Petstock logo
HomeRight caret
BlogRight caret
Article Featured Image
January 2023

Understanding Dog Behaviours

Behaviour & Training

Whether it’s barking, cowering, sniffing, or wagging their tail – your dog’s body language means something and understanding it is the first step to training them into good habits! Petstock trainer and dog behavioural specialist Tina Button provides a rundown on how to read your dog’s behaviour and offers a guide to correct unwanted behaviours.

What does a dog's body language tell you?

They may not speak English, but dogs are very effective users of body language! Here’s a quick rundown of common dog actions and what they mean.

Tilting Their Head to One Side – This could mean ‘I’m not sure,’ ‘Oh, this is interesting!’ or even ‘what’s that sound?’

Yawning –‘This is stressful.’

Shaking Their Head – ‘Oof, I’m relieved that’s over.’

Full Body Shake – ‘I’m VERY relieved that’s over’ or ‘I’m so excited!’ depending on the context.

Licking Their Lips – ‘I’m not sure about this.’

Showing Teeth – ‘I'm warning you...'

Showing Teeth and Snarling – ‘I’m REALLY warning you. You're making me unsure or angry. Do not come any closer.’

Panting – ‘Phew, I’m hot!’

Howling –‘I’m a little lonely. Where are my mates?’ or ‘That’s a cool sound, I can do it too!’

Flicking Their Ears – ‘I’m listening!’

Bowing- ‘Let’s play!’

Tips for Socialising Your Dog

Socialising your dog is a fine balance – you can get just as many problems with an over-socialised dog as an under-socialised dog. Sometimes you’ll come across dogs where the owner has no control because their dog has lost interest in them and just wants to play with every dog it meets. This creates problems like pulling on the lead, barking, and even biting if they grow frustrated enough and the behaviour escalates – which is what we want to avoid.

It’s important to understand that we want our dogs to be tolerant – but they don’t need to socialise with every dog they see. They’re just like humans in that way! The ideal situation is for your dog to be fine when there are other dogs around, while also having the correct behaviour when they’re socialising.

What’s the Proper Way to Greet a Dog?

If you come across a dog you’ve not met before, there’s a correct way to approach them that maximises their comfort while reducing danger to yourself. Here’s how to do it.

  • Approach the dog front on, so you’re directly in their line of vision and not taking them by surprise.
  • Approach at a slow, steady pace. Do not run up to the dog – that’s bad body language and can put nervous dogs on edge.
  • Keep your arms by your side. Allow the dog to take in your scent.
  • Let them approach you the rest of the way and pat them on their body (not their head).
  • Always ask a dog’s owner before patting a strange dog.

Do not:

  • Attempt to pat a dog whose owner is not present.
  • Put your hand out for the dog to sniff – this is just something for them to bite. They can take in your scent without needing to smell your hand.
  • Approach the dog if they’re backing away from you. This is nervous body language.
  • Attempt to pat the dog if they’re ducking their head, if they’re cowering, backing away from you, going behind their owner or growling. This is indicating that they’re unsure and don’t want to be approached further.
Article Image

How to Get Your Dog to Greet Other Dogs Calmly

When another dog is approaching, notice their body language, as well as the body language of your own dog. Both should be displaying open behaviour.

Closed Body Language for Dogs

  • Hiding behind you or in between your legs.
  • Dropping their head.
  • Ears and/or tail down.
  • Looking away and/or backing away.

Closed body language indicates they’re nervous and do not want to approach another dog.

Open Body Language for Dogs

  • Advancing forward with upright posture.
  • Standing on their toes.
  • Going into the play bow position.
  • Wagging their tail and/or raised heckles (though these can also be indications of aggression so take note of their overall behaviour as well).

If both dogs are displaying open language, you can proceed to a greeting.

  1. Do not allow your dog to lunge forward – this is rude to the other dog. Keep your dog by your side.

  2. Tell your dog to ‘sit’ or ‘wait’ while the other approaches. Your dog should look to you to determine if they’re doing the correct behaviour – reward them with a treat or praise them for making eye contact and keeping their focus on you.

  3. When the other dog has approached, allow your dog to approach them and let them sniff each other.

  4. Call your dog back to your side – you can do this with a treat if they need a lure.

How do you control your dog when walking past other dogs?

If you’ve got a reactive dog that lunges forward all the time, you need to train him out the behaviour gradually, with lots of repetition. This is referred to as ‘counter conditioning’ wherein we’re training the dog out of an impulse behaviour by changing their mindset.

Take high-value treats on your walks with you (these need to be something they don’t receive often – like bits of chicken or beef you’ve saved from roasts, bits of dog loaf or high-quality jerky provided they don’t get it regularly).

When you come across another dog, engage in the step-by-step process detailed above and continuously reward your dog every time they sit, behave, and look at you. Do not allow your dog to lunge forward, and continuously reward them for staying with you. Only allow them to proceed if they’re calm, reward them for looking at you and if they do attempt to lunge walk firmly in the opposite direction so they learn they do not benefit from engaging in this behaviour.

Practice this regularly (ideally starting with dogs they know to practice if possible) and keep training sessions to 10-15 minutes at a time. The trick to this training is engaging in it regularly and progressing slowly to gradually de-sensitise your dog to the unwanted behaviour.

Article Image

FAQs for understanding dog behaviour and dog behavioural training

Got some behavioural questions? You’ve come to the right spot!

Why does my dog jump? How do I stop my dog from jumping?

Dogs (and especially puppies!) jump because they’re excited! That’s why they’re often doing it when you come home – they’re happy to see you! To discourage this behaviour, you shouldn’t greet or engage with them until they’ve stopped – just stand there and do nothing. When the dog stops, then you reward them with praise and greeting so they learn they get no benefit from jumping.

Why does my dog scratch? How do I get my dog to stop scratching at windows and doors?

Dogs scratch at doors and windows because they want your attention – the way to decrease the behaviour is to not give it to them and ignore them while they’re scratching. If they scratch, make them wait for 5-10 minutes and then let them in once they’ve stopped scratching. It will decrease – but before that it’ll get worse. Give it three weeks, be persistent even when it gets worse, and then it’ll get better!

What do you do if your dog won’t walk when they’re on lead?

Get that upbeat tone of voice happening, keep your body language energetic and positive and make it seem like there’s something fun and exciting going on, and they’ll come with you. Taking high value treats or toys with you on walks is also a good idea.

Why does my dog bark? How do I get my dog to stop barking?

What you have to do with any behaviour that dogs do is rather than address the symptoms, you’ve got to find out what’s causing it. So, what’s causing the barking? It could be boredom, defending territory, responding to other dog’s barking, seeking attention or pain.

Any of those things are reasons why dogs bark – and there’s a different fix depending on the cause. If it’s boredom, you’ve got to find a way to get your dog to do more mentally stimulating things. If it’s territorial, seeking attention or responding to another dog you need to use counter-conditional training to teach your dog not to respond. If they’re barking because they’re in pain, you need to address what’s causing the pain.

What do you do if you’re approached by a dog that’s off-lead?

It’s frustrating when you’ve got your dog on lead and another dog that isn’t runs at you! If you feel the situation isn’t dangerous for you, put your dog behind you, position yourself forwards towards the dog that’s approaching and say ‘stop’ loudly. You’ll startle the strange dog, and they’ll likely back off or change path.

Are there dogs who are more likely to have behavioural problems?

Dogs that have been brought up going to dog parks and dog beaches and have frequented them before they’re properly trained will often have issues related to over-socialisation. By contrast, dogs which haven’t had enough exposure to other dogs while training tend to suffer from issues related to under socialisation.

Various sizes available