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Understanding dog behaviours

Published March 2023

In order to really understand what your dog is trying to tell you, it's important to observe their body language, listen to the noises they make and look out for any changes in your dog’s behaviour.

You may think you know exactly what your dog is saying by wagging its tail, for example. But were you aware that this can signify a number of things – from feeling excited, playful or attentive, to apprehensive and even slightly nervous?

Our guide offers an overview of some of the most common dog behaviours and expressions, to help you understand what exactly your dog is trying to communicate.

Dog behaviours explained

No one knows your furry friend as well as you do, but even then, the way they act may be a mystery to you. That’s why we have collated a list of dog behaviours for you to refer to:

Dog faces

  • Dog looking straight at you, with ears up and tongue exposed. 
    I’m happy because you’ve just shown me affection or offered me a treat.
  • Eyes are open, bright, unblinking and a little intense. 
    I’m alert and concentrating on something important like a ball, a treat or you.
  • Ears pricked up, whites of eyes showing.
    I’m fearful – I don’t like the look of those nail clippers!

Dog noises

  • Rising bark.
    I want to play – hurry up and throw that ball already!
  • Howling.
    This is often my response to a high-pitched sound, such as a police or fire siren.
  • Low growling.
    I’m feeling fearful/ threatened. This is my way of saying “back off”!

Dog postures

  • Head high, ears up, mouth open with tongue slightly exposed, tail drawn and relaxed.
    ​​​​​​​I’m relaxed, unthreatened and usually approachable.
  • Eyes wide, mouth closed, ears forward and twitching, tail horizontal and moving from side to side.
    ​​​​​​​I’m alert because I’ve detected something of interest, or something unknown.
  • Tail wagging, front end lowered, mouth open with tongue exposed.
    This is called the ‘play bow’ and may be accompanied by excited barking or playful attacks and retreats.

Why does my dog do that?

  • The rocking horse run.
    ​​​​​​​When I’m playing, I run in a very particular way, rocking back and forth like a child’s rocking horse.
  • The tell-tale tongue.
    ​​​​​​​When my tongue and lips are loose and floppy, I’m content and relaxed.
  • A low, fast-wagging tail.
    ​​​​​​​I’m slightly anxious. Think of this as the canine equivalent to a nervous laugh.
  • Middle-level, fast, wide-wagging tail.
    I’m very excited and happy to see you!
  • Lips pulled back, teeth exposed, ears flat.
    Stay away – I’m preparing to bite!
  • Digging.
    This behaviour goes back to our days as wolves when burying our dinner for later was a necessity.
  • Dog sniffing another dog’s behind.
    It might seem very rude to you, but this is our way of saying hello to other dogs.
  • Upright, forward ears.
    I’m attending to what is directly in front of me.

Now you know a little more about understanding dog behaviour, you’ll be able to connect more with your best pup. Look after your pooch and protect yourself from unexpected vet bills, should your dog come to any harm, with Sainsbury’s Bank Pet Insurance provided by Pinnacle Insurance plc. Explore our dog insurance policies today.

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