Dog Behaviors Explained: What Panting, Shaking, And Scratching Means For Your Pup

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Some adorable dog behavior is just that: adorable dog behavior.

Biting off a little more than they can chew when it comes to stick selection? Adorable dog behavior.

Getting freaked out by that dog on the other side of the mirror? Adorable dog behavior.

Spilling the beans under intense interrogation? Adorable dog behavior.

But some things that dogs do that might seem normal—or even (gasp) cute—on first glance can be symptomatic of something more serious going on with your pooch. Behaviors that seem benign on their own, such as cocking the head to one side, snapping or scratching at things that aren’t there, or scooting their hindquarters on the ground could mean something much more serious is going on, particularly if they’re persistent.

When in doubt, seek professional help.

“Any veterinarian will be more than happy to answer questions,” says Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer with the American Kennel Club. “When push comes to shove, if you had a child and weren’t sure what to do, you should call your pediatrician. I always like to tell people I’d rather answer a question you may think is silly that may very well not be. It’s better to get a grasp on something sooner rather than later.”

Klein spoke with Urbo about some things that we see out of our dogs almost every day that, if left uninvestigated, could end up being big problems.

Head Shaking

If your dog wins a long, protracted battle with you over ownership of a tug rope or chew toy and wants to celebrate its victory with a vigorous shake, that’s certainly not an issue.

However, if your dog can’t seem to stop shaking its head in a variety of situations, that’s another story. If it looks like your dog is trying to dislodge something—the way you would to get water out of your ears when you exit a pool—it’s probably because there’s something in there.

“It can be symptomatic of underlying ear infections or other problems like that,” Klein says.

Some relatively simple infections can be cleared up with products such as the NaturPet Ear Drops, which helps alleviate fungal, viral and bacterial infections while also relieving pain and guarding against inflammation. You can get NaturPet Ear Drops on Amazon here.

More serious infections can lead to a whole suite of other issues, though. Inner-ear infections, as well as neurological conditions, can cause a condition called nystagmus, in which the dog’s eyeballs move up and down or from side to side uncontrollably.

dog shaking after being in water
Maggie Riordan on Unsplash

Nystagmus can also go hand-in-hand with vestibular disease, which Klein says is associated with “imbalance, poor balance, or circling in one direction.”

If your dog starts getting nauseated from these uncontrollable motions, you can treat the symptoms with regular human motion sickness medication such as Dramamine—which you can get on Amazon here—or you can ask your veterinarian about dog-specific medication such as Cerenia.

The bottom line, though, is that if it seems like something that’s out of your pup’s control, you should consult your vet.

Rear Scooting

Okay, so this one’s kind of gross.

You’ve probably seen a TV commercial or two, or an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, featuring a dog scootingthat is, planting its hindquarters and rear end against the ground and motoring along.

“People laugh, but many times there is a medical reason for it,” Klein says.

The squeamish might want to skip these next couple of paragraphs, because it often comes down to anal sacs.

Dogs have two of them, one on each side of the rectum. Their job is to secrete a fatty substance that aids the dog in defecating. If there’s an issue with the sacs, it can be very uncomfortable for the dog.

Hence the scooting. Your dog can also try to convey this to you through chewing or licking around the area, or you may observe swelling back there if your dog is having issues, um, moving things along.

If an infection is the root cause of the issues, you can try products such as Glandex Soft Chews, which use ingredients such as digestive enzymes and probiotics to keep the glands healthy so your pup can “Boot the scoot!” Get Glandex Soft Chews on Amazon here.

You can also try to make your dog more regular—if you know what I mean—by doing what you’d do for yourself: Ramp up the fiber. You can get fiber-packed products such as the NaturVet No Scoot Soft Chews on Amazon here.

If the dog’s anal sacs are full (aka impacted), they’ll need to be “expressed.” That’s a nice way of saying “emptied” by gentle yet forceful squeezing. You’ll definitely want to consult the veterinarian for that one as well. If you try it at home and do it wrong, you run a real chance of making the problem worse.

Worm infestation can also cause scooting. And, lucky you, we’re about to get to some of the other fun things that parasites can do to your dog.

Biting, Scratching and Licking

Fleas: They suck. Get it? Fine, I’ll stop.

