My dog is a sigh machine. He sighs while I work. He sighs after eating dinner. He even sighs after a nice, long walk. But does that mean he’s bummed out? Disappointed? Chillin’? Turns out, a sigh could signal any of these things. It really just depends on the context and the dog.
“A dog may sigh when they’re content, relaxed, done trying to do something, frustrated or simply taking a deep breath,” says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, and author of more than 1,000 essays on animal behavior, including his book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. “It’s a safe bet to say that dogs sigh for the same reasons humans sigh. There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ explanation for dogs or for humans. Context is key, such as knowing what the dog was doing before they sighed. The personality of the dog also needs to be factored into any explanation, because dogs likely display individual differences about why they sigh.” Some dog breeds are also more vocal than others, and some are bigger drama queens.
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In many cases, though, a dog sigh is “a simple emotional signal that terminates an action,” canine researcher Stanley Coren writes in Understanding Your Dog for Dummies. “If the action has been rewarding, it signals contentment. Otherwise, it signals an end of effort.” For example, when my dog sighs after a pleasant romp around the neighborhood, that could very well mean, “I had a great time and am going to relax for a while.” But when he sighs after spending 20 minutes clawing at my feet while I work, that may convey something more like, “You won’t pay attention to me, so I’ll give up now and just be sad.” Sorry, bud.
The American Kennel Club suggests a simple way to distinguish a happy sigh from a depressed one: “When the sigh is combined with half-closed eyes, it communicates pleasure; with fully open eyes, it communicates disappointment: ‘I guess you are not going to play with me.’” Body language is a good indicator, too. If their ears are down and their head is relaxed on their paws while they sigh, there’s a good chance they’re just chillin’. But if your dog sighs while glaring at you like they’re ready for their next walk and/or treat, that could mean something like, “Let’s go already.”
Again, though, context and knowing your dog well are the only real ways to even get close to understanding their many noises. In fact, we often misunderstand super common dog sounds. As the American Kennel Club also notes, dogs can whine because they’re happy and excited, not necessarily scared or sad, and they can growl because they’re being playful, not aggressive, per se.
We even frequently misinterpret human sighs. Most of us sigh around 12 times an hour, and physiologically, sighs are critical to keeping our lungs functioning properly. And yet, we’ve somehow associated this regular, recurring bodily function with being tired or exasperated.
So, as long as you keep your dog happy and healthy, you really have nothing to worry about — even if they let out a seemingly dramatic sigh every now and again.