a situation,” says Dr. Beaver. She also warns that this could be an especially dangerous situation with kids. Because they are often closer to eye-level with the dog, they’ll look him in the eye, which could be perceived as a threat. “If you think about it, direct eye contact is a major threat for humans, too — but we can tell people to back off,” she says. If a dog feels trapped or can’t leave an anxious situation, he might stiffen up, growl, snap, or even bite. “It’s important to never leave a child and a dog alone unsupervised for this reason. People get into trouble when they assume their dog would never hurt anyone, but a young child could provoke a stressful situation.”
3. He’s growling at another dog and his hair is standing up.
Just like humans might want to display confidence with their posture, dogs try the same ploy. “If they’re walking very stiffly with their head up and tail up, and their hair is standing on end, they’re trying to display a sign of dominance,” says Dr. Beaver. “It might not be that impressive when a Boston terrier does it, but imagine a golden retriever!”
4. He’s wagging his tail.
If when you picture a happy dog you instantly see a cheery, furry face and a playful wagging tail, you’re not totally wrong. A loose, gentle wagging is generally a sign of a relaxed dog who just wants to play. But, reminds Dr. Beaver, there are times that a wag is not friendly. “If a dog’s tail is high, stiff, and moving very fast — almost as if it’s vibrating — it’s a sign of aggression we call ‘flagging’.”
5. He has that guilty look on his face.
“People tend to interpret submissive behaviors — like ears pointed back and angled downwards, a lowered head, exposed the belly, or tucked tail — as the dog demonstrating that it knows it did something wrong,” says Dr. Ciribassi. “But these moves actually do not indicate a degree of moral awareness by the dog.” Instead, they’re behaviors meant to avoid the aggression your dog senses (like, in this case, you yelling at him for digging through the trash). “It’s purely a reflexive means of self-preservation that can develop when punishment has been the typical response to problem behavior. Over time, if this approach persists, we can see the submissive behavior develop to include aggressive responses.”
A more constructive approach to dealing with bad dog behavior involves traditional, structured obedience training, a practice that Dr. Beaver says is almost more for the owner than the dog. “Make sure you’re the one offering the obedience commands in the class, not the trainer,” she says. This is important because if the commands come from someone besides you, your dog won’t associate what he learned in the lessons with you — and unless you’re going to invite your trainer to live with you, that’s a problem.
6. His butt is in the air, and his head is down.
“This is what we call a ‘play bow’,” says Dr. Beaver. “It says, ‘I’m getting into my playing mode and I’m going to play aggressively’.” Dogs might also bring you a toy if they’re seeking interaction. Humans tend to buy dogs lots of toys, so they learn to use them to be social.
7. He doesn’t approach you when you call him.
Guess what? Sometimes dogs want alone time, just like you do. “Dogs do not have to come when called,” says Dr. Ciribassi. “Inviting a dog to approach and then waiting for the response is best.” You can do a similar test when deciding whether a dog wants to be petted — place him in area in which he can easily get away, and then try petting him. If he looks away, licks his lips, tries to move, or doesn’t lean back into you once you stop petting him, he’s uncomfortable. “It’s also best to leave your dog alone when they are in their safe area — like a crate or on a dog bed. It’s just like how you would not want to be disturbed when reading a good book relaxed in a recliner.”
8. He just won’t stop barking.
Never-ending barks can mean many things, depending on the situation. “A dog might bark if it senses a threat, or it might serve as an effort to warn his family that something is bothering him,” says Dr. Beaver.
Dr. Ciribassi adds that noise-phobic dogs might yelp during storms or in response to everyday sounds, and a dog barking at home may be a way for him to establish his area. “Barking can also occur as a part of territorial behavior,” he says. For example, “When people leave their dogs loose and alone in yards, dogs develop innate territorial tendencies, since they can practice the behavior at will.”
Sometimes, though, a bark is just a bark. “They might also bark just because they’re bored and trying to get attention,” says Dr. Beaver. “Often this behavior has [developed after having] been reinforced for a long time, but if you work on ignoring it, they’ll eventually
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9. He’s chewing on your furniture.
Again, there can be quite a few explanations here. “Some dogs chew when alone because of separation anxiety,” says Dr. Ciribassi. “Puppies chew when teething and in exploration — if not adequately redirected, the chewing can persist into the dog’s adulthood.”
Sometimes, though, it’s just because a dog is, well, a dog. “Some breeds are just more mouth-oriented, and they’ll get into trouble because they’re genetically programmed to,” says Dr. Beaver. Another possible explanation? A delicious smell. “It could even be that food accidentally gets dropped next to a certain piece of furniture, and the dog might try to go after the smell.” It’s hard to blame him in that case.
