By Richard Gray
Certain dog behavior may seem difficult to understand. But it is important to realize dogs are trying to communicate their meaning or what they want using as many methods as they can. In this post, we offer insights into your dog’s body language. We analyze two problematic areas in barking and aggression, and the different reasons why these may be happening. Lastly, we outline 7 common behavior issues.
A dog’s posture is a good place to start. When a dog has its weight stooped towards the ground in a cowering position the dog is signaling being frightened and stressed. The dog is reducing its size. More submissive behavior is shown when a dog meets another dog that it sees as a physical threat. Often it will roll onto its back in a submissive role to try to avoid confrontation and transmit ‘I’m no threat to you.’
With the weight shifted forward a dog appears larger, is more confident and is showing interest. It is ready to move, or could be showing aggressive intentions.
The play bow position is different. It is where your pooch puts his chest on the ground is an easily transmitted signal of wanting, and the intention to play.
A study entitled ‘Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli’ offers an interesting analysis of the tail-wagging habits of 30 dogs of mixed breed and what they mean. 
The study says that when a dog felt degrees of positive emotion, the tail wagged to the right. This was associated with the dog approaching a familiar or non-threatening person or animal. For instance, when encountering a familiar owner there was a high level of right-side tail wagging. When an unfamiliar person was encountered, there was a moderate level of tail wagging. When encountering a cat there was low-level right side wagging movement.
When the tail wagged to the left, this was associated with withdrawal from a situation. This was apparent when the dog encountered an unfamiliar dominant dog and then showed a high level of left tail wagging.
A tail held high and rotating in a circular motion is recognizable as happiness and excitement.
The angle of the tail also shows many signs of emotion. We recognize a dog with its tail tucked between its legs is signaling unhappiness and anxiousness. A tail held high shows confidence and happiness.
A dog’s neutral or natural tail position shows more relaxation. Different breeds have a different neutral or resting tail position.
Eyes that have a soft or hard expression transmit different emotions and meaning. A relaxed semi-closed, almost sleepy eye signals relaxation and comfort.
A hard eye, where your dog focuses hard on something, transmits a negative emotion where the dog may be feeling possessive or under threat.
A dog looking away is another example of a discomforting situation. Rolling the whites of the eye is also a sign of anxiety or uncomfortableness.
Expressions in your dog’s face are also a key indicator.
The lick of lips usually shows feelings of anxiety.
A dog that bares its teeth is not necessarily showing warning of aggressive intent. I owned a male Dalmatian that was predisposed to this. It is known as ‘smiling’. The smile was usually accompanied by a sneezing sound. People unfamiliar with this were concerned it was a snarl, but it was only a friendly greeting.
Yawning does not signal that a dog is tired. Rather it shows that a dog is feeling anxious, is fearful, or feeling stressed. You might see increased yawning when an unfamiliar person is introduced and your dog is weighing up this person.
Some breeds bark much more than others. Dogs bark for attention and use this as a tool to get what they want. If they are successful, they will keep on barking and may escalate the barking to ask for other things: barking to go out, barking to play, barking to come in, barking for food. Identifying what your dog is asking for and finding an alternative action for him to do, instead of barking (like lie down/sit, go to the door and do this) is a quieter option! Don’t reward him for barking. Ignore it or walk out of the room.
Why do dogs bark?
Territorial barking is activated by a perceived threat. Your dog can bark excessively when people, other dogs and animals enter their territory. This can include places you and your dog have spent a lot of time: your home and surroundings, your car, on your regular and familiar walks.
This barking is sounding the alarm and is activated by a threat. It is different from territorial barking because it often happens when the dog is startled by a sight or sound when in unfamiliar surroundings. The posture is defensive or aggressive and is often accompanied by a pump movement forward.
When your dog is barking to greet you they might whine between barks and will have a more relaxed body posture and wag their tail.
It is usually in the same monotonous repetitive tone. It is often accompanied by repetitive behavior like spinning, jumping, or if outside, running along an area like a fence.
