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Why Do Dogs Shake Themselves? – The Dog ‘Body Shake’

Dogs shake themselves (the same shake they do when they get out of the water) to ease tension or to signal they are moving on from one thing to another. Sometimes they “shake it off” if they are mildly stressed, excited or don’t want to do something.

It’s like a re-set button or a transition.

You’ve probably noticed your dog shaking his body immediately after meeting a new dog, after ending a play session or after returning from a walk. He’s simply saying, “done with that, moving on now.”

If you watch two dogs at play, the wrestling and tumbling and chasing might escalate until one lets out a growl or a yelp. Then, both dogs will do the body shake. Play might end completely as they walk off to find something new. Or, they might start to play again but with less energy.

In many cases, the body shake is a signal that says, “Well that was fun, what’s next?”

Dogs shake themselves as a stress reliever

If a dog is faced with something overwhelming or confusing and he’s not quite sure what to do, he’ll offer the body shake. This is a way for the dog to shake off stress!

The body shake is not necessarily a conscious behavior; it’s more automatic.

Humans do similar behaviors. It’s the same as letting out a sigh of relief after meeting a new person or taking a deep breath before plunging into something a bit scary. You might even shake your head “no” and walk away.

For me, a good comparison is in sports. I was a competitive swimmer in high school. Before stepping up to the starting block before a race I would take a deep breath and actually do a slight body shake with my shoulders. It was my own little transition or re-set button to enter into race mode – a way of coping with stress.

dog body shake

Or, as another example, if I’ve been staring at my computer for 90 minutes I might lean back in my chair, brush my hands over my face or actually wiggle my head and shoulders a bit – “Phew! Time for something else!”

So really, we’re not that different from dogs. We have our own versions of the body shake.

So why else do dogs shake themselves when they’re not wet?

And what does “the dog body shake” have to do with training? Well, quite a bit, actually.

If your dog shakes himself during a training session, it’s important to be aware of it. Your dog might be a little stressed or confused or distracted.

For example, you tell your dog to sit, he does. But then he does “the body shake” and instantly breaks from sit. He’s having trouble focusing, for whatever reason. My dog might do this in agility practice, when there are a lot of other dogs around and he just wants to go sniff and play rather than sit.

You might tell your dog to sit again. He does. But then he does the body shake again and gets up again.

What the heck is up with your dog? Why isn’t he listening?

Often, it’s just because the dog is distracted or overly excited. See our post: Why isn’t my dog listening?

So, when you are training your own dog, be aware of random shake-offs

When your dog does the body shake after you’ve told him to sit, all you have to do is gently push him back into a sit or lure him with a treat. Or, you may need to take a step back and work around fewer distractions for now so your dog can be successful.

It’s totally normal for a dog to attempt three or four body shakes, especially if you are in an exciting environment or about to do something really fun or if you’re challenging your dog a little too much.

I wouldn’t consider the body shake deviant behavior. I’m not sure dogs are even aware they’re doing it.

However, you can teach your dog some self control.

Teach your dog that sit means sit. No matter what. You can’t get up just because you wiggled your body around. You get up when I say “OK” (or whatever your release word is).

I am hyper aware of the dog body shake. I see it every day with a number of dogs. If you look for it, you will see it too. Watch for it at the next dog obedience class you attend or the next time you visit the dog park or the next time you ask your dog to sit when something “exciting” is going on.

Why do dogs shake their heads when they get up?

My dog Ace shakes his body every time he gets up from lying down.

Other examples of when a dog will shake himself:

  • After you are done petting your dog
  • After giving the dog a hug
  • Ending a play session
  • After greeting another dog or person
  • When a training session ends
  • After waking up
  • Returning from a walk
The dog body shake

You see, there are lots and lots of examples of when dogs will offer “the body shake” and it doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. It usually means the dog is just transitioning on to the next thing. Like a little sigh.

Ace will also shake his body if he breaks from the stay position before I have released him.

For Ace, one of the hardest moments to remain in a stay is when someone comes to the door. He will almost definitely do a body shake and then get up as I answer the door. (2019 update: Ace has passed away.)

If Ace doesn’t do the body shake, he will likely scratch himself around the collar, which is another behavior dogs will do in order to release themselves from the task at hand.

I have even noticed Ace will do the body shake on a walk to release himself from heel! I’m learning to catch him when he does this and tell him “no.”

Be aware of your dog’s level of stress

I know it’s important to be aware of my dog’s stress levels. The body shake is often a calming signal meant to show other dogs they mean no harm or even an attempt to defuse some energy.

See our post: Signs of stress in dogs.

If Ace keeps doing the body shake, it could be that he is a little too stressed and needs to take a break from what we’re doing. I can be pretty strict at times. I expect too much.

It’s one thing to push your dog a bit in order to increase his self control. It’s another to push him so far he is feeling overwhelmed, stressed or even fearful.

Dog shaking off stress

Ace is a sensitive guy, and it’s up to me, his owner, to be aware of his stress levels. Doing the body shake, scratching around his collar, excessive yawning or avoiding eye contact are examples that he might be mildly stressed.

Sometimes we could stand to do our own body shakes and move on to something more fun!

Dogs tell us a lot. We just need to pay attention!

Why do dogs shake after fighting?

The final issue I want to briefly address is that you might notice your dogs shake themselves after a mild fight with another dog or even after sniffing another new dog or meeting a new dog.

This is a normal behavior and it’s a way that the dogs are “cooling off” or letting out a “sigh” of relief. They’re saying, OK, we’re done here! Moving on!

It’s usually a good sign if both the dogs shake themselves off after a greeting.

Do you notice your dog shaking himself? When does your dog do this behavior?

Let me know in the comments!

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Lindsay Stordahl is the founder of That Mutt. She writes about dog training, dog exercise and feeding a healthy raw diet.

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