By Helen Anne Travis
Owning a dog requires a certain degree of psychic ability. You may find yourself asking: What is she trying to tell me with that bark? Does that tail wag mean she’s happy or scared? Is she following me around the house because she loves me, or is she just hungry?
While we can’t teach you how to speak dog, we can help you understand which behaviors and body language signals could indicate your pup is happy and content, as well as signs that something could be wrong.
Of course all animals are different, and as dogs age their activity levels and sociability may change. But the following signs indicate your dog is most likely happy, and more importantly, healthy.
Happy dogs have relaxed eyes and eyelids. They blink often and their gaze is soft, says Beth Mullen, director of behavior and training at Washington Humane Society. Narrowed eyes and a hard gaze can indicate aggression, she says, while wide eyes, particularly if they whites are showing, could mean the dog is frightened.
Ear shapes vary from breed to breed, but in general, happy dogs wear their ears in a relaxed fashion, says Mullen. One ear may be cocked up, or both may be loose and floppy. If a dog’s ears are pinned back, it could be a sign of fear or aggression, says Dr. Rachel Barrack of New York City’s Animal Acupuncture. Ears pricked forward often indicate that a dog is interested in something that is going on around them.
Happy dogs sometimes appear to smile, says Dr. Georgette Wilson, DVM, the director of scientific and regulatory affairs and resident veterinarian at Hartz. The mouth is open, and while some teeth may be visible, the animal is not baring them or curling back its lips in an aggressive manner, she says. Open mouth panting should not be confused with smiling, as this could be a sign the dog is stressed or overheated, says Barrack.
One of the quickest ways to tell whether a dog is happy is to look at the way the dog carries herself, says Tonya Wilhelm, dog-training specialist and author of several training books. A loose, soft, wiggly body usually means a dog is happy and healthy, she says. “On the other hand, if a dog seems tense, tight or stiff, they are less comfortable.”
“Happy dogs wag their tails in a manner that involves the whole body,” says Barrack. If the tail wags stiffly but doesn’t shake the rest of the body, your dog may be telling you she’s alert and assessing a new situation, she says.
“If the tail wag is soft and loose and typically held in a more neutral position on the body, this is likely a happy dog,” says Wilhelm.
“When a dog is content and comfortable, his entire body is relaxed, including his tail,” says Wilhelm. “Each dog has a different relaxed tail carriage, depending on the breed.” In general, a happy dog will raise his tail, she says, but if it’s too high, that could indicate the pup is agitated or over stimulated. A tail pinned under the body is a strong sign of fear, says Barrack.
Chewing is a natural behavior for dogs, as they use their mouths to explore their environments, says Barrack. But excessive chewing, particularly in an adult dog, could also be a sign of stress or boredom.
“Happy dogs are unlikely to destroy your home or act naughty because they have enough physical and mental stimulation,” says Barrack. “Destructive behavior is typically a sign of boredom and unhappiness.” Separation anxiety is another common cause of extremely destructive behavior in dogs.
Happy dogs enjoy playtime and walks, says Barrack. “While all dogs slow down with age, if your dog seems abnormally quiet or reluctant to engage, this may be a sign they’re not feeling well,” she says. Bring your dog to the vet to make sure she isn’t sick or injured.
Content canines have good appetites, says Barrack. While not every dog is ravenous, she says, a sudden drop in appetite could be a sign something is wrong. Conversely, an unexpected increase in appetite can also be a symptom of disease.
Happy dogs often hop, says Mullen. Or at least they look like they’re hopping or dancing when they see someone (or some dog) they like. The quick movements usually indicate the dog is happy and ready to play. “You’ll see a happy dog bounce from side to side, usually in excitement to see her canine or human friend,” says Mullen.
Dogs, like people, can express their worry with a furrowed brow, says Mullen. A wrinkle-free forehead equals a worry-free dog. Shar-Pei owners, this tip obviously doesn’t apply to you!
Ever wonder why dogs stick out their tongues when they’re sleeping? Usually it’s because they’re so relaxed they can’t be bothered to keep it in their mouths, says Wilson.
Happy dogs generally have a higher pitched bark than agitated pups, says Mullen. They also usually bark for a shorter period of time, she says. But don’t judge a dog by its bark alone. It’s important to consider the other signs the dog is giving you, including her body carriage, before assuming all is good.
Healthy, happy adult dogs usually sleep for up to 16 hours per day, says Mullen. “If your dog isn’t sleeping that much, it could be a sign of distress,” she says.
A healthy coat is a good indicator your dog is happy, says Mullen. When dogs are stressed, they shed like crazy, she says, and sometimes their skin appears to flake. Of course, skin problems can also be a sign of disease, so check with your vet, too.
A wriggling dog showing you her belly and tongue is likely a very happy dog, says Mullen. However if the belly-baring pup appears stiff and keeps her mouth shut, she could be showing submission instead of satisfaction, she says.
If a dog reacts to pets by staying close and even leaning in to your hand, it’s a good sign she’s enjoying the contact, says Wilhelm. Staying just out of reach or walking away could be a sign she needs more space.
A dog is telling you she’s up for fun when she play bows, says Wilhelm. In a play bow, a dog lowers her chest to the ground but keeps her rear in the air. “It's a sign that a dog is inviting play and wants to interact,” she says.
Like people, every dog's preference for company is different. But if your pup is social at the dog park, friendly with other family pets, and not overly aggressive to new animals, these are all signs she's in a good mood.
Happy dogs greet you at the door, get excited when you wake up, and keep an eye on you when they're playing in the dog park…unless their best canine friends are demanding all their attention, of course.