Frustration Induced Barking
This type of barking often happens when dogs are in a confined place like a car, when they can see and are denied play opportunities, or when they are tethered.
Separation Anxiety Barking
The dog will be left alone and may bark and howl persistently. It is usually accompanied by other signs like destruction, and defecation. Read on in this post to find out more about separation anxiety induced behavior.
It’s a real problem and a common one. Aggression almost always comes in stages and warnings are present before the aggression escalates to biting. Aggression is shown for a number of reasons.
There are different stages of aggression.
- A show of aggression may start with a rigid body posture and a lower guttural bark.
- A dog may charge a person and not make bodily contact, then progress to poking them hard with their nose.
- A dog could show aggression by ‘mouthing’ a person. This means attempting to direct them somewhere by using their mouth to steer the person.
- This can progress to growling/snarling, showing of teeth, and snapping where there is no contact.
- After this there may be a dry quick nip that leaves no indentation.
- Then a quick bite that tears the skin, followed by a bite that bruises.
- This may progress to a bite that causes puncture wounds.
- Then repeated biting and a pressure bite and shake.
The reasons for aggression are similar to those outlined for barking.
Dogs are territorial like their wolf ancestors. A number of dogs will attack and bite an intruder regardless of them being a friend or stranger. Both male and female dogs can show this type of aggression. Puppies do not.
Dogs are social animals. When a dog thinks a family member or friend is in danger they can show this type of aggression. It can also be shown when they have a litter of pups, or when protecting a vulnerable member of the family, or a baby. This type of aggressive behavior is shown by both male & female dogs. Puppies do not show it, but this behavior does start in adolescence (1 to 3 years).
Fear and Defense Aggression
Cornered dogs can bite when flight is not an available option and decide the best defense is offense. In defense aggression the dog may first charge a person snarling and growling and then deliver the first bite. Only if the person or other dog retreats will the aggressive dog stop this behavior.
Social aggression is triggered by a dog’s perception of its elevated status. Motivated by hierarchical order, they nip or bite those on the lower order to remind them of their place or lower order status. It may be directed at a family member or another dog in the household. A socially aggressive dog will often be perfectly behaved and loving with what that dog thinks is the alpha family member. The dog may then be hostile to another family member and give the impression of a dual personality.
Frustration aggression is caused by being held back from doing something. A frustrated dog may bite at a leash or a person holding their collar. This type of aggression is apparent in adult males, females and puppies.
It is when someone interferes with a dog doing something. They lash out at the person who is stopping them doing what they want. An example might be when a person is trying to break up a dog fight and is bitten. This type of aggressive behavior is equally as common in males, females and puppies.
A normally placid dog can become aggressive and bite when in pain. It might be aggravated from you touching a painful area like the hips or back and the dog bites you because this area is painful.
Sex Related Aggression
Sex-related aggression can be apparent in females when ‘in heat’ and in aroused males. It usually occurs from one to three years of age. Males attack other males to show the pecking order. This might also occur when a person stops an adolescent male dog from having sex with a desirable female dog.
Females can become aggressive to other female dogs in the same household when vying for male dog sexual attention. This is not as common as in the case of male dogs, who are trying to establish themselves as the strongest and therefore first in line for breeding.
Have you noticed a dog chasing a person running, or riding a bike/motorcycle or even chasing a car in order to bite them? Well, this is an example of the predatory behavior passed on from their ancestors. It’s especially disturbing because this type of aggression usually comes without any warning signs. It’s rare in a pet dog in their own household, thankfully.
7 Common Behavior Issues
Separation Anxiety Induced Behavior
Does your dog trash your couch? Does she defecate in your home when you are out? Does she chew things up and bark and howl when left alone? Does she dig a hole when left alone outside?
