Sniffing the butts of other dogs, sniffing the groins of other people, going nuts when the mailman comes, day after day — these are just some of the behaviors your dog might engage in that you find embarrassing, annoying, or perhaps just plain weird. But one species’ weirdness is another’s perfectly normal way of getting on in the world. Herein, to bridge the gap between what they do and what you perceive as out-there behavior, are explanations of 8 common pastimes in which dogs engage and the very logical (to the dogs) reasons behind their actions.
1. Butt sniffing. How many times have you heard the owner of one dog tell his pet to stop sniffing the butt of another, as if such behavior were very rude? But to dogs, it’s not. It’s like getting a thumbnail sketch of the other dog, a read like someone might get of a stranger in the short span of an elevator ride.
“It was summed up beautifully by this New Yorker cartoon I saw some years ago,” says Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic veterinarian Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. “A bunch of dogs were at a party, and they all had their name tags under their tails.”
What is it about butt sniffing that’s so telling for dogs? “It transmits chemical information through pheromones,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “We don’t actually know how the pheromones decode dogs for each other. It’s not a language we understand well,” she comments. “But it provides an up-close-and-personal that for a dog is like a personals ad. It gives a snapshot.”
What’s some of the information that gets transmitted? “Certainly pheromones in the peri-anal area, around the genitals, and on the tail gland give information about a dog’s sexual status — whether the dog is intact,” the doctor says. Even the pheromones of neutered dogs give information about maleness and femaleness “because neutered dogs are not ‘its,’ Dr. Borns-Weil points out. “They still have sexually dymorphic behaviors.”
Pheromones in the peri-anal region provide information about a dog’s emotional state, too. They can say whether a dog is in a calm, pleasant mood or an angry, don’t-mess-with-me mood. That is, they speak to a dog’s state of mind. Even pheromones around a dog’s ears communicate information, which is why you’ll often see a dog sniffing another dog’s head. “The pheromones around the ears are meant to appease the dog coming over,” Dr. Borns-Weil points out.
While people look largely for facial expressions, picking up information about someone’s state of mind through scent is very common in the animal world. Ants communicate entirely by chemical information. Even trees communicate by chemical information, Dr. Borns-Weil says. So the fact that dogs get messages from pheromones, from urine and other odor-giving chemicals, should not cause an owner embarrassment. It’s a very natural way to elicit information.
2. Sniffing people’s groins. Like dogs, people release all sorts of interesting odors, including the odors of pheromones. And dogs are most interested in those areas where our scents are most concentrated. They want to learn about our emotional state, too, and they can learn at least as much about a person by sniffing as we can by using our senses of sight and hearing. In addition, sniffing the groin is great fun for dogs because that area is already at nose level. They don’t have to engage in any acrobatics to get to the desired spot. But the sniffing is “not okay from the point of view of a cross-species relationship,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. It’s fine for people not to want dogs sniffing, their, well, their privates.
The solution is to teach a dog to refrain from the behavior. How? With a firm “Off” or “Leave it.” You have to be consistent, and you have to make sure never to inadvertently reward the unwanted action. Unfortunately, that happens all the time. “If a person turns into a squeaky toy,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “waving his hands and making all kinds of sounds showing that he objects, the dog knows that he’s ‘activating’ someone who otherwise would not pay attention to him.” So of course the dog is going to keep at it.
If calm, firm, and persistent cues to the dog to keep away from the groin area don’t work — or don’t work fast enough — the next step is to put the dog on a lead and enforce the “Off” or “Leave it” instructions by removing him from the situation (again, calmly and firmly, not angrily). The pet will then learn that sniffing people’s groin area results in a loss of freedom of movement. That, combined with the verbal cue, will help him get the message.
Be patient. In fact, if you can give the verbal command a little time without resorting to the lead, you may be surprised at the results. At first the behavior may get worse. The dog will think, “Gee, my doing this always got a rise out of people and now they’re staying calm. I have to try harder.” But when the animal sees that even his best efforts don’t have the effect he has come to expect, he will finally give up and obey the cue not to do it. Eventually, he may not even need the cue.
