Dogs use their bodies and facial expressions to communicate with each other and with humans. Dogs understand these signals in each other but it’s harder for humans to read these dog messages.
Sometimes people fail to understand what a dog is trying to communicate because we misinterpret the message. The most common example of this is the ever popular meme of the guilty dog. Dogs feel lots of emotions but guilt isn’t one of them. In order to feel guilty, dogs would need to have an understanding of right and wrong in the same way that humans do. Dogs operate on a system of what actions work for them and which don’t rather than any judgement of the rightness or wrongness of their behavior. For this reason, dogs simply don’t feel guilty. So, if they don’t feel guilty, what do those guilty looks mean?
A “guilty” dog isn’t feeling bad about what he did, he’s feeling upset or scared about your reaction to what he did. If you catch your dog chewing on your favorite shoes, that face your dog gives is in response to your raised or stern sounding voice. You appear angry so your dog tries to appease you by hiding, turning his face away, raising a paw and generally appearing “guilty” from a human perspective.
Your dog behaves this way to stop you from being angry with him rather than in apology for what he has done. These appeasing gestures are calming signals dogs use with each other and with humans.
These calming signals are often the same ones dogs use to let you know they are uncomfortable with a situation. Misreading a “guilty” dog is relatively harmless but misreading an uncomfortable dog can lead to serious consequences. The main example of this is stories of dogs biting someone “without warning.” The odds are, the dog gave several layers of warning in the form of calming signals before biting. The problem is that many humans ignore these signals because they just don’t understand what they mean.
Most dogs do not want to bite and will do so only as a last resort when all of their “warnings” (the calming signals) are disregarded.
Here is a list of what calming signals to look for in your dog. These all mean that your dog is feeling stressed or uncomfortable.
- Licking his lips
- Licking a person’s face
- Turning his head away
- Eyes wide so you can see the white part (“whale eye”)
- Turning his whole body away
- Freezing in one position
- Lifting one paw off the ground
- Employing very slow movement
All of these signs will typically come before a dog growls (but not always depending on the dog’s history). When reading dog body language, it’s important to consider the context in which they occur. Sometimes a yawning dog is just tired and sometimes a yawning dog is trying to tell you he doesn’t feel comfortable with what is going on. When you see any of these signals, look at the overall situation. Could your dog be feeling stressed? If you think yes (or even maybe) stop what is happening or remove your dog from the situation.
Part of being a great dog guardian is to learn how to communication with your dog on his terms and advocating for his best interests in all situations.