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Introductory Guide to Dog Behavior

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April 20, 2023

Dog Training

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Dog behavior is a fascinating and complicated field. You’re not alone if you’ve ever caught yourself wondering “why on earth does my dog do this?” or “what could they mean by that?” — and we’re here to help!

While many articles here on the Sniffspot blog are devoted to helping pet parents better understand their canine companions, the goal of this specific post is to highlight some common dog behaviors, summarize what they might mean, and provide a few resources about how to get started addressing them if you think you have a problem on your hands.

Barking: What does it mean when your dog barks?

Dog barks can mean a variety of different things depending on pitch, duration, frequency, and context. A dog may bark for many reasons: to warn us, to tell us they are excited, to invite play, to communicate fear, to protect their perceived territory, and more.

Dog barking pitch

Low-pitched sounds typically indicate threats or the possibility of aggression — think of a dog’s growl.

Conversely, higher sounds (like a dog’s whimper) mean “I am no threat, it’s safe to approach me.” They can also suggest surprise, fear, or pain.

Dog barking duration

The longer the sound, “the more likely that the dog is making a conscious decision about the nature of the signal and his next behaviors” according to Dr. Stanley Coren, author of How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication. What he means by this is that a dog who barks for an extended period is probably aware of what they are doing rather than just acting out of subconscious instinct or surprise.

Dog barking frequency

If a dog repeats their bark frequently and at a fast rate, it indicates a high degree of excitement or urgency. (For example, a dog who fears the mail carrier will likely stand at the window barking repeatedly when the mail carrier arrives.) Conversely, barks that are more spaced out, or not repeated at all, indicate lower levels of excitement.

What to do about your dog’s barking

You can learn more about your dog’s barking here.

Whining: What is your dog trying to say with their cries?

Whining is a normal dog behavior. It’s most commonly seen in young canines, but because domestic dogs are neotenized compared to their wolf ancestors (a fancy word to say they retain juvenile traits into adulthood) it’s normal for our pets of all ages to whine on occasion.

Dogs might whine:

  • in greeting or out of excitement
  • as an appeasement behavior
  • for attention or to express another need
  • to express a need or want
  • when they’re anxious (especially if left alone)

What to do about your dog’s whining

You can learn more about your dog’s whining here.

Growling: Why do dogs growl?

Dogs don’t speak a symbolic verbal language like we humans do — but they still communicate with us in many ways. While body language usually comes first in a canine conversation, various sounds serve different communication purposes too!

It’s perfectly normal for your dog to growl on occasion depending on the situation and context at hand. A growl often means your companion is feeling uncomfortable and is trying to let you know before escalating to more extreme aggression displays like lunging, snapping, or actually biting.

dog growls or howls while standing in a living room

What to do about your dog’s growling

You can learn more about your dog’s growling here.

Nipping: Why is your dog mouthy?

Young puppies — and even adult dogs — naturally explore the world through their mouths. Think of your dog’s snout similar to how you think of your own hands. If man’s best friend wants to investigate something new, they have to grab it with their teeth!

What’s more: Dogs have a highly developed sense of smell that might be aided by licking interesting objects. Nipping can also be a sign of overstimulation or high arousal, a need for more rest, or other needs not being met.

In short: Know that nipping is normal. It does not mean your dog is aggressive. It does not mean your pup has problems with people. It does not mean you’re doing a bad job as a pet parent! It’s a typical part of owning a young dog — and you’re absolutely not alone.

What to do about your dog’s nipping

You can learn more about dog nipping and mouthing in this article.

Panting: Does it always mean your dog is hot?

Like most things on this list, panting is a completely normal canine behavior… that also can indicate an underlying problem depending on the context you see it in.

Dogs aren’t able to sweat like we humans do (expelling heat from every surface of our body) so they cool themselves off by panting instead. They might also pant when they’re feeling stressed or experiencing physical pain.

panting dog

How can you tell the difference between a stress pant and a regular pant?

Here are a few things to pay attention to:

  • Is the environment warm enough to warrant a natural pant? Has your dog just exercised? If so, it’s likely they’re panting because they’re hot or tired. No cause for concern (so long as they aren’t overtired to the point of heat exhaustion).
  • If it’s cool outside, there’s a greater chance your dog’s panting is the result of anxiety or discomfort.
  • If your dog keeps closing and reopening their mouth while panting, has a stiff body, is showing the whites of their eyes, frequently scans the environment, or is acting out of character, that’s probably a stress pant.

When in doubt, don’t hesitate to take a video of your dog’s body language to run by your trusted vet or trainer. This can be a great way to get answers to your questions and have a plan for next time your dog seems uncomfortable!

Yawning: What causes your dog to yawn?

Yawning is similar to panting in that it’s a normal behavior in one context (in this case, when your dog is tired) that can also indicate stress in other situations. We know that can be confusing as a dog owner!

Yawning is considered a calming signal, sometimes referred to as a stress signal. These cues are natural parts of canine communication used to express how a dog feels and de-escalate potential conflict.

If your dog is yawning late at night or shortly after waking up? They’re probably just tired. If they’re yawning frequently while in a new environment or meeting a new dog or person, though? Chances are they’re feeling a little uncomfortable.

What can you do if your dog is stress yawning?

You can help by never forcing your dog to interact with something (remove them from situations that are making them uncomfortable) and providing them opportunities to relieve stress. A few go-to options are to offer to play a favorite game or scatter some treats on the ground for them to sniff out.

Chewing: Why does your dog chew up your belongings?

