The dog sigh acts as the period at the end of a sentence. In other words, your dog’s sigh is “a simple emotional signal that terminates an action,” says psychologist and researcher Dr. Stanley Coren, author of “Understanding Your Dog for Dummies.”
If you’re paying attention, your dog’s sigh can tell you exactly what head space he’s in. If you’ve just come in from a good hike or a rousing game of fetch, that sigh is a clear sign of contentment. On the other hand, if your dog’s been asking to play all day and you simply haven’t had time, his sigh “signals the end of an effort,” says Coren.
Echoing Coren, the American Kennel Club says context is key when it comes to understanding why dogs sigh and what individual sighs mean.
“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.’”
Dog trainer Jody Epstein emphasizes the importance of a dog’s body language when it comes to decoding his sigh.
“If his body is relaxed, ears soft, head down on the bed in what we might call a ‘sleeping’ position, and he’s in perfect health otherwise, then I’d expect it’s just a sigh of uber relaxation…If he’s laying there but sitting up watching you and doing it, then it’s more likely an active communication that you may wish to address.”
Animal behaviorist and dog trainer Katenna Jones cautions dog owners against imposing their own feelings and biases on their dogs’ vocal and behavioral communications. She also warns owners against getting stuck on one interpretation of a highly individualized form of communication.
“The most important thing is to remember there is no one answer. It’s important not to apply human feelings to dogs because dogs are not humans!…Look at the context of situations in which your dog is sighing, take note, and see if you can identify why YOUR dog is sighing – because it may be different than why MY dog is sighing” she says.
Satisfaction, disappointment, relaxation, frustration…your dog’s sigh could mean any or none of these. Keep in mind, too, that dogs make a wide variety of vocalizations, both intentional and unintentional. Moreover, some breeds are more prone to vocalizing, and vocalizing in certain ways, than others are.
The American Kennel Club reminds us, “Just because we do not understand the wonderful variety of sounds that dogs vocalize does not mean that dogs are not doing their best to communicate with us.”
And as their best friends, we should keep on listening.