Why do dogs like to paw people

Body language and facial expressions in dogs

A team from the University of Florida noted that dogs that have a lot of contact with humans are very responsive to verbal and non-verbal cues (1). There is a simple explanation: the dogs have learned to watch people and read their gestures. This is also the reason why dogs know how to behave when we are around, but as soon as we look away the rogue is unpacked.

For a long time, scientists have underestimated the ability of dogs to see and interpret the facial expressions of the human face. It was assumed that facial expressions do not play such a large role in the communication of wolves and dogs as in the communication of primates. This was because the researchers simply couldn't see the facial expressions as the expressions change very quickly, within milliseconds. With the advancement of modern photo and video equipment, this has changed.

The dog encounter

A popular example is a situation in which two strange dogs meet and just stand opposite each other for a while and do nothing. Except for their noses, you can't see that the dogs are communicating with each other. However, a sensitive video camera would be able to record that in those few seconds dogs can tell a lot with the help of their facial muscles. This information covers social status, their rights to the area, courtesy and consensus.

Since dogs and wolves communicate through the muscles of the face, you naturally also try to find out what we are saying in humans. They notice the smallest and most subtle movements of the facial muscles, even those that humans are unable to perceive. In several experiments with dogs, researchers found that the animals literally understand people at a glance (2).

It turns out that dogs can read people better than people can read each other. Our facial muscles reflect our intentions and desires, whether we want them to or not. Nobody can control the countless muscles in their facial expressions every second.

Given the fact that dogs have good memories and that they quickly learn to read the "language" of human facial expressions and our moods consciously, it is not surprising that it is not difficult for dogs to decipher humans (4). Of course, this can also be learned from us and many dog ​​trainers and dog experts speak of "intuition".

Dog behavioral research is a very large area with tons of new discoveries and publications. I just want to go into a few selected new findings in communication here. If you are interested in a specific topic, you are welcome to ask us in the Pets Nature forum or browse the specialist literature at a bookseller of your choice.

The yawn and lick the snout

Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon and has received a lot of attention in behavioral research for some time. Contagious yawning was found in 69% of the 4-14 month old puppies and even in over 72% of the adult dogs (3).

Furthermore, yawning, like licking one's own snout, has been known for some time as a so-called appeasement signal. So dogs yawn or lick their noses to ward off a threat and to calm themselves down. When a person or other animal approaches, the dog can look away, lick, and then yawn. The dog is saying that he feels threatened and that he does not want to attack himself. Dogs use this type of body language to avoid conflict.

Watch your dog, there are certainly many situations in which he can calm down. Many dogs turn away and yawn or lick when children or adults argue, when a child hugs the dog or in other tense situations.

Awareness of what is causing your dog fear can help you avoid exposing him to these situations. Licking in particular can be very quick and almost imperceptible. You have to train to see it. If you can get your dog out of the situation quickly enough, show him that you care and that he doesn't have to take it into his own hands. Knowing about this should not be underestimated in order to prevent biting incidents - especially snapping at children. Every dog ​​warns, you just have to see it.

You can also talk to your dog in the same way. No dog will hold it against you if you stick your tongue out. Many dogs can also be reassured by yawning, especially if they get a contagious yawn.

The rod

The tail can say a lot, which is why it is so important for dogs. Not only the posture of the tail, the height, the type of wagging and wiggling, but also the directions are very important. When the tail is held high it usually shows that the dog is paying attention. The tail caught between the legs means that the dog is afraid. When the fur rises at the base of the tail, the dog is ready to defend itself or others. A short, slow wiggle of the rod is a question and uncertainty. Dogs that are happy and excited wiggle big and fast. Depending on the posture, this can also signal aggression. The assumption of a "left-right asymmetry" is widespread, in which the rod shows what is going on while interacting with strangers. If the tail is positioned more to the right when wagging, this is associated with positive feelings. The dog is happy and thinks the other is nice (5). A white point on the tip of the tail simplifies communication. Dogs, on the other hand, that no longer have a tail have to use their entire rear end to help and are often somewhat restricted in communication or are not correctly interpreted by the other person.


The ears usually point in the direction of attention. Ears standing forward means the dog is very attentive and kinking the ear means submission or, if the teeth are shown, aggression. Dogs with lop ears can only use these signals to a limited extent, which is not particularly bad, since the ears are automatically closed. It becomes difficult with dogs with cropped ears because they can no longer put their ears back on and misunderstandings can arise.

So now the first photo here in the article also becomes clear:

Mouth and teeth

If a dog pulls back its lips too much, it can indicate that the dog is about to bite. This is an unconscious reflex to take the lips off your teeth so that they can bite better. However, this is less communication and the aggressive intention is often misinterpreted. For example, many dogs will pucker their lips when they are about to grab a cookie or bone. You don't want to bite your own lip in the process.

One form of bare teeth is the "submissive grin". This means that the dog is in a friendly mood. In this case, the dog will exhibit this through other behaviors such as wagging its tail and lowering its posture. Some dogs will smile submissively when caught doing something they shouldn't have done. Others simply only when they are happy. The so-called "game face" also resembles a grin.

Another very common form of communication is to lick another dog or person. Dogs lick other dogs' faces and mouths when they greet each other in a friendly way. Licking is a social bond analogous to the social grooming that primates use.


Dogs express a lot with their eyes. Direct stare in the eyes is interpreted as aggression. Dogs that are well socialized with humans know that humans don't mean it, but will immediately look to the side and show reassurance signals. Therefore, please never stare straight into the eyes of strange dogs. If a strange dog is staring at you, turn away and calm you down, preferably by yawning. This is especially helpful when there is no fence between you and the dog.

If you call your dog over and stare straight into his eyes, he will definitely not come to you, but rather sniff in the corners and soothe it. Turn away from your dog a little, crouch down and call him softly. You will see that your dog understands you now.

The following little animated film illustrates this very clearly:

Communication misunderstandings

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© Dr. Hannah Miriam Jaag 2013 - www.hmjaag.de
Revised in January 2017

© Pictures:
Graphics: Hannah M. Jaag
Photos 1, 2, 5, 6, 8: Hannah M. Jaag, Thomas Kring

(1) Can your dog read your mind ?: Understanding the causes of canine perspective taking. Udell MA, Dorey NR, Wynne CD. Learn behav. (2011)
(2) Dogs' comprehension of referential emotional expressions: familiar people and familiar emotions are easier. Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Lazzaroni M, Marshall-Pescini S. Anim Cogn. (2013)
(3) Contagious yawning in domestic dog puppies (Canis lupus familiaris): the effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on low-level imitation in dogs. Elainie Alenkær Madsen, Tomas Persson. Anim Cogn (2013)
(4) Are readers of our face readers of our minds? Dogs (Canis familiaris) show situation-dependent recognition of human’s attention. Márta Gácsi, Ádám Miklósi, Orsolya Varga, József Topál, Vilmos Csányi. Anim Cogn (2004)
(5) Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs. Marcello Siniscalchi, Rita Lusito, Giorgio Vallortigarasend email, Angelo Quaranta. Current Biology (2013)