What your dog wishes you knew
You’re sitting on the couch, minding your own business when you hear a deep, heavy sigh from the other end of the couch. You look up, startled, because you’re the only one here…well, except for…Doggo. You look up, and there they are, tail thumping, staring at you in that way they often do. If your instinct tells you that your best buddy wants you to let them out in the backyard to chase birds, then give yourself a pat on the back because you’re already speaking ‘sigh language,’ even if you didn’t know it.
So…why does my dog sigh?
“Dogs are highly emotional beings, just like humans,” explains veterinary surgeon, Dr Joanna Woodnutt. “Just like humans, there are times when they need an outlet to express those emotions. Sighing is one such outlet.” In other words, the question, “why does my dog sigh” must be answered with yet another question: “what emotion are they trying to convey? Who among us hasn’t at one time or another wished they could flat-out ask their dog, “What are you thinking right now?”
Two parts to reading your dog’s mind
You don’t need to be a mind reader, or a modern-day Dr Dolittle, to come to a logical conclusion with just a bit of sleuthing on two points – context and body language.
When asking yourself ‘why does my dog sigh,’ the first thing to do is consider the context, explains dog behaviour consultant, Russell Hartstein. What was going on just before the sigh? Were you giving them tummy rubs? Or were they ripping up one of your shoes? If it was the former, it would be a good bet to lean toward positive emotions. If the latter, that sigh may mean your dog is trying to convey they are stressed out about something.
“When trying to decipher what your dog may be telling you with a sigh, it is important to look at the entire dog, from head to toe, because body language signals don’t act individually,” points out animal behaviour specialist Kait Hembree. Tail wagging? Good sign. Hair standing on end? Not a good sign. Read on to learn some of the emotions your dog may be trying to convey to you when they sigh, along with the ways you can recognise them and distinguish one from another…
They’re feeling empathic
Dogs are incredibly empathic creatures, and sometimes they seem to really need to let you know they’re feeling what you’re feeling, points out Dr Woodnutt. Just like your dog can yawn in response to you yawning, your dog might sigh in response to your letting out a sigh. It reflects the bond between humans and their dogs, which has been developing over the centuries. “It’s also a sign they feel connected to you,” she says.
If your dog just ate or you patiently played fetch for as long as they wanted, your dog might just be inclined to reward you with a sigh. If so, that sigh may be more than just an expression of good feelings. It may also be your dog’s attempt to give you a little obedience training in the form of ‘positive reinforcement,’ Dr Woodnutt suggests. In other words, let’s say you’ve been scratching Doggo under the chin for a few minutes when they let out a nice, big sigh. Their relaxed face, waggy tail and slightly closed eyes tell you that sigh was meant to express that they not only like what you’re doing, but they would also like you to continue doing so for as long as possible.
When a dog sighs because they feel relaxed, it’s not all that different from when they sigh out of happiness. In both cases, you can read the context and their body language to know, at least, that they’re feeling something positive. But when they sigh to express that they’re feeling relaxed, it’s likely they’re also signalling they’re done with the activity that made them happy, points out vet Dr Sarah Wooten. In other words, that relaxed sigh will come after they’re finished eating, playing or getting scratches. And you’ll know they’re done because they might even lay down for a nap, points out vet Dr Gerardo Perez-Camargo.
Similar to the ‘relaxation sigh,’ dogs may let out a sigh when they’re gearing up to go to sleep for the night. The sigh may help them unwind, points out vet Dr Woodnutt. Or it may be part of their own little sleep-routine. If so, their next move may be to curl up in a ball in that way that dogs do when they’re going to sleep for the night.
Sometimes a dog will sigh out of boredom, notes vet Dr Leslie Brooks. If Doggo happens to be pacing around when they sigh, it could well mean they’re looking to get outside and expel some energy, Dr Brooks adds. That’s especially true if he’s been home alone all day.
They need attention or want something else from you
Your dog might sigh to let you know they’re in need of attention, according to vet Dr Jay Scott. When that’s what’s going on, you’re likely to notice he’s pacing or otherwise very visibly moving around, especially if they keep brushing up against you. In a variation on your dog needing more attention, sometimes your dog will sigh because they want something else from you, something you’re currently not providing. Perhaps they feel dinner is overdue. Or maybe they really want to go out for a walk. “Just like humans, dogs can be manipulative like that,” observes Dr Wooten.
They’re feeling disappointed
A sigh that comes after you’ve missed all the hints Doggo’s been dropping is most likely a sigh of disappointment. Debbie Jansen LeBlonde, a professional dog walker, notices this in her own best buddy, her shoodle, Ozzie. “Right after I get home from work, Ozzie immediately starts pacing back and forth in front of the front door. If I don’t pick up his leash pretty quickly after that, he sighs. A heartbreaking sigh that gets me to do exactly what he wants.” If your dog has been making a big show of inviting you to play, and you don’t take them up on the invitation, don’t be surprised if they make another big show of giving up, lying down and sighing heavily,” points out vet Dr Jamie Richardson. “If you’re still not sure, look for your dog to be lying down with their eyes fixed on you and fully open. Some might even see it as an accusatory glance.”
Unfortunately, there will be times when your dog’s sigh signifies sadness. Once again, context and body language should clarify it for you. If one of their favourite humans isn’t home, and they’re refusing to get off the couch when they’re normally active, their sigh could be an expression of sadness because they’re missing that human, according to Dr Woodnutt.
They’re feeling physical discomfort
Another reason your dog might sigh is that they’re ill or otherwise in pain or discomfort. If sighing is a new and persistent behaviour for your dog, it could be worth having them examined by a veterinarian, says vet Dr Sarah Nold. The cause could be as minor as a tummy ache from something they ate. But sighing is also sometimes associated with respiratory issues such as bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia. Often, it’s a question of which other symptoms, if any, are present. More worrisome symptoms that can accompany dog sighs include lethargy, loss of interest in eating or playing, excessive coughing or wheezing, and vomiting and/or diarrhoea, points out vet Dr Sara Ochoa. Also, if your dog is shifting around and/or groaning in between sighs, it’s possible they’re experiencing pain.
They’re feeling anxious or depressed
Like humans, dogs can experience mood disorders. If along with your dog sighing, you notice an increase in panting, nose licking, shaking, or excess yawning, your dog may be trying to tell you they don’t feel so good…mentally.
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