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Wish You Could Read Your Dog’s Mind? Here’s How!

Have you ever looked into your dog’s eyes and wondered what they’re thinking? Perhaps you’ve pondered why they bark at a leaf blowing in the wind or why they wag their tail so enthusiastically when you mention a walk?

For us, it was wondering why our English Springer Spaniel wanted to play fetch all the time, while our Mini Poodle mix won’t fetch at all.

Understanding your dog’s mind isn’t just a pipe dream—you can read your dog’s mind by learning to interpret their body language, utilizing behavioral assessments like the C-BARQ, and grasping how breed traits affect their behavior.

Join us as we take a look at how to read your dog’s mind.

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Unlocking Your Dog’s Thoughts

Thankfully, there are several tools and methods that can help us get closer to answering the age-old question: What is my dog thinking?

1. Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ)

The first one is the C-BARQ. The C-BRAQ was developed by a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania as a means to measure a wide range of dog behaviors and tendencies. By having dog owners answer a series of questions, C-BARQ compiles a profile that reflects various personality traits such as sociability, fearfulness, aggression, and trainability.

While it is often used by animal behaviorists, researchers, and dog trainers, the test is open to dog owners that are looking for a deeper understanding into how their dog’s mind works. You can find the test on-line at the University of Pennsylvania.

I took this test for our dog, Bella. You can see the results below.

Picture of a apricot colored dog with black question marks around its head with blue background.

A Look at the Questionnaire

As we stated above, the C-BARQ consists of a series of questions that are answered by the dog’s owner or handler, who rates the frequency and/or intensity of the dog’s behaviors in various situations. These questions cover a broad range of behaviors and are grouped into 7 sections:

  1. Trainability: Assesses the dog’s response to training cues and commands, its focus during training sessions, and its general willingness to obey.
  1. Aggression: Measures the dog’s aggressive responses towards familiar and unfamiliar people, dogs, and other animals. This includes aggression shown when guarding food or toys, or when threatened or physically handled.
  1. Fear and Anxiety: Assesses the dog’s fearfulness in response to sudden or loud noises, unfamiliar people or animals, strange or new situations, and specific stimuli such as being left alone (separation anxiety).
  1. Attachment: Looks for signs of attachment to the owner, which can sometimes escalate into problematic behaviors.
  1. Excitability: Looks at how easily the dog becomes excited or over excited in different situations.
  1. Attention-Seeking: Evaluates how much the dog seeks attention.
  1. Other Behavioral Aspects: Includes a variety of other behaviors such as chasing, escaping, coprophagy (eating feces), and compulsive behaviors.
Picture of a women being pulled by a dog n a open field with the words "Decoding Body Language"

2. Decoding the Silent Whispers

Dogs communicate with us all the time, but not with words. Their language is a rich tapestry of tail wags, ear positions, barks, whines, and body postures. By paying attention to these subtle cues, you can learn to read what’s on your dog’s mind, helping you respond more effectively to their needs.

Tail Movements:

The position and motion of a dog’s tail can tell us a lot. A high, stiff tail often indicates alertness or aggression, while a tail held low or between the legs suggests fear or submission. A relaxed wagging tail generally means the dog is happy and comfortable, but a rapid wag with tense body language can indicate excitement or anxiety.

Ear Positions:

Ears can also be a strong indicator of mood. Ears that are held back against the head often show fear or submission, while ears pricked forward usually mean your dog is paying close attention or is interested in something happening around them.

Eye Contact:

A dog’s eyes can express a wide range of emotions. Soft eyes with relaxed eyelids typically indicate contentment or affection, whereas hard, staring eyes might signal aggression or challenge. Avoiding eye contact can mean discomfort or submission.

Mouth and Facial Expressions:

A relaxed, slightly open mouth can signal a relaxed state or happiness. Conversely, a closed, tight mouth may indicate tension. Yawning might signal anxiety or stress, not just tiredness, and lip licking can also be a sign of nervousness.

Body Posture:

The overall body posture gives significant clues about a dog’s emotional state. A playful bow (front end down, back end up) invites play and shows friendliness. A stiff, straight posture might be a display of dominance or alertness, while a crouched position could indicate fear.

Subtle Signs:

Beyond the more noticeable signs, dogs also communicate through more subtle signals such as paw lifts, which can indicate uncertainty or nervousness, or exposing their belly, which can be a sign of submission or trust.

title - Breeding can help predict beharior - with a picture of a beagle.

