Interpreting dog behavior can be tricky, and there are some strong myths about dog body language. The list below debunks a few common misconceptions about what our dogs are trying to tell us.
Dogs have personalities as varied as humans, and unless you know a dog really well it can be difficult to read what she’s trying to tell you. My dog Jenna, for example, is very high anxiety because of her history before we adopted her. Her cues are sometimes more subtle than more “normal dogs.”
It’s hard to tell at first glance sometimes whether you’re dealing with a well-adjusted dog or not, but knowing how to spot subtle signs can make things go more smoothly for you and for the dog. So often our dogs or dogs we encounter are trying to tell us that they are scared, anxious, or unhappy. When we miss these signals, we tend to blame the dog.
Director of animal behavior services at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Carlos Siracusa recently shared six common misconceptions about dog behavior. My friend Allison, a professional dog trainer, sent this article to me and suggested that these tips would make a good follow-up to my piece on dog body language. I agree! The more we know about reading a dog’s signals, the better.
6 Dog Behavior Myths, Debunked
1. Dogs attack without first showing any signs of distress.
Siracusa dispels this dangerous myth, explaining that almost all dogs give signs that something or someone is making them uncomfortable. Those signs may be subtle, like inching away or even just pulling their heads away. Look for other signs like bared teeth and flattened ears. Not all dogs will grown before lashing out, so looking for these physical signs is important.
Why don’t all dogs growl before attacking? Something Jenna’s trainers have stressed with us is to never scold her when she growls. It’s actually pretty easy to train a dog not to growl. The trouble is, you’re teaching her not to give that important warning that she’s reaching the end of her rope.
2. A dog on her back is asking for a belly rub.
When a dog rolls over, she is saying one of two things:
- “I trust you, you’re the boss, please rub my belly!”
- “I’m feeling nervous. Please leave me alone.”
Talk about confusing! According to Siracusa, the key is to look at the other signals that dog is sending. Does she seem relaxed with a vigorously wagging tail? Rub away! If her legs are stiff, and she’s holding her head to one side, leave her be.
3. Happy dogs wag their tails.
If I had to pick the most dangerous dog behavior myth on this list, it would be this one. Tail wags can mean lots of things, and not all of them are happy. I’ve noticed that – at least with Jenna – it’s about the way she’s wagging. A slow back-and-forth means she’s uneasy. If she’s wagging so hard that her booty is shaking, she’s feeling fine. We call the latter her “helicopter tail,” and I love seeing her that happy!
If you don’t know the dog, Siracusa says that you should look at other signs, just like with the two myths above. The ears, eyes, and mouth give you a lot of information.
4. The idea of dog training is to teach your dog that you’re the alpha.
This one shocked me, I’ll be honest. We’ve been training Jenna for years, and we always thought of me as the alpha, since I’m with her most and she follows my lead most of the time. Siracusa calls this a common misconception. He says that dog training is about getting your dog attached to you, not establish pack order.
5. When your dog is bad, punish her.
No. No. No. This was one of the first things we learned in training, and changing our mindset about how to modify Jenna’s behavior has done wonders for her. Punishing teaches your dog fear. Instead, you want to entice and reward. There’s no need to hit your dog or shout at her.
I think a great example of this idea in action is the way we are teaching Jenna to interact with our 14-month-old son. She’s a 45 pound lab mix, so she still outweighs him and could really hurt him without meaning to. When she gets too wound up, we don’t shout or hit. We just remove her from the situation for a few minutes, then start again. These little time outs give her a chance to calm down, so that we can bring her back in and reward her for playing safely and calmly with our baby.
6. A calm dog is a happy dog.
Siracuse explains that this couldn’t be further from the truth, and this is a lesson that my husband and I learned quickly after adopting Jenna.
At the shelter, Jenna would sit quietly. We thought at first that this was a sign of a relaxed, well-adjusted girl, and it could not have been less true. She wasn’t sitting calmly. She was so overcome with anxiety that she was completely shut down. A dog like that can be dangerous, and it took years of love and training to get Jenna out of her shell. She is still an anxious girl, but she responds to the commands she’s learned, and she is generally very happy.
If you encounter a dog who’s sitting very still, know that she might be terrified. Terrified dogs are hard to read. Your best bet is to look to the owner for cues on whether to pet her or leave her be.