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Is Your Dog Sad?

Or are they just peacefully resting? Behaviorist Karen London explains how to tell the difference.

by Karen B. London, PhD
June 7, 2021
A dog laying on a couch looking relaxed
Vera Lair / Stocksy

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It’s common for people to misinterpret a dog’s behavior — from thinking a dog must be friendly because they're wagging their tail to misunderstanding the meaning of barking and other vocalizations. Lately, I’ve noticed that many people interpret a dog who is lying down with their head on their paws as "sad" when I don't think that's what going on.

It’s a very endearing look, and while it’s certainly possible that the dog could be sad, that’s not necessarily the case. Usually, the dog is just peacefully resting. This posture is especially common when dogs have had the pleasure of tiring themselves out with exercise.

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Typically, a happy, relaxed dog has an open mouth, bright eyes, and bouncy movements. 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 their head on their paws will have a closed mouth, which always makes them look less happy. The eyebrows often move as the dog looks around, which can make a dog look pensive; the dog doesn’t look 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 at ease — and that's a good thing.

karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.