He knows he’s guilty! Right? 4 Common Dog Body Language Myths

1. Myth: A dog who is wagging his tail is happy and friendly.

Truth: A dog’s wagging tail does not indicate that they are happy, friendly, or want you to say hi to them.

It does however indicate a willingness to interact. But, there are lots of different types of interactions. Jumping up and nipping someone is a type of interaction, biting someone is a type of interaction. Growling at someone is an interaction. Even if your dog is wagging their tail while they are jumping, biting, or growling, it does not mean they are happy or friendly.

I could write 5 pages about different types of wagging tails (and bore you all to death in the process) but instead I thought I would summarize quickly.

A wagging tail is NOT an indication of a happy dog.

If you want to know if your dog is actually happy or friendly it is much more effective to pay attention to their overall body language. If their body is loose and wiggly (with lots of curves and “C” or “S” shapes) while not being pressured into an interaction, chances are much higher that they are happy and/or friendly.

2. Myth: My dog is lying on his back because he wants a belly rub

Truth: When your dog rolls onto his back and exposes his belly many people exclaim how cute it is that he wants a belly rub. Unfortunately, this usually is not the case. Most of the time when your dog rolls onto his back he is telling you that he would prefer you to not approach, it’s kind of like a “tap out.” Often if you look closely at your dog you can see this position accompanied by stress signals like tongue flicks, a tense jaw, whale eye, and ears back. Be very careful before approaching a dog who is lying on their back, especially if it is not your own dog.

3. Myth: My dog is yawns a lot, he is always tired

Truth: Most of the time when presented with a dog who is yawning people say that the behavior is prompted by feeling tired. But, this is not always true! A dog who is curling up and ready for bed might be yawning because they are tired. In most other situations, however, there are different causes for their yawning.

Verified in multiple studies, the main cause for yawning in dogs is as a response to stress. If you pay attention to when your dog yawns, there is likely a pattern. For example, if your dog yawns every time you grab their harness, that indicates that your dog doesn’t like having their harness grabbed.

It has also been hypothesized that dog’s do contagious yawning like people do with each other. However, the results of multiple studies have been overall inconclusive. On a population level it has not been proven that dogs exhibit contagious yawning, but there have been some individual dogs who do. It has also been shown that there is an element of social-emotional, empathy based, and emotional connection factors that will contribute to whether or not the dogs yawn in response to the person’s yawn.

4. Myth: Growling is bad, and only bad dogs growl

Truth: So, I’m going to say something a little controversial here, a dog growling is actually a good thing. It is a form of communication and it is a dog’s way of trying to avoid biting. I frequently have people tell me that their dog “bit out of nowhere,” and most of the time the bite was actually very predictable once you learn how to read your dog’s body language. In rare instances where a dog really does bite with little to no warning, their growl has often been punished and they have lost a way to communicate their feelings with you. I would choose a dog growling at me over a dog biting me any day of the week.

That is not to say that if a dog is growling we should just ignore it. It does mean that there is behavior and feelings that need to be addressed. But, your dog growling does not make them a bad dog. They are actually doing a wonderful loving thing, they are saying they do not want to bite you, and they are giving you an opportunity to address their feelings and to meet their needs.

Now, there are also lots of other contexts in which growling occurs frequently, most notably during play. It is absolutely ok for dogs to growl during play! But, it can be really hard for an untrained observer to tell when a dog is growling because they are playing and when they are growing because something is going wrong. And sometimes the two fluctuate very quickly or occur in the same situations. It is important to look at the overall situation and note the dog’s other body language. If you are unsure, the best thing to do is to stop engaging. Always better to play it safe than to ignore vital communication from your dog.

5. Myth: My dog knows he was naughty, he even looks guilty

Truth: Have you guys seen the really “funny” videos of dogs cowering from their owner after they have done something naughty? They are all over the internet, and I actually don’t find them that funny. In every video there are always dozens of comments insisting the dog is cowering because they knew they did something wrong and they are remorseful. I am sorry to break your bubble, but that is not actually why the dogs are looking remorseful. They are scared of their angry owner, not guilty.

The body language people often label as guilty include the dogs turning their head away, licking their lips, shaking, and panting, among other things. In 2009 a study by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz confirmed that dog’s would respond with the same body language to their owners disapproval or scolding whether or not they had done something naughty. This showed that their behavior is in response to their owners’ cues rather than their own feelings of guilt.

More about Dog Body Language by Leash and Learn:
  1. Body Language Infographic
  2. Doggie Language by Lili Chin Reviewed

Buttner, A. P., & Strasser, R. (2013). Contagious yawning, social cognition, and arousal: An investigation of the processes underlying shelter dogs’ responses to human yawns. Animal Cognition, 17(1), 95–104. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-013-0641-z

Casey, R., 2002. Fear and stress. In: Horwitz, D.F., Mills, D.S., Heath, S. (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of canine and feline behavioural medicine. British Small Animal Veternary Association, Dorset, UK, pp. 144–153.

Horowitz, A. (2009). Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural Processes, 81(3), 447–452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2009.03.014

Kuhne, F., Hößler, J.C., Struwe, R., 2012. Effects of human–dog familiarity on dogs’ behavioural responses to petting. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 142, 176–181.

Kuhne, F., Hößler, J. C., & Struwe, R. (2014). Emotions in dogs being petted by a familiar or unfamiliar person: Validating behavioural indicators of emotional states using heart rate variability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 161, 113–120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.09.020

Overall, K.L., 1997. Normal canine behavior. In: Overall, K.L. (Ed.), Clini- cal Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. Mosby, St. Louis, USA, pp. 9–44.

Silva, K., Bessa, J., & de Sousa, L. (2012). Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation. Animal Cognition, 15(4), 721–724. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-012-0473-2

Taylor, A. M., Reby, D., & McComb, K. (2009). Context-Related Variation in the Vocal Growling Behaviour of the Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris). Ethology, 115(10), 905–915. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0310.2009.01681.x

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