Can You Recognise When Your Dog Is Confused?

Confusion is defined as uncertainty about what is happening, intended or required. When our dogs get confused, they show us exactly how they feel. When a dog becomes confused or uncertain, our dog may become stressed, particularly if pushed too far despite his confusion – without being given extra information.

If a dog becomes confused about what we expect, he will likely feel conflicted. He knows that we want something but doesn’t know what that something is. He wants to get it right but doesn’t know how a conflicted inner state triggers conflicted behaviours. Another term for the signals we see from a confused dog is displacement behaviour - which basically means our dog feels pressured.

Here’s an example of displacement behaviour in action and how it can be handled in two different ways, simply based on careful understanding, or the lack of it.

Consider a dog who is learning not to pull on the lead for the first time in his life. Dogs are not born with collars and lead, so a slack lead is not natural. If someone put a collar and lead on you out of the blue, you might just fight it too. I probably would. The teacher (who could be you or I with our dogs) shows the dog what they expect by rewarding even the slackest lead and repeating that reward until the dog realises that the teacher wants a slack lead and provides something nice in return.

We can avoid putting our dogs into uncomfortable situations and understand them better if we learn and look for signs of confusion. Try to imagine conflicted behaviour as the dog showing us he’s confused and wants to change the subject.


Pacing is a way to use energy and avoid something causing confusion—some through being confused and some when they experience stress.


Scratching himself is a common way for a dog to decide to change the subject. To focus on something different is this dog’s aim; he may be hoping that if he takes himself away for a short while, the situation will naturally resolve itself.


Sniffing the ground like someone has dropped the most beautiful scent onto it is a common sign of confusion. If you are trying to teach him something at the time, your dog may sniff the ground or other things in the area and glance back at you occasionally, probably hoping that you change the subject too. This is an excellent opportunity to reassess your teaching approach and ask yourself if you are asking for more from the dog than he can understand or offer at that point.

Turning Away/Ignoring

This is one of the confusing signals that can get a dog into trouble if their handler or trainer doesn’t understand canine confusion. The dog may turn away and just hope the problem that they can’t solve simply goes away. Whilst this act may be misinterpreted as ignorance it’s actually confusion and if it’s treated as ignorance, it will quickly become desperation.

Fooling Around

Fooling around is a lesser understood stress reaction. This is the response most likely to be observed in an environment where something is expected from the dog. For example, during teaching sessions the dog may try and change the subject by fetching a toy and throwing it in your general direction or playing with something that he’s never really bothered with before. When he’s confused on a walk or feeling worried a dog many jump up and grab the lead, he may nip hands and generally act silly and goofy.

If this confusion escalates to stress on a walk, the dog could show height seeking behaviour, where he tries to jump up your body to cope with something in the environment or simply because he’s not understanding your requests. Fooling around may also include humping behaviours, which can be carried out by dogs of either sex, for all sorts of reasons including anxiety and stress

Recognising confusion based behaviour can increase your understanding. If your dog does these things, take a moment to assess why before you act then deal with the environment itself. Don’t rush in and try to change the dog's behaviour, because unless the environment changes, the dog’s inner state will stay the same and so will his related behaviour.

Every dog will have their signs of confusion. For example, one dog may sniff and yawn, whilst another may pant and scratch. This is because the experience of confusion and minor stress are very similar.

So, my advice is that if you are trying to help your dog understand you; whether that’s via a lesson or something in your life together, watch out for any signs of confusion or stress and if he’s feeling conflicted your dog will most certainly tell you.

To learn more about what your dog is telling you, check out my Canine Communication book on Amazon.

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