In general, if you’re ever concerned about your dog’s behavior, stop by your vet’s office for a quick wellness check-up. It never hurts to be sure it’s not something bigger, and most vets have lots of treats around, making it a fun visit for your pup, too!
Somehow, along the way, I made the terrible life decision to only be friends with people who are well and truly coupled. I’m surrounded by loving significant others who fawn over one another (and have really expensive weddings) and I find myself looking around and not seeing what the fuss is all about. Sure, they’ll (maybe) have someone until the day they die, but there’s also a lot of baggage that comes with it, like shared finances and bathrooms. So, while they’re waxing eloquently about their boyfriends and husbands, I like to talk about my dogs (which is generally met with mixed reviews) because I’m convinced I’ve got the better end of the deal.
Not convinced a four-legged friend with a tail is a better choice for a life companion, well let me change your minds my friends.
1. You can kick the dog out of bed
When my dog starts hogging the covers, kicking me in her sleep, farting in bed and snoring too loudly, all I have to do is reach over and push them off the bed. There’s no conversation about boundaries or needing my space, and I don’t have to compromise on the amount of bed I take up. Granted there’s a lot of disgruntlement, but since there are more dog beds than empty floor space in my house, they can just deal with it.
2. Netflix and chill doesn’t come with awkward expectations
I’ve got an unending control over my Netflix account and a permanent couch partner to enjoy it with. While the pit bull does tend to prefer dog movies and the puppy has a strange thing for Frank Sinatra musicals, they’ll just go to sleep when they don’t like what I’ve put on. I can have a no-pants chill session in front of the TV and the only wandering limbs will be when the dog takes up too much of the couch.
3. I can complain as much as I want
Don’t try and pretend you don’t talk to your dogs — I’m not the only crazy one here. If I’m having a terrible, no good, very bad, rotten day, the dog’s going to hear about it. I’m going to moan and complain, tell them all about it, and since my pups are just as vocal, they generally sass me right back. I don’t have to hold it in because I need to be supportive of someone else’s bad day or feel bad about being worked up over something silly. I can vent to my heart’s content and they’ll bark back supportively.
4. They don’t care if I’m occasionally a disaster
The days when my emotions are out of control and I just want to be sad or angry or curl up in a ball and ignore the world, my dogs let me. I’ve always got someone to curl up next to me, put their head in my lap or kiss my cheek and let me wallow. They’re not going to get annoyed when it lasts too long or feel an obligation to make it better, or worse yet — talk me out of it. More often than not, just their presence will be enough to pull me out of it.
5. We don’t argue about the chores
No, the dogs are not going to take out the trash or load the dishes (or vacuum up their own hairballs), but there’s no expectation for help. You expect your significant other to pitch in around the house; when they don’t, there’s a lot of resentment. I know my dogs are going to tear up their toys, shed hair like it’s their job and generally be little mess makers, but if it was a spouse who did it I’d go bonkers.
6. I can train my dogs to not be jerks
I’ve heard that going into a relationship expecting to be able to change someone is generally frowned upon. With the dogs, I’m supposed to train them to behave properly in the world. At the start of the dog-owner relationship, the puppy is an agent of chaos and bad behavior, but within a few months they’re normally able to mind you and alter their behavior through repetition and kindness. Unfortunately for you, your partner’s personality is probably what you’re stuck with, good or bad. I’m not sure cookies and belly rubs can talk them into being more supportive.
7. They’re always up for a road trip
Sometimes, you just want to get in your car, open the windows, blare the music and go. My dog’s are always up for it and their infectious smiles and tongues hanging out only add to the experience. I don’t have to worry about who is going to drive, argue over where we’re going or if we’ll be back in time for dinner. They’re happy to just be on an adventure and trust that I’ll take care of everything — which is a balm to my Type-A personality.
8. The bathroom is all mine
While I sometimes wish the dogs would use the toilet (house training is a literal nightmare), it does let me have exclusive bathroom rights. They’re not stinking it up, using all the hot water or leaving beard trimmings in the sink. I can let my makeup sprawl and take as long as I want while they take care of business outside.
9. I get a companion and a child all in one
There are some girlfriends and wives out there who might argue that their partner fits into this, too, but that’s not necessarily for the better. My dogs give me the chance to nurture and raise something, and feel the responsibility and love from doing so, while also having companionship and someone that will grow into at least semi self-sufficiency.