3. Understanding How A Dog’s Breeding Can Predict Behavior

Each dog breed carries genetic traits that influence not just their physical appearance but also their behaviors and thought processes. These traits have been honed over centuries of selective breeding aimed at enhancing specific qualities whether for work, sport, or companionship.

By understanding these breed-specific tendencies, you can gain deeper insights into why your dog behaves in certain ways, essentially ‘reading your dog’s mind’ more effectively.

Working Breeds:

Dogs like Border Collies, and Labrador Retrievers are bred for tasks that require intelligence, problem-solving skills, and a high level of activity. A Border Collie, for example, may naturally try to ‘herd’ moving objects or people—especially children—because their minds are wired to herd sheep.

In our case, our English Springer Spaniel was bred to retrieve, so chasing a ball is what made her the happiest. She was also much easier to train than our current dog.

Guard Dogs:

Breeds such as Dobermans, Rottweilers, and Mastiffs have been bred to protect. These dogs may be more prone to barking or standing their ground when strangers approach. Understanding that their protective behavior is a manifestation of their breeding can help you know how they will react in certain situations.

Picture of a Yorkshire Terrier on a white blanket

Toy Breeds:

Smaller breeds like Chihuahuas and Mini Poodles were often bred for companionship. These dogs may be more attuned to human emotions and might prefer being lap dogs over engaging in physical activities. Hence our mini Poodle mix that doesn’t like to fetch.

Scent Hounds:

Breeds like Beagles and Bloodhounds are renowned for their incredible sense of smell. These dogs think with their noses, and this can dominate their behavior, often leading them to be distracted by smells.

Terrier Breeds:

Terriers like Jack Russell, Airedale, and Rat Terriers were originally bred to hunt and dig for vermin. This heritage gives them a distinctively energetic, tenacious, and bold personality. Terriers often have a high prey drive and can exhibit a strong desire to chase and dig.

They are also known for their independence and cleverness, which can sometimes translate into stubbornness during training.

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Breed vs Individuality

While breed traits can provide a general framework for understanding your dog’s behavior, it’s important to remember that each dog is an individual. Their personality will not only be influenced by their breed but also by their unique life experiences, training, and environment.

4. Training Sessions

Regular training sessions are another great opportunity to understand how your dog thinks and learns. By engaging in structured training, you can observe firsthand how your dog responds to various cues and situations, gaining insights into their thought processes, motivations, and preferences, thus helping you read your dog’s mind.

Training also helps you identify what makes your dog anxious or overly excited. Understanding these triggers can improve how you manage their environment to prevent stress.

Additionally, Regular training deepens the bond between you and your dog, making them more attuned to your instructions and expectations. This connection allows you to more effectively ‘read’ their mind, anticipating their needs and reactions before they happen.

Bella’s C-BARQ Results

Bella is a rescue dog who we adopted at nine weeks old. Having been surrendered with her mother and siblings at just three weeks old, we know that her mother was a Rat Terrier and her father was the neighbor’s Mini Poodle.

This mixed heritage and history is reflected in her C-BARQ results (you can see them below). The test reveals that Bella is difficult to train and has a high prey drive—traits influenced by her Rat Terrier and Mini Poodle lineage, known for their independent nature. The prey drive in particular stems from her terrier background.

Bella’s C-BARQ profile also categorizes her as sociable, friendly, and excitable. These traits suggest that in social situations, Bella is likely to initiate interactions, displaying eagerness to greet new people and dogs.

Our experiences with Bella tells us she is outgoing and extremely friendly towards strangers, characteristics likely shaped by her early handling and the transitions from shelter to foster care and finally to a permanent home. This is in addition too all the socialization training she had as a puppy.

Foreknowledge of her moderate excitability, sociability, independent nature and strong prey drive helps us understand how she is going to react in certain situations. For instance, her sociability and excitability indicate she’s likely to seek interactions, so we can predict and prepare for her eagerness to greet new people and dogs.

Her high prey drive means we can expect her to chase after squirrels or birds, and being prepared can help us manage these instincts appropriately during walks.

View of the C-BARQ results - sideways bar chart with categories and measurements

By being aware of how her traits influence her actions, along with watching her body language, we can anticipate and effectively manage Bella’s responses, essentially ‘reading her mind’ before she acts.