Klein says that fleas have two ways of nagging our pets. First, their bites cause irritation. Second, a healthy portion of the dog population is allergic to flea bites, so the inflammation and itchiness from the bites can spread systemwide. Small enough dogs with big enough flea problems can even have problems with anemia because the fleas take so much blood from them.

“More commonly we see dogs react because of their systemic allergic response to the saliva of the flea bites,” Klein says. “Those dogs are more uncomfortable than if they just had fleas. And then they can also carry disease.”

Ticks also carry bacteria in their bites that can cause anemia, joint pain, neurologic problems, paralysis, and abnormal feeding, Klein says.

There are all sorts of flea treatments you can try for your dog. Products such as Frontline Plus don’t only get rid of fleas and ticks, but they also eliminate eggs and larvae so that the population cannot regenerate. Get Frontline Plus for Dogs on Amazon here.

Flea infestation can also cause “hot spots” or areas of extreme irritation where the poor pup has bit, scratched, or licked all of the fur off and left its skin bare to the elements. Hot-spot remedies such as Sentry, which you can get on Amazon here, can provide relief from issues such as staph infections, cuts and scrapes, or viral, fungal, or bacterial problems.

But if your dog’s scratching issues are getting to the point where they’re that severe, it’s probably time to go see your vet.

Klein says this sort of behavior can also stem from minor injuries, dermatitis, or having a foreign body lodged in at the point of scratching, biting, or licking. If it gets bad enough, it could have mental effects.

“Sometimes, that behavior can become obsessive-compulsive, [turning] into a constant tic-type action,” Klein says. “It can be incited by something medical, but then it becomes a psychological condition. And sometimes that’s very difficult to spot.”

Certain breeds—such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Brussels Griffon, and French Bulldog—also have a genetic disposition to a condition called syringomyelia, Klein says, in which fluid-filled cavities develop within the spinal cord near the brain. The condition usually shows itself at an early age, and dogs with it tend to obsessively scratch around their head and neck. You should seek professional help if you think your dog is exhibiting symptoms of syringomyelia.

Klein says neurological conditions can also be behind “fly biting,” a behavior in which dogs snap at things in the air that aren’t really there. Outwardly, it might just look like another instance of your dog being silly, but it could be hiding something severe.

“It’s when a dog is biting into the air as if chasing or biting an invisible fly. That is actually a seizure-like condition: petit mal,” Klein says. “Seizures can be genetic. They can be because of a tumor or other conditions, like low blood sugar, but idiopathic epilepsy we suspect may be genetic based.”

What about when your dog is dreaming, though? When it’s kicking its limbs, making little noises, and twitching its facial muscles hoping to finally catch up with that cat down the street, if only in the realm of the subconscious?

Klein says that’s fine, as long as the dog is easily awoken. If you have trouble rousing your dog, it might be symptomatic of seizure-like conditions.

And oh, if you do want to wake up your dog, don’t touch it. It’s not good for you or the dog. Just open and close a drawer nearby.

“Make a noise and see if the dog responds to that,” Klein says. “What you don’t want to do is tap it on the head. Dogs don’t know any better. They’re going to be woken from a sound sleep and their inclination, if they may feel threatened, is to bite.”


Some dogs are just lazy. No way around that. If your dog sleeps on the couch for 14 hours a day and has been doing so for years, there’s nothing wrong with it. You just got yourself a couch potato.

If your normally rambunctious canine suddenly can’t summon the energy to get up in the morning, then you might have a problem.

“With internal parasites like worms of any form, you see dogs where they’re difficult to put weight on, have dull coats, potbellied appearance, they’re lethargic, have runny eyes,” Klein says. “Those dogs should be checked for parasites. Other conditions are pneumonia, when they get to the lungs, severe coughing, and heart disease. Worms—parasites of all types—can cause all sorts of things.”

Products such as the Safe-Guard Canine Dewormer mix into food easily and guard against parasites such as tapeworms, hookworms, roundworms, and whipworms. Get Safe-Guard Canine Dewormer on Amazon here.

Heartworms are especially lethal, with a gestation time of about seven months in the body from the time in which the previous host (like a mosquito) bites the dog to when the worms mature and start wreaking havoc on the dog’s heart, lungs, and blood vessels. The symptoms are similar to what Klein described in discussing other internal parasites: coughing, lethargy, weight loss, difficulty breathing, and a protruding chest.

