HOME & LIVING
08/31/2015 03:27 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2015

What Dogs REALLY Mean When They Smile, Yawn Or Stare At You

Communication is ruff.
Sascha Traub / EyeEm via Getty Images

You come home from work, and your dog's tail is a helicopter of excitement. It's obvious that he's happy to see you. But then, he settles into a deep stare with his back hunched and head down. Your dog is clearly trying to tell you something... but what?

It's important to know how to read your dog's body language so you can troubleshoot urgent health problems and have the utmost amount of fun with your best friend. We reviewed the ASPCA's guide to canine body language and got advice from dog behavior experts to break down what some of our pups' most common body expressions really mean. Note that each of your dog's behaviors can have multiple meanings, depending on context. But here are the most common:

DIRECT STARE = “I want your attention.”

While a direct stare can serve as a sign of aggression, dogs most often stare at humans in order to get their attention, dog behavior expert Victoria Stilwell told The Huffington Post. Use other body language clues to determine what your dog really wants: Does he stare at you with his body tensed and head down? He may be in pain. Does the stare come with a relaxed body and eager face? It may be a plea for petting or food. Does he stare at you and then run toward his leash? You know what that one means.

AVOIDING EYE CONTACT = “I’m uncomfortable.”

When you make eye contact with your dog, he likely holds your gaze and then looks away. That's a common sign of submission. But if your dog won't look you in the eye at ALL, it may indicate that he’s nervous about engaging with you, perhaps because he's been scared of humans in the past or because you've recently scolded him. If your dog will let you, Stilwell said, reassure him by petting and talking to him.

BIG, EXAGGERATED YAWN = “I’m stressed.”

"Yawns are often stress signals," said Sherry Woodard, an animal behavior consultant with Best Friends Animal Society. Your dog might yawn when a stranger approaches or when he's faced with an overwhelmingly large group of people, Stilwell noted. Keep track of what causes anxiety for your dog so you can help him avoid those situations in the future. 

A SMILE, WITH LIPS CURLED UP = “I’m happy."

Many experts believe that dogs have learned to smile because they've seen humans do the same or because we reward them for doing so, Stilwell said. At any rate, it usually means your dog is contented and happy. Woodard said the doggy smile is also known as a submissive grin, or a sign that your dog wants to appease you. 

COCKED HEAD = “I don’t get it.”

"This usually happens when you're communicating vocally with your dog," Stilwell said. Your dog is likely trying to understand a new sound you just made or understand some other piece of information. Use positive reinforcement, and he'll get it in time.

Have you already mastered communication with your dog? Maybe it's time for a game of SuperFetch:

 

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