Yes, these might be signs your dog needs to be house-trained, but also can be signs of distress related to separation anxiety issues. They are triggered when a dog becomes upset when people it loves and is attached to leave it alone. A dog may show signs of distress when a person is preparing to leave. The Merck Veterinary Manual says the destructive behavior usually happen 15-30 minutes after the dog is left alone. Sometimes a dog may injure itself at a point of perceived escape, like a window or the door where the loved one left the home. 
Separation anxiety can be induced by unfamiliar changes in a work schedule, moving house, or a beloved family member leaving the household.
Chewing is normal behavior in puppies and is a way to relieve painful teething. It is natural for dogs of all ages to explore things with their mouths. However, full-grown dogs chewing when bored or destructive chewing habits can become a problem. Keep valuable objects out of reach. Give him a toy to chew. A Kong filled with a tasty snack will keep him interested for some time and also exercise that chewing instinct.
Biting is to be expected in pups as it’s an extension of their chewing behavior. They are testing out their teeth, but as soon as it becomes more than a nibble it strays into the territory of aggressive type behavior and is not normal.
Puppies play together and bite each other and learn from each other when the biting becomes too hard. A yelp from the pup who’s the victim of a hard bite usually stops the biter in their tracks.
A way for you to teach your pup to only bite or ‘mouth’ you gently is to replicate the puppy bite victim’s actions. Make a yelp sound yourself (or an exclamation ‘Ow!’) and shake your hurt hand. This should be enough to make your pup stop and think. Repeat the process and if it doesn’t work, stop the play for a while. Then resume and see if your pup learned the lesson.
Teach that gentle play is fine, but when it gets too rough, it stops!
Biting in Adult Dogs
Adult dogs who play bite or mouth most likely didn’t learn in puppyhood the rules of gentle play. Playful mouthing can be unpleasant and can appear to be aggressive.
One way to know is to look at your dog’s body and face. If his body is not stiff and his face muscles are not tense, the chances are he is playing.
You can try to control the mouthing and make it gentle using the ‘yelp/ow! technique. Another way is to substitute your hand with a chew toy. Further, you could introduce the ‘tug-of-war’ game and burn off his energy and transfer his bite interest to the tug toy.
Chasing the tail
It can be because a dog is trying to grab your attention, is bored, stressed or is wanting to burn some energy because they are excited.
It can also be because the tail is itchy because of fleas. Persistent chasing and biting of the tail could be a way for your dog to show you that the tail is injured. If you suspect something is wrong, get your veterinarian to check him out. 
Circling before lying down is a common behavior and can just indicate looking for the best and most comfortable spot for rest. It can also be that your dog is experiencing pain and discomfort in their body and is trying to line up the best place to lie down so as not to aggravate the pain.
More severely, persistent circling can be a sign that a dog is suffering from serious conditions, such as brain disorders. When you suspect that your dog is in pain or their circling is compulsive (more than the short time spent lying down, or the playful chasing of the tail) get your dog checked out by your veterinarian. 
Your dog may dig to rearrange his dog blanket for sleep, or if he jumps on your couch he may scratch with his claws before lying down. Digging outside may be due to boredom, or just digging to find a cool place in the soil to lie down. He may also be trying to escape or trying to reach an attractive playmate next door! Your dog may also be digging as part of his natural instincts, to hide something he values.
If the digging bothers you, consider increased exercise to tire your dog out of the digging habit. Having toys in your garden is a good idea to distract your dog and give him a focus for excess energy.
When the digging is persistent and causes widespread damage to your yard, and possibly injures your dog’s paws, anxiety could be the problem. Talk to your veterinarian if you feel this is the case.
Consider investigating our article on ways to mentally stimulate your dog if you are noticing persistent separation induced issues, digging, chewing and biting.
What to do next?
If you have read this far, we thank you for your attention! You may also be interested to check out our related post How to Stop Aggressive Dog Behavior.
What is typical dog behavior?
Dog behavior depends on health, breed, age and past experience. Most dogs are sociable and enjoy playing with other dogs, people and with toys. Changes in behavior may be induced by health issues.
What is the most common behavior problem with dogs?
Aggression is the most common and most serious problem.