Prescription products such as Heartgard provide monthly heartworm protection for your dog, so ask your veterinarian about it if you haven’t already.


Dogs shake for a number of reasons, Klein says. The common thread between them, though, is that the shaking is precipitated by the dog feeling some sort of pain, whether physical or emotional.

“I don’t think they understand the concept of pain, why yesterday they were doing the same thing and were feeling fine and that, now, they’re doing the same thing and their belly may be painful, their back may be painful,” Klein says. “So they become reluctant, stand still, become stiff, and shiver. It’s the same kind of behavior for tons of different things. Basically, they’re scared. They’re not sure. They’re anxious.”

Loud noises are common things that get dogs to shaking. It’s why you find Fido hiding under the bed on the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve or when there’s a particularly nasty thunderstorm booming outside. Klein says certain classes of dogs that have been bred through centuries to be more sensitive to stimuli—working dogs like German Shepherds, herding dogs like Border Collies, and guard dogs like Rottweilers—also tend to be more skittish around loud noises.

Some dogs are even afraid of their own barks.

Thunderstorms are especially tricky for dogs because they don’t like the sensation of static electricity making their hair stand on end in advance of the storm. That’s why products such as the ThunderShirt Anxiety Jacket can be helpful in such situations. Besides looking downright adorable, the ThunderShirt wraps around the dog and provides constant, gentle pressure that simulates it being held while also lessening the sensation of its hair follicles all coming to attention.

You can get ThunderShirt Anxiety Jackets on Amazon here.

Klein says some veterinarians have also had success telling their patients to pet their dogs with dryer sheets—like the Bounce sheets you can get on Amazon here—to ease storm anxiety. That cuts down on the static electricity while also giving the animal the soothing sensation of being stroked. If you do that, though, make sure to keep the dog from licking the sheet because the chemicals can be harmful.

As with all phobias, though, there is also a substantial psychological component to go along with the physical sensations. A dryer sheet isn’t going to help with that.

“You’re dealing with a dog that you can’t explain something to,” Klein says. “Phobias are difficult enough with humans that we can talk to and try to explain, who may have a hard time getting over certain types of behavior. If you understand that, then you can see the challenge in trying to get your poor dog that doesn’t understand what’s going on to try to get over certain kinds of things. But thankfully, in this day and age, there are many different things we can do to the environment, with behavioral training and modification and, if we have to, with medication and veterinarians and behavioralists who can help if it becomes excessive. That’s not something we had 20 years ago.”

It’s perfectly fine for your dog to be scared of some things. You’d probably prefer that over a fearless dog that chases every car and wants to battle every adversary, foreign and domestic, during your walks.

But if your dog’s anxiety is clearly affecting its quality of life, it’s probably time to talk to someone about it.


The right amount? Cute. Too much? Possibly problematic.

Physiologically, dogs pant to regulate body heat. So if your dog is panting heavily when it’s outside in the heat or when it’s engaging in physical activity, that’s perfectly normal.

In other situations—or if the dog can’t stop panting—you might want to keep an eye on it.

“If it becomes excessive, the dog’s probably trying to tell us something,” Klein says. “It’s either too hot, it’s anxious, or it could be in some discomfort or pain. Those are the signs to read.”

And why not monitor a couple of other things while you’re keeping an eye on how often your dog is panting?

Dog panting
Jonathan Slater on Unsplash

How much water does it drink? Happily lapping up an entire bowl after a long dry period or, again, after exercise or being out in the heat is fine. If your dog’s thirst seems unquenchable, though, it could be a sign of a malady such as kidney disease, a uterine infection, or diabetes.

Also: Check its breath. Yes, sometimes dogs will have bad breath. You’ve seen the things they eat off the ground when you turn your head away for just one second. If your dog is a notorious garbage eater or you’ve let its oral health slip, you can try products such as Greenies Dental Dog Chews to sweeten the stench. Greenies, which you can get on Amazon here, fight plaque and freshen breath while giving your dog something to chew on.

Chronic halitosis, though, could have underlying symptoms such as gastrointestinal distress or liver or kidney disease.

As with pretty much anything else on this list, when in doubt, call your veterinarian.

“There are no stupid questions,” Klein says. “Better be safe than sorry and get it one day too early than one day too late.”

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