7 min read


Can Dogs be Confused?



7 min read


Can Dogs be Confused?


Nobody likes to be confused. Confusion makes us feel anxious and frustrated. The things that cause us to feel confused can vary. It could be that the person who is communicating with us is simply not clear with our signals. We might be confused if we cannot completely see or hear what is going on. For persons with cognitive dysfunction, the confusion may come from the aging processes which make it difficult to remember and respond correctly. 

All of these sources of confusion are also true for our dogs. Pups can become confused in training if the trainer is not sending clear signals and reinforcement. Dogs will show us signs of confusion if they cannot see or hear correctly. There are actually old dog syndromes in which the senior dogs are confused as a part of their cognitive decline. There is much to learn about how our dogs may become confused and what we can do to support them to resolve their distress.


Signs of Confusion in Dogs

Ah, the adorable head tilt of our pups and dogs! They are so cute when they tilt the head to the side, with one ear up and the other down. They look like they are thinking, "What did you say?" There is agreement that the dog looks confused when tilting the head. 

Our dogs communicate with their activity level, body posture, stance, ears, nose, mouth, tail, and vocalizations. The experience of confusion can be accompanied by a variety of emotional reactions that will be expressed in your dog's body language. 

For example, confusion can make your dog anxious. If the confusion is stemming from cognitive dysfunction, there are a variety of behaviors your dog will show, ranging from hyperactivity to repetitive behaviors to forgetfulness and lack of responsiveness.

The head tilting is definitely a sign of confusion. Experts do not know if the dog is trying to understand language, hear a sound or see something more clearly. Regardless, a dog with a tilting head is trying to resolve something that has them stumped. 

Another sign of your dog feeling confused may be noted in the licking of the lips. The licking can be a signal that the dog is feeling distressed, an expected response to a confusing situation. Other signs of confusion or distress will be seen in the how the dog is checking out the environment. You may see the dog scanning, looking back and forth, while panting with their ears back and their head held low.

Dog trainers have watched for signs of confusion in classes and individual sessions. There are distinct signs the dog is confused. Hyperactivity is a sign the dog is searching to emit the desired behavior. The dog may ignore you and reject treats. As the confusion intensifies, the dog may bark or startle easily. The confusion may even lead the dog to give up and go lay down.

Senior dogs have problems with confusion in a condition that is commonly referred to as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). If your dog is more than eight years old, these would be signs your dog is experiencing cognitive decline. 

Your dog may develop separation anxiety, clinging to you and seeming restless about the house. You may find the dog engaged in purposeless, repetitive movements, like walking around in circles. You may discover that your dog forgets toilet training and has more accidents in the house.

Sadly, the dog may become less interested in interaction with you and even walk away when being petted. They will appear confused with behavior changes that are unexpected. Senior dogs with this condition may appear withdrawn. The dog may lose interest in playing and forget training. You may even see shaking and the dog will move slowly. 

The forgetfulness may be noticed in them getting in and out of the house. For example, the dog may go to the door as if needing to go out but when you open the door, the dog just stands there as if they have forgotten what to do. Senior dogs may even forget their names and commands to come when called.

Body Language

Some signs that you have a confused pooch include:

  • Barking
  • Head Tilting
  • Panting
  • Lip Licking
  • Head Turning
  • Ears Back

Other Signs

If your dog is a senior, signs of confusion linked with aging are:

  • Unusual Behvaior
  • Forgetting Learned Commands
  • Forgetting What They Are Doing
  • Acting Agitated
  • Acting Withdrawn
  • Disinterest In Play, Petting, Or Attention From You

The History of Dogs Feeling Confused


Dogs have been living with humans for centuries. Structurally, their brains are not that different from human brains. They have intelligence that is different in degrees from humans. Of mammals, dogs are believed to have more capacity to be sensitive to and to read human signals than any other species. 

Studies of dog cognition have shown that dogs have specialized skills and abilities. Dogs can think. They are able to apply their senses and reasoning to solve problems. They are considered to parallel the toddler-aged child in their ability to understand language and to experience emotions. They learn commands and signals in training. 

