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San Diego Humane Society

Surprising Dog Behaviors

While our dog’s behavior can be surprising, it rarely happens “out of the blue.” They often display a number of signals that help us predict their behavior, and we often miss or misunderstand them. Dogs are constantly telling us what they are feeling or what they are about to do. We just aren’t listening.

You can become a better dog owner and handler by simply paying attention to your dog. You will start to notice your dog’s cues and signals and will be able to prevent unwanted behaviors before they happen. As with most things, prevention is easier than trying to fix a problem after it has occurred.

What are warning signals?

Every dog’s signals are going to be a little different. They have different body types, ear types, facial structures and more, which means their signals will vary slightly. But generally speaking, dogs communicate with their whole body, so it’s important to pay attend to all of the signals they’re giving us. Here are some of the easier things you’ll notice:

  • Tail: High or low? Relaxed or rigid? Wagging broadly or tightly?
  • Ears: Flat or perked? Relaxed or not?
  • Mouth: Open or closed?
  • Body: High and forward or low and crouched? Tense or relaxed and wiggling?
  • Fur: Laying flat or spiked/hackled?

With time, you’ll get a feel for how your dog looks when they are excited, scared, anxious, relaxed, etc. Once you are able to recognize some basic body language, start looking for more subtle cues. Though hard to detect at first, these are some of the most informative signals you can get from your dog.

  • Mouth: Whiskers forward or back? Lips tight and curled or relaxed?
  • Feet: On toes, leaning forward? Relaxed stance on pads? Pulling away on their heels?
  • Eyes: Staring intently or relaxed? Wide-eyed or whale-eyed (eyes turned sideways and you can see the whites of their eyes)?

What should I do?

When you see your dog exhibiting warning signals, it’s best to lead them away from the situation causing the stress (e.g. another dog, a person, a loud area) and have them refocus their attention on you. Calmly call them back to you, offer treats and reward them for refocusing on you. This may take some time and practice, so be prepared for the possibility that, despite your best efforts, your dog may still bolt. That’s why it’s best to keep them on leash at all times when outside the home.

Other helpful resources:

  • Canine Body Language by the ASPCA
  • “How to Speak Dog” by Stanley Coren
  • “Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas (Book and video)
  • “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

Behavior Helpline

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing behavior@sdhumane.org or filling out our Ask a Trainer form

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398. 

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