Karen B. London
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Sometimes Dogs Aren’t Sad
They’re just resting

It’s common to misinterpret dogs’ signals and think that they mean something that they don’t. Examples of this abound with everything from the common statement by people who are not overly dog savvy that the dog must be friendly because he’s wagging his tail, to the more complex issues related to the meaning of barking and other vocalizations.

Lately, I’ve noticed that many people look at a dog and interpret the dog’s emotional state as “sad” when I don’t think that’s what’s going on. This typically happens when the dog is lying down with his head on his paws. It’s a very endearing look, and while it’s certainly possible that a dog doing this could be sad, that’s not necessarily true.

The dog is often just peacefully resting, and this posture is particularly common when dogs have had the pleasure of a tiring themselves out with plenty of exercise. The captions on some photos I’ve seen of dogs in this posture are along the lines of “A very tired dog” and “Relaxing after a long walk in the snow.”

Typically, a happy, relaxed dog has its mouth open, its eyes looking bright and is a bit bouncy in its movement. That sort of exuberance in both face and body makes it easy to understand that a dog is in an upbeat emotional state. It’s when a dog is calm that it’s harder to tell if the emotional state is sad or content.

A dog who is lying down with its head on its paws will have a closed mouth, which always makes a dog look less happy. The eyebrows often move as the dog looks around, which can make a dog look pensive, and the dog doesn’t look that energetic, which can be confused with sad. However, a dog who is lying down is likely to be pretty comfortable in the situation since dogs rarely lie down if they are scared or otherwise agitated. Most often, dogs who are lying down with their heads resting on their paws are relaxed and quite at ease.


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photo by orchidgalore/flickr


CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by theDIYdog | June 7 2012 |

He could be resting. Or he could want part of your sandwich...they don't call them "puppy dog eyes" for nothing. :)

Submitted by shirley zindler | June 7 2012 |

After I read this I glanced at my four dogs who were all lying in that exact position in their beds. All are blissfully happy and adorable with their heads down and eyes on me. Well said.

Submitted by KJMoss | June 13 2012 |

It is funny you should address this. I was just talking to a friend about the fact that I miss my old terrier (had to put him down at 16 last year) because he always had a "happy" face, where as my Labrador always looks a little sad. I know she is not sad, it is just her general demeanor is so much more low key with the "hound" face, rather than the perpetual smile that my Border Terrier wore.

Submitted by Karen London | June 14 2012 |

I send sympathy for the loss of your 16-year old dog. It must be odd having a dog who presents a totally different affect. Thanks for sharing this comment. It really made me think about how our dogs' faces and expressions influence us on a daily basis.

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