3. Yelling at the mailman. This is a hard habit to break, Dr. Borns-Weil says, because the dog sees that his efforts to guard his territory are quite effective. Every single time he barks at the mailman, the postal worker drops what he’s carrying and leaves quickly. Works like a charm. Why would the dog stop engaging in a behavior that does what it’s supposed to do — get rid of an interloper?
It’s the same for dogs who bark wildly at dogs on the street while they’re riding with you in the car. “Dogs apparently don’t have a good grasp of the physics of motion,” comments the doctor. “From their perspective, they’re sitting still in their territory, and other dogs are moving by on their land. It’s as if they’re standing still in their front yard and another dog is running by without giving due respect. For them, everything out the window is theirs.” But from the moving car, the same thing happens as with the mailman. When they bark like crazy, the other dog “goes away.” Works every time, which makes it “very reinforcing,” Dr. Borns-Weil says.
Dogs are very much like Boston drivers, she notes. “On the street, they may be very polite. But behind the window of the car, they’re shaking their fists and hurling swear words, so to speak. They’re safe behind glass to express their emotions as freely as they want.”
It may not matter to you that your dog starts going berserk when you’re driving and he decides to put a dog on the street “in his place.” After all, that’s not really a personal encounter. But you may want to get your dog to act calmly when the mailman comes.
If you’re home when the mail arrives, you can go through the “Sit” routine or employ a “No bark” cue. But you can also take the opportunity to turn an agitating situation into a wonderful one. For instance, you can leave a jar of biscuits by the front door and ask the mail carrier to drop one through the slot upon arrival. That way, your canine pal will come to realize that the mail arriving is a good thing, something he doesn’t have to be concerned about or feel responsible to take care of, and the anticipation of the treat will brighten his day. It’s especially nice if you’re at work when the mail is dropped off. It gives your pet an opportunity to have a nice interaction that breaks up the alone time.
4. Licking you. Is it kissing? Is it something else? And perhaps more important, do you like it?
Not all animal behaviorists would necessarily agree, but Dr. Borns-Weil believes a dog’s licking his owner can most definitely be an affectionate gesture, a bonding behavior. Dogs don’t have lips the way we do, so they can’t make that smacking sound. Licking is the next best thing.
Dogs also learn to lick as a way of appeasing. It starts when they’re puppies. They lick their mothers to get them to regurgitate what they ate; it allows a young dog to eat the already chewed, partially digested food more comfortably. Later on, they may lick deferentially when they’re nervous as a kind of “don’t hurt me” strategy.
“Like all behaviors, it has to be seen in its context,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “Sometimes it’s appeasement, sometimes it affection, and sometimes it’s licking steak off your face.”
If you don’t mind it, fine. If you do, you can train a licking dog to engage in an alternate behavior that is incompatible with licking as a way of counter-conditioning. For instance, when a dog starts to lick, you can tell him to sit to get petted. That way, he doesn’t feel rebuffed and in fact gets reassured.
Dr. Borns-Weil personally likes when her dog licks her. “To me it’s one of the enjoyable parts of having a dog,” she says. “Some studies also show that people who get their faces licked by dogs are less likely to get sick.” But she understands that some people just don’t cotton to the behavior and feels it’s okay to train your dog out of it — respectfully and without annoyance.
5. Taking his food far from his bowl before eating it. “Dogs can be funny, ritual creatures,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “and some of their behaviors can have an almost compulsive quality to them.” Taking food away from the bowl to eat it privately in another area of the house can be one of them. Her colleague Dr. Dodman (see page 3 story) even talks of a dog who put a piece of kibble on top of the button in every single tuft of a couch back and replaced the pieces as he ate them. There always had to be a full “set.”
That behavior clearly was compulsive and nothing else, but sometimes there is a tactical component. “A dog may want to get his food away from others because he doesn’t want anybody else to get it,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “He doesn’t want to have to look over his shoulder as he eats.” It is believed by some that a dog who sees himself as relatively low in his social group may be even more inclined than others to move his food to another spot out of fear that some other dog could come and take away his meal. Perhaps in the wild, he would have waited his turn to grab his share of the kill, then run away with his allotment to protect it from any possible usurpers. Maybe in today’s world, where your dog doesn’t have to worry about getting enough to eat, the behavior can seem a little paranoid. But what does it matter, as long as he isn’t dragging wet food from your kitchen onto your priceless Persian rug in the parlor?
