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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features April 2015 Issue

Those Things Dogs Do

Bizarre behaviors in dogs are not always as one-of-a-kind as you may think. Looking into the causes of some weird dog behavior and ways to make it stop if it's a problem.

On the face of it, it sounds like the most unique canine behavior in the world. A dog starts “licking” the air out of nowhere, or carrying an object in his mouth while whimpering the whole time. Or maybe he begins carrying food from one room to another before he eats it, or falling to the floor and flopping around like a just-caught fish thrown to the bottom of the boat. Guess what? If your dog does it, chances are others do as well.

Head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, has seen it all. Herewith, some of the behaviors owners think are unique to their dog but aren’t — and when to know if the behavior is just a harmless quirk or has a serious medical component that needs to be addressed for your pet’s health.

dog whines with toy in his mouth

Poor Toby. Even with the rawhide chew right in his mouth, he mourns its loss (but doesn't actually chew it).

Moaning even though he already has the toy in his mouth. You’d think if a dog had possession of something he valued greatly, he’d be happy. Yet some dogs literally fret even as they walk around with the very thing that means so much to them. Earl Duckett of Loganville, Georgia, knows the behavior well. His 11-year-old miniature schnauzer, Toby, has started carrying his wife’s bedroom shoe in his mouth, whining while he does it. “The whine is like he is hurting,” Mr. Duckett says, “but there is no indication that he is, and he only whines when he walks around with it. This happens two or three times a week. Last Christmas, our neighbor gave him a rawhide chew, and he did the same thing with that. He has never chewed on either — he just holds them.”

Dr. Dodman can relate. His own dog Rusty’s “object of frustration,” as he calls it, is a ball about the size of a tennis ball but softer. “Sometimes,” Dr. Dodman says, “the ball rolls under the couch and is gone for a few weeks and Rusty forgets about it. Other times he squeezes it as he walks around with it, worried and whining all the while.” What’s the deal with dogs like Toby and Rusty?

Because the object is so valuable to the dog, Dr. Dodman says, “I imagine his concern is about the possibility of someone taking it away from him. If a dog were out in nature, he would bury an object that means so much to him. So he’s probably walking around thinking, ‘Gee, I wish there were some place to hide this thing. I’d like to squirrel it away.’”

The solution: if there’s an object that’s so emotionally powerful for a dog, Dr. Dodman suggests, consider hiding it so he’s not spending any time worriedly mourning the loss of something that he has not in fact lost. “No need to rip it out of his mouth,” Dr. Dodman says. That in fact will only reinforce to him that he can and will lose that which means so much to him. But if you put it away while he’s occupied with something else or out of the house, chances are he won’t pine over it.

Fish tailing. A client was once referred to Dr. Dodman because, she said, her dog was fish tailing. “‘He falls on the floor,’” she told him, “‘like a fish you catch and throw in the bottom of the boat, and goes flippity flop.’” The client had been sent by her own veterinarian to a neurologist, who put the dog on phenobarbital — a potent anti-convulsant. But the neurologist suggested the woman take her dog to Dr. Dodman to see whether the condition might be strictly behavioral rather than neurologic. It was.

“I told her to ignore the behavior when her dog exhibited it,” Dr. Dodman relates, “and also to make a ‘bridge’ between paying attention to the dog and not paying any attention at all. This is called a bridging stimulus, letting the dog know you are about to withdraw attention, and in this case it was a duck call. Within a week, the dog’s fish tailing was down 50 percent, in two weeks, 75 percent, and in three weeks, completely resolved.”

Sometimes, Dr. Dodman says, dogs engage in attention-seeking behavior that has no rhyme or reason other than to make owners pay attention. It could be fish tailing or some other odd thing. When it’s ignored, at first it might get worse. The dog is thinking, ‘Gee, it has always worked before. I guess I have to try harder.’ The upswing in behavior is called an extinction burst. Then it gets better as the dog comes to realize that it’s no longer going to have an impact.

Taking food from his bowl and going into another room to eat it. “A lot of dogs have weird behaviors in relation to food,” Dr. Dodman says. “Some dogs sneak up on it, almost stalking the food and then hovering before digging in. It’s as if they’re kind of suspicious of their kibble. Others may be worried someone will take it from them — those are the ones who might grab some food from the bowl and steal it away to what they consider is a safer spot where they can slobber all over it in private — perhaps your expensive rug in the living room.

dog digging in yard


There's a reason dogs dig in the dirt, or the bed linens, even when there's nothing to dig for.

Digging fast and furiously in the dirt — or the bed linens. This action is often derived from aspects of the so-called appetitive phase of predatory behavior, Dr. Dodman remarks. Consider terriers, who were bred to chase small varmints. The varmint, after running some, might burrow into the ground, and it was the dog’s job to dig into the dirt and pursue it. When there aren’t any true predatory outlets, terriers might displace those aspects of inbred behavior with behavior that appears pointless in order to work through the instinct — digging in leaves, perhaps, or in some heaped-up bedclothes.

It should be noted that not all dogs dig for predatory reasons. A northern breed like a Siberian husky might dig to simulate what he does in the harsh terrain of a polar region — making a depression in the snow to shield himself from ice-cold wind blowing 70 miles an hour. Conversely, on a very hot day, a dog might dig in the ground and lie in the cool soil to shield himself from the sun. That is, digging could be a vestige of thermo-regulatory behavior. Whatever it is, there’s probably a reason for it that was bred into the dog eons ago.

Comments (3)

My dog, Daisy, goes into hyper mode every night at 6 pm when we are trying to watch the news on TV and not paying her attention. We call it, "The Daisy Show". She runs around, barks, whines and worst of all claws at the bottom panel of our Italian leather couch. We finally gave in and gave her a rawhide bone. Now she continues the same behavior every night until she gets the bone. There was NO way to ignore her and we could not allow her to tear up the couch or keep us from watching the news.

Posted by: Helen Schatz | February 13, 2017 12:32 PM    Report this comment

I had a puppy mill rescue terrier who would "address" bully sticks before chewing them. She'd play bow to it, lay down beside it, run to the other side of it and lay down, never taking her eyes off it and wagging her tail madly the whole time. Finally, sometimes as much as five minutes later, she'd pick it up and run off to her bed to chew. Since she had no food aggression issues, I was not concerned by this behavior; in fact, I found it pretty entertaining. In 30+ years of dog parenting, I'd never seen this before and I've never seen it since. Any ideas about her motive or thought process?

Posted by: jmalcolm | February 13, 2017 8:32 AM    Report this comment

My brothers dog keeps digging up the grass in the back yard. This article tells us why Suki digs (part Poodle, part Japanese Shin), but as per the Title of the document I was hoping it would give a solution.

Posted by: Agotcher | August 31, 2015 6:50 PM    Report this comment

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