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Canine Behavior

We all know when a dog is happy! Here are four examples of puzzling behavior by dogs and what they mean.

Her Ears are Back and She's Growling!

Dogs sometimes send mixed signals. It is not uncommon to see a dog wagging its tail while simultaneously growling fearsomely.

Millie scared and upset

How do you interpret this behavior? More importantly, what do you do when forced to make a decision about how to behave yourself? Should you pet the dog or run screaming for cover?

Take the example of Millie. She has her ears pulled back. She is scared and upset, and may bite you if you reach to pet her. The best thing to do is to calmly and quietly walk away and leave her alone.

Tail Tucking

Why does this German Shepherd have his tail between his legs?

He is acting this way because he is scared and nervous about being close to people. Hopefully, after being treated, he will be less fearful around people and be happier.

Scared and nervous

Although his friend, the pug, seems relatively relaxed and happy there are some mixed signals that are worth paying attention to.

Notice, for example, that the pug's ears are pulled back which may indicate fear or simply that he is nervous because he is in an unfamiliar environment. On the other hand, his tail is curled up which certainly indicates much less fearfulness that his big friend the German Shepherd.

You should always pet aggressive dogs on their neck and chest, not on their head or behind ears. This is because those gestures are dominance signals and can elicit aggression because they can scare a fearful dog or challenge a dominant aggressive dog.

Possessiveness: It's My Pillow!

Why is Mollie the border collie protecting her pillow and showing obvious signs of fear and maybe even aggression? Would you dare to try to take her pillow away from her?!

Mollie growling and being possessive.

We don't know when this odd behavior first began, but the owners made it much worse when they began to reward it.

Every time Mollie would guard something and growl at her human owners, they would throw her a dog cookie to bribe her away. Being no fool, Mollie soon figured out that all she had to do for another cookie was to find something, (anything!) to guard, growl a couple of times and show her teeth. Soon a cookie would arrive.

The best thing to do when behavior of this sort occurs is to ignore it until she gets up and walks away from the pillow or whatever is being guarded.

Mollie being rewarded for good behavior.

Next, make sure the dog knows that this behavior is appropriate by rewarding her with attention. Pet the dog and tell her how good she has been.

Maybe even consider giving a yummy food treat as a special reward for appropriate behavior.

Dominance Aggression: I own this house!

A dog who is fearful and submissive will illustrate this behavior with pinned back ears and a tucked tail. Such dogs avoid sustained eye contact and may crouch. Another symptom is known as "approach-avoidance"; where a dog continuously runs toward the person and then away from person, toward and away. The posture of a fearful dog also may illustrate fear, and often the hair on the dog's back will stand on end.


A dominant dog stands taller and often may exhibit this behavior with only one other person or animal. One case involved a dog named Ornery (a fox terrier) who mistakenly thought this his position in the family was higher than the adult female human (the wife) in the household. In Ornery's view, the husband was the alpha male, and Ornery's position in in the pack was between him and his wife. Ornery's dominance behavior included trying to prevent the wife from ascending the stairs. In the morning, as soon as he was let out of his cage, Ornery would race to the top of the stairs and growl, bark, and snap at her when she tried to ascend them. Ornery was really bad.

When the alpha husband left on weekends, sometimes Ornery would growl at her from within his crate as she walked by. She would open the door but he would not come out until "Mr. Ornery" came home.

In aggressive dogs, physical punishment does not work. It does not change the dog's behavior, and can be dangerous because it may actually elicit even more aggression from the dog. Always teach with praise and/or treats.

The treatment that successfully altered Ornery's behavior is known as deference training. Nothing in Ornery's life is free anymore. Ornery now has to sit before being fed or in order to get anything else that he wants. If Ornery wants to go outside he has to sit. If Ornery wants treats he has to sit. If Ornery wants to be petted, he has to sit. Consequently, Ornery has come to understand that his place in the household order (pack) is one level lower than he previously thought, so now he behaves himself.


Last Updated April 10, 2007

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Note: Treatment of animals should only be performed by a licensed veterinarian. Veterinarians should consult the current literature and current pharmacological formularies before initiating any treatment protocol.