6. Eating grass. “My dog Dobby, a rat terrier mix, eats grass,” Dr. Borns-Weil relates. “She loves to graze. She has her favorite spots.” Why do dogs do it?
“Sometimes they eat grass when they’re sick because it has emetic qualities that will promote vomiting,” explains Dr. Borns-Weil. “A lot of wild animals eat grass, too. It may be a natural anti-parasitical in addition to calming GI upset. That is, a dog might be protecting his gut by eating grass in that the behavior could move harmful parasites through the GI tract more quickly.
Our pet dogs don’t need to do that, of course. We give them de-worming medications like heartworm drugs to keep them safe from parasites that like to take up residence in dogs’ gastrointestinal systems. But dogs may be drawn to eating grass like many animals in the wild, who carry huge parasitic loads that they need to deal with. That is, it may be “an old, atavistic behavior that comes from a time when dogs didn’t have people to keep their guts free from harmful organisms,” Dr. Borns-Weil posits. “It seems like a good possibility,” she says, “because grass doesn’t have a lot of calories or other nutritional value.”
Then there’s the possibility that because some dogs go at it with gusto, they simply happen to like the taste. The end of the grass that’s closer to the ground can taste a little bit sweet — something many dogs enjoy.
7. Digging. “Some dogs, like terriers, are pretty much hard wired to dig,” says Dr. Born-Weil. “It’s part of the canid behavioral toolbox. Certainly coyotes will dig in the ground because they’re also insectivores; they’re searching for food. But because dogs are social animals and acutely aware of others in their ‘society,’ they dig to hide things as well. ‘I want something for myself. I better carry it away and hide it.'”
Of course, if the special object is a chewed up piece of rawhide that has been slobbered all over and the place your dog digs to hide it is your couch cushion, you may not find the behavior so benign. If that describes life in your home, Dr. Borns-Weil says, you may want to give your pet treats that can be consumed in one bite rather than gnawed at over time. It doesn’t just help keep your couch and other stuffed furniture neat and clean. It helps the dogs, too. Feeling the need to hide something valuable creates worry in a dog, she comments. ‘I’ve got this great thing, but I don’t want to eat it now, but if I leave it out, that’s no good, either, because someone else can come along and eat it….’
Another option for owners of diggers is giving a dog a place to dig, like a sandbox. Because it’s an intrinsically rewarding behavior that’s hard to shut down, coming naturally in many dogs’ behavioral repertoires, you can provide an outlet that won’t interfere with the look of your dcor. It’s a way of saying to your dog, “Dig, but dig here, not there.”
That said, Dr. Borns-Weil advises that “if you really care about your garden or the state of your cushions or bedding, don’t get a digging breed like a cairn terrier.”
8. Pawing and barking for attention. This one isn’t hard to figure out. Your dog is frustrated that he’s not getting more interactive time with you and doesn’t have any other way of asking for it. You can’t tell him, “Inside voice” or say to him “Use your words,” Dr. Borns-Weil remarks. The solution isn’t to get him to ask more politely, anyway. It’s to address the issue of your dog not getting enough stimulation from you.
“Try approaching your dog to play before he approaches you,” Dr. Borns-Weil advises. Don’t make him whine for attention. “Meeting your dog’s basic needs for exercise and mental stimulation is so important,” she says. “If you’re not paying attention until your dog is standing in your face, insisting that you take note of him, he’s going to prefer the negative attention you might give him for his behavior than no attention whatsoever.”
Dr. Borns-Weil acknowledges that it can be hard to muster the energy to play with your dog when you may be worn out from so many other competing demands. After all, evening, when you can finally relax in front of the TV, is the time many dogs beg for attention. But playing with your dog, teaching him new tricks, loving him up, is just as critical to his well-being as regular meals and walks.