Understanding Dog Behavior: What They’re Really Telling You

dog behavior

When you look at the picture above, what do you see?

Simple! It's a happy smiling dog, right?

Actually, it turns out the answer isn't so simple.

Would you be surprised if I told you that what humans often interpret as “smiling” in dogs doesn't necessarily indicate happiness? More on that later.

My guess is that like most pet owners, including myself, you're probably guilty of anthropomorphic behavior.

No need to punch that word into google. Just sit tight while I explain the simple idea behind this complicated sounding word.


Pronounced AN-THROW-PO-MORF-ISM, this word means the attribution of human characteristics or qualities to something that isn't human - such as objects, plants, or animals. 

For example, the little girl who wraps a blanket around her doll so it doesn’t get cold? Anthropomorphist!

That strange woman you always avoid in the park because she talks to the trees? Anthropomorphist!

And finally, the pet owner who puts a necktie on her dog because she is convinced that he likes to feel fancy? Guilty as charged, I'm definitely an anthropomorphist.

Here's Why We Do It

Anthropomorphism is a natural human tendency and in the case of pet owners, it is almost unavoidable. It makes sense that as humans we would assign some of our own characteristics and emotions to our furry companions to help us simplify and make sense of their behavior, but it's important to remember that our pets are a completely different species.

The problem for pet owners occurs when our unwitting anthropomorphic tendencies lead to health or behavior issues that go unchecked. To help prevent this scenario and improve the overall communication between you and your non-human companions, some of the most common examples of misinterpreted animal behavior are outlined below.

Why A Wagging Tail Doesn't Always Mean "Gimme a Hug!"

Tail wagging is not necessarily always a friendly dog behavior. According to vetStreet, a wagging tail indicates a dog is willing to interact, but not necessarily whether the interaction will be friendly or aggressive. A lowered head, pinned back ears, and rigid body posture (even on a wagging dog) can indicate the dog is uncomfortable. On the other hand, a wagging tail accompanied by a dog nudging your hand or leaning against you indicates friendly behavior.

dog behavior

In cats, a wagging tail indicates agitation and it is best to back off and give your cat space if you notice this behavior. When a cat is relaxed or content, they tend to hold their tails still with minimal movement compared to an excited dog. 

"Awww... He Wants Me to Rub His Belly!"

Here's another dog behavior that might not mean what you think it does.

Just because your pet is lying on their back with their belly exposed does not necessarily mean they want a belly rub. When you see a dog roll over and lie on his back, it's simply a sign of submission.

So while many dogs really do enjoy the attention they get from their owners who assume they want a belly rub, others may growl or snap as they don't enjoy being touched while in this vulnerable, submissive position.

dog behavior

An exposed belly on a cat is a sign of non-aggressive, appeasing behavior. It means your cat feels comfortable around you. It is not necessarily an invitation for physical contact, however, which is why many attempted cat belly rubs are followed up with biting, kicking, and a few sprays of Bactine.

Why "Smiles" Are Tricky Dog Behavior

Similar to the previous example, what we often view as “smiling” in dogs is also just an expression of submission. Dogs will often retract the corner of their lips to signal their subordinate position. This is why confident alpha dogs rarely smile - because they have no need (or desire) to signal their submission.

Here's the tricky part...

It may actually be true that a “smiling” dog is a happy dog, but it's not because they appear to be smiling. It's because of our behavior!

Humans tend to reward “smiling” dogs with positive attention, such as a treat or pat on the head. The dog then associates the behavior with something that makes him happy.

An important exception is a “smile” caused when a dog lifts its lip and bares teeth.

This is a sign of aggression rather than submission and is a signal to back away.

dog behavior

Paws... For Thought

Let my own experience in this area serve as a cautionary tale.

Clean freak that I am, when I noticed my dog licking at his paws I assumed he just wanted clean feet. Also, since he had grown up with cats, my husband and I assumed this was a learned behavior he had picked up.

It wasn’t until the paw licking became excessive and was accompanied by biting and chewing that we knew something else was going on.

dog behavior

A few trips to the vet and some trial and error later we determined that the paw licking and chewing was a result of itchy paws due to food allergies. A simple switch to a limited ingredient (and unfortunately much more expensive) brand of dog food completely fixed the problem. I felt such guilt afterward. All those years when we assumed our dog was just a clean freak like me and he was dealing with itchy paws!

It turns out that paw licking and biting isn’t the only symptom of allergies that is often misinterpreted by pet owners. Other common symptoms of food allergies in dogs can include dry itchy skin, excessive scratching, ear and skin infections, diarrhea and vomiting. Make sure to speak with your vet if you suspect your dog might be suffering from allergies.

Our pets are our best friends. They are members of our families. They are intelligent, loyal, and complex. One thing they are not, however, is human.

Animals see and interpret our shared world much differently than humans do. The more we can remember this the better our relationships with them will be!

Now I want to hear from you...

In what ways are you an anthropomorphist with your pet. (It's ok... admit it... you're among friends)

Have you ever misinterpreted your pet's behaviors?

Let's talk about it in the comments!


About the Author

In addition to being a Muddy Paws volunteer and a creamsicle aficionado, Molly is a professional designer and animal lover with a background in marketing, event planning, and interior design. You can contact molly from our contact page.

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