You get home after a long day at work. The second you walk in your dog eagerly greets you, just like she does every day.
You walk toward the kitchen to grab a cold one out of the fridge. That’s when you see and smell it: The garbage can is knocked over and trash is strewn across the floor. There can be only one culprit, and she’s right behind you.
You turn around, look down at her and before you can even open your mouth she gets that guilty look. You know the one. Tail between the legs. Head down. Looking off to the side, refusing to make eye contact. You scold her, but she looks so adorably pathetic and guilty that you can’t stay angry for long. You almost feel sorry for her.
But guess what—she’s doesn’t feel guilty!
No, she’s not a conniving manipulator. She’s simply incapable of feeling guilt in the human sense of the term. What she’s doing, according to some researchers, is placating you, because she’s learned that when she assumes that “guilty look,” you’ll go a little easier on her.
This is not to say that dogs don’t feel real emotions—they absolutely do, and any dog owner knows this. In fact, dogs have the same emotional intelligence as 2½-year-old humans. Both are capable of feeling happiness, joy and contentment; affection, love and excitement; stress; disgust; fear; and anger. But for dogs, it ends there; whereas toddlers go on to develop more complex emotions, such as shame, pride, guilt and contempt.
How to read your dog’s emotions
Dog owners who have strong bonds with their dog(s) can usually tell how their dog is feeling by its body language and vocalizations. But not everybody knows how to interpret dog-body language. Hopefully, the following guide will help. (NOTE: Owing to the different breeds of dogs, some of the following body language indicators might not be readily obvious.)
JOYFUL & CONTENT / HAPPY
A happy dog will have some—but not necessarily all—of the following behaviors:
- Her eyes and mouth are relaxed.
- Her ears are comfortable.
- Her tail is relaxed or wagging.
- Her body is relaxed.
- She’s not destroying things, which is something dogs do out of boredom. Think about it: When you’re bored, you’re probably not happy. Same for a dog.
- She’s playful and energetic / uses the play bow
AFFECTION & LOVE / EXCITEMENT
- She goes crazy with excitement when you get home.
- She enjoys playing and roughhousing with you.
- She wants to sleep near you.
- Although it’s bad manners, she’ll jump up on you.
- She wags her tail when you’re around.
- She follows you around.
- Just like your palms might get sweaty in stressful situations, her paws sweat.
- She barely eats, or won’t eat at all.
- She shed’s excessively.
- Her muscles tense up, ears are pinned back, she’s licking her nose, she’s staring at the source of her discomfort with wide, unblinking eyes. Any of these signs in a short sequence means she’s telling you to back off.
Dogs are social creatures; so, they have evolved calming signals to diffuse tension. Those signs include:
- Turning her head away.
- Licking her lips.
- Shaking as if she’s trying to dry herself off.
- Scratching, stretching and blinking repeatedly.
- Slowly dipping her head.
- Lifting a paw.
Dogs can feel disgust, although certainly not over some things humans find disgusting! Sometimes it’s hard to tell when a dog feels disgust, but here’s a telltale sign:
- Your dog will quickly get away from whatever scent or taste she finds disgusting. Many people use scents that dogs dislike as a training tool to discourage unwanted behaviors.
- She whimpers or barks.
- She paces and / or pants excessively.
- She crouches, slinks, flinches and cringes. If your dog avoids eye-contact or avoids you, she may fear you or your anticipated reaction.
- She clings to you.
- She has a change in appetite.
- She barks loudly in your direction.
- The bark is sharp and short.
- She growls and maybe shows her teeth.
- She howls repeatedly but her pitch rises at each howl. She’s trying to get you attention. Ignoring the howls can lead to more aggressive behavior.
As you may have noticed, some of your dog’s emotional indicators overlap, and some emotions are easy to read, whereas others are less so. It’s extremely important to know how to read your dog’s emotions, because that’s the only way she can communicate with you.
Does your dog have ways of displaying emotions that weren’t mentioned in this article? Please share them with us!