With their sensitivity to humans, it is important for us to consider our role if our dogs become confused in our interactions with them. In pups and training situations, we may find our dogs confused, offering behaviors to try and discriminate what it is we want them to do. 

We also know that our dogs have routines and habits. They can even predict when we are supposed to be home and they can read our emotions. 

We do not really know if the dog is thinking, "Gee, I don't get this. I think I'm confused." Rather, the behaviors they show us when the situation is confusing are more of a message, "I don't know what you want me to do",  "Reward me when I get it right", or "I give up". With senior dogs, the confusion is part of cognitive dysfunction and it is likely the dog does not have the awareness of their problem behaviors.

The Science of Confused Dogs


Many consider the head tilt to be a sign of confusion. It has been suspected that while doing this, dogs cannot understand a signal, are listening to something, or can't see our faces. 

Psychologist Stanley Coren conducted a survey of 582 dog owners to learn more about the head tilting behavior. He was testing the idea that dogs with a larger muzzle have more trouble reading human facial cues and tilt their heads more to see us to understand our communication.

There are three different types of heads. Dogs with a long nose, like Collies and Greyhounds, are dolichocephalic. Dogs with a broad muzzle are mesaticephalic, like Beagles or Retrievers. Flat muzzle dogs, like Pugs and Boston Terriers, are referred to as brachycephalic. The survey simply asked how often the dog tilted their head. 

He found that 71% of the owners of the dogs with the larger muzzles (mesaticephalic heads) reported that their dogs often tilt their heads when spoken to. Only 52% of the owners of the flatter faced, brachycephalic dogs reported that their dogs often tilted their heads when spoken to. The difference was statistically significant. 

We do not really know if the dogs were tilting their heads to see the lower part of the human faces or if they were doing so for other reasons. What we do know is that they are really cute when they head tilt!

If the dog is appearing confused due to Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, you'll be relieved to learn that veterinarians and neurologists have been studying senior dogs to learn more about the aging process. Over 60 percent of dogs who live to the age of eleven will develop these symptoms. The symptoms may appear mild at first but tend to worsen over time. 

The condition is the equivalent of Alzheimer's in humans. The brains of dogs who have this condition show similar changes as the brains of humans with Alzheimer's. If you see signs of this condition in your dog, work with your veterinarian to find strategies that may help your dog. There are new studies on vitamins and laboratory-tested products that your veterinarian may be able to recommend. 

Your veterinarian or behavior specialist may also have suggestions for things you can do to make your home more comfortable for your dog, to accommodate the dog's changes in habit. You will want to educate yourself and your family on how to react to your dog's behaviors and offer the appropriate support to your dear senior pet.      

Helping Your Confused Dog


It is not your dog's fault when they become confused in training. The directions were simply not clear enough and the animal simply does not know what you want them to do. The dog needs to be successful in one to two attempts to prevent confusion. 

A simple rule to follow is "Do not allow your dog to make mistakes." If your dog makes one small mistake, that is part of the learning process. It's just that too many mistakes stop the learning. Here are some things to do if your dog becomes confused:

First, stop what you are doing. Remain still and drop a few treats on the ground. Be sure to calm down and relax. Allow your dog to have this break to relax, as well. In a few minutes, your dog will look to you and may even give you a nudge or touch command. You can then try again. 

Here are things you can do to prevent the confusion of your dog in training:

  • Use treats your dog will like.
  • Take lots of breaks. Give water. Have a little playtime. You should relax too.
  • Keep training sessions very short - just a few minutes.
  • If your dog is not successful in 1 - 2 attempts, the behavior is too hard. Go to an easier command. Then break the behavior into simpler steps to try again.

Always be patient and positive with your dog. Appreciate the breed, disposition and personality of your dog.

Have questions or concerns about your pet?

Chat with a veterinary professional in the Wag! app 24/7.

Get Vet Chat

Written by a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 04/10/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

Wag! Specialist
Need to upgrade your pet's leash?

Learn more in the Wag! app

Five starsFive starsFive starsFive starsFive stars

43k+ reviews


© 2024 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2024 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.