My family is one of the estimated 23 million American households 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 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 monkeylike 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 like 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 Marino, taught us was that we were probably misinterpreting much of Ozzy’s behavior, as most owners do. “Dogs are always communicating with us, but most of the time we’re not listening, which can lead to behavioral issues,” she told me. 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 behavior. Here are some of the fascinating things I learned.
How to recognize 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 behavior. 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 dog 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 realize until recently that this is a phenomenon called “whale eye,” and it’s often a sign of doggie 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 behavior 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,” said psychologist Sarah Byosiere, director of the Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College in New York City.
So if your dog is panting but he isn’t hot or winded, or if your dog is yawning but not seemingly tired, yes, he could be stressed. And especially if you’re seeing a constellation of these stress behaviors at once, that’s a good sign that your pup is uncomfortable, Dr. Byosiere said.
If your dog is out of sorts, what should you do? First, try to figure out what might be causing his discomfort, said psychologist Angie Johnston, 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 said, and see if those anxious behaviors dissipate.
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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,” Dr. Johnston said. If a dog’s tail-wagging is fluid and relaxed, then yes, she’s probably content, she said — 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.