If you’ve noticed that your dog is chewing on things they shouldn’t be, it doesn’t mean that they're being bad or trying to destroy your belongings. It simply means that something else is going on with them — maybe natural exploration, boredom, anxiety, or even pain — that you might need to address.

Dogs might chew because:

  • They’re teething. When puppies are 3-4 months old, they start teething, which can prompt chewing as they try to alleviate the discomfort. Teething can be a difficult process for both dog and owner! Prepare yourself for a lot of chewing — puppies have very sharp teeth — and be ready to redirect from your hands and furniture to acceptable alternatives like designated chew toys.
  • Chewing can relieve stress. If your dog consistently chews in certain situations — like when guests come over, there is a thunderstorm, a family member leaves the house, or so on — chances are they’re feeling overwhelmed and looking to soothe themselves with this naturally calming behavior.
  • They’re bored, and chewing is something to do.
  • They’re suffering from a health or nutritional issue.
A puppy stands next to a chewed up furniture leg

What to do about your dog’s chewing

You can learn more about destructive chewing in this article.

Digging: Why do dogs love to dig so much?

Dogs dig for various reasons. The meaning behind their digging behavior depends on the context and circumstances — here are some possible explanations:

Digging is an instinctive canine behavior

Dogs are canines sharing a common ancestor with wolves, who dig dens to sleep in or to birth their litters. Some dogs may retain this instinct and dig to create a comfortable spot to rest or hide. (Note: Domestic dogs are not wolves, and we do not recommend basing training techniques off of modern wolf behavior! It is worthwhile, though, to look to their canine relatives to help understand some of their natural behaviors.)

Dogs might dig when they’re bored

If a dog is not getting enough exercise or mental stimulation, they may resort to digging as a way to occupy themselves.

Digging into cool dirt can be comfortable when your dog is warm

Digging a hole in the ground can provide a cooler spot for a dog to lie down in hot weather.

Digging might be a sign of anxiety or stress

Dogs may dig as a coping mechanism, or displacement behavior, for anxiety or stress. It can be a way to release nervous energy or to create a feeling of safety or comfort.

Dogs might dig to pursue critters

Some breeds, such as terriers, were originally bred to hunt vermin and may dig in pursuit of small animals.

What to do about your dog’s digging

If you’re concerned that your dog’s digging might indicate an underlying anxiety problem — or if you’re just tired of them ruining your flower beds — it’s a good idea to:

  • Take them for a full vet check to rule out medical issues
  • Make sure you’re providing them with adequate fulfillment and exercise
  • Manage the situation so they aren’t able to dig without you there to interrupt the activity
  • Reinforce alternate behaviors, meaning making other activities more enjoyable than digging by rewarding with favorite toys or treats
  • Get in touch with a trainer you trust

Butt Scooting: Why do dogs drag their rears on the ground?

Most dog owners are familiar with the “butt scoot” — a gross yet common behavior where your dog drags their rear across the ground, rubbing it on the carpet (or if you’re unlucky, your bed or clothes).

Butt scooting is often a sign of discomfort or irritation in your dog’s anal area.

Dogs might butt scoot when their anal glands are full

Dogs have two small glands on either side of their anus that produce a scent that is unique to each dog. These glands can become enlarged, impacted, or infected. Scooting can help dogs express the glands and relieve the discomfort.

Dogs might butt scoot due to intestinal parasites

Some parasites, such as tapeworms, can cause itching around the anus. This isn’t as common as irritated anal glands — don’t panic! — but is important to know just in case.

Dogs might butt scoot because of an environmental or food allergy

Dogs can be allergic to a variety of things, including food, pollen, or fleas. Allergies can cause inflammation and itching around the anus that lead to scooting.

What to do about your dog’s butt scooting

If your dog is scooting their butt on the ground, it's important to take them to your trusted vet to determine the underlying cause. Treatment may include expressing the anal glands, medication for allergies or parasites, or surgery for more severe conditions.

Eating poop: What causes coprophagia in dogs?

The technical terms for eating poop are “coprophagia” or “coprophagy”. It’s not always a cause for concern — some level of this behavior is natural in our pets and can usually be easily managed — but it can also be a sign of a larger underlying problem.

dog sniffing the ground

It’s normal for puppies to explore the world with their mouths

Coprophagia is a pretty common problem in puppies. They usually grow out of it so long as they have a healthy environment and proper nutrition! What that means for you as an owner: If you recently brought your young dog home and they’re trying to eat feces, you don’t need to be too concerned.

It's a good idea to pick up poop right away to prevent the poop eating. Some pups retain this habit for a long time — so preventing it from happening can really help.

Dogs are naturally scavengers

Dogs are scavengers! It’s common for our canine companions to steal food, tear through garbage cans, and chew on plenty of things that we owners find disgusting ourselves. With proper training and other mental exercise outlets this behavior can be reduced or eliminated entirely, but it’s important to remember that scavenging is a deeply rooted instinct in our dogs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the tendency — it’s not a disorder in itself — so long as we manage it properly.

Some animal feces has particularly “appetizing” attributes (like taste, texture, and odor) that can override our dogs’ understanding that it’s waste and probably shouldn’t be consumed. Cat feces is a common culprit, as is that of deer, rabbits, or other small herbivores.

What to do if your dog eats poop

You can learn more about coprophagia in dogs in this article.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Alisa Healy, KPA CTP, FDM
Owner and trainer at Dog Forward Training

Haley photo


April 20, 2023

Dog Training

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