10. They’re always overjoyed to see me
Whether you’ve just come home from work or a five-minute errand, your dog is always happy to see you. Can you say the same about your partner or friends? There are very few non-blood relations who give me the same unconditional love that my dogs do.
11. My dogs need me
There are far too many homeless dogs (and cats) in the world, and I can do my small part in giving some of them a home, care and all the love I can provide. There are no strings or time limits, it’s not conditional on their behavior nor dependent on whether someone better comes along. It’s one of the few relationships in life in which you’re not going to get hurt and you can freely and openly give of yourself without fear or judgement.
Now, next time you’re feeling too single, go hug your pup and be thankful you have them in your life. I’m convinced they’re the best companions a girl could have.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS via Getty Image
When Elizabeth Estes’s dog, Ollie, started coughing last year, she didn’t think he was seriously ill at first. But then the 3-year-old Jack Russell-chihuahua mix got much worse.
“All of a sudden, he couldn’t breathe and he was coughing. It was so brutal,” says Estes, who lives in Chicago. “The dog couldn’t breathe. I mean, could not breathe — just kept coughing and coughing and coughing and gasping for air.”
Ollie, it turned out, had caught a strain of dog flu that’s relatively new to the U.S — canine influenza H3N2. The virus arrived from Korea last spring and has since caused flu outbreaks among dogs in 26 states throughout the nation.
No cases of human infections with the virus have ever been recorded, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And H3N2 causes no symptoms or only mild illness in most dogs. But it is triggering some severe cases of canine pneumonia.
The night Ollie got so sick, Estes spent the night on the floor of her steam shower with the dog, and rushed him to a veterinarian as soon as she could the next morning.
“They said, ‘When you get to the front of the building, call us because you can’t bring the dog in through the lobby. You have to come in through the back door. It’s that contagious,’ ” she says. “So I realized at that point: ‘Wait a minute. This is something a little bit more serious than I thought it was.’ “
The vet rushed the dog into intensive care. “I was petrified we were going to lose him, and pretty upset,” Estes says.
After four days of intravenous fluids, help breathing and antibiotics to prevent complications, Ollie recovered. “He’s perfectly fine now. But it was a scary and expensive endeavor — but mostly scary,” she says.
Two different strains of dog flu are known to be circulating in the United States; canine influenza H3N2 is believed to have first arrived about a year ago, where it triggered an outbreak of illness among pets in Chicago. The virus apparently was brought into the country through O’Hare International Airport by an infected dog from South Korea.
“Dogs, like people, move all around the world.” says Joseph Kinnarney, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
H3N2 has since spread to probably thousands of dogs in a number of areas throughout the U.S, Kinnarney says. Most have no symptoms. There have been reports of cats also getting sick from the infection in Korea, but so far that hasn’t been reported in the United States.
The virus seems to be spreading much more easily than H3N8, a canine flu strain that has been in the U.S. longer. One reason is that dogs infected with H3N2 remain contagious for about three weeks, even if they have no symptoms; that’s about a week longer than usual. Also, Kinnarney says, because the strain is new to the continent, U.S. dogs lack immunity to it.
Mild symptoms of the illness include a cough, loss of appetite and fatigue — these dogs recover on their own. Symptoms of severe illness — more likely in very old or very young dogs, or in dogs with other health problems — include high fevers, breathing problems and complications such as pneumonia.
Dogs that spend time around other dogs are the most likely to catch it, Kinnarney says, so pets that spend most of their time at home and rarely interact with other dogs are at low risk. He recommends that dogs that frequently come in contact with other dogs get immunized — two vaccines against H3N2 became available late last fall.
“If your dog goes to doggy day care, if your dog goes to a dog park, if your dog is traveling with you, you should get the vaccine,” he says. “It’s just not worth the risk.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association gets funding for its educational meetings from companies that make the vaccines, but no specific products are promoted at those meetings, an association spokesperson says.
Other virologists and veterinarians say many dogs probably don’t need the vaccine, especially animals that live where the virus is not circulating widely. You can check with your vet to see if there have been outbreaks in your area.
“You shouldn’t be any more worried [about this strain of dog flu] than any other upper respiratory infection,” says Ashley Gallagher, a veterinarian at the Friendship Heights Animal Hospital in Washington, D.C. “It’s essentially just another kennel-cough disease.”
Though there’s no evidence so far that people can catch the virus from the dogs, there’s always a chance the virus could mutate and become even more of a threat to dogs, says Edward Dubovi, a veterinary virologist at Cornell University who is tracking the virus. Like any flu virus, “it keeps changing,” Dubovi says.