Understanding Dogs and Canine Behavior

From "Why do dogs eat grass?" to "Where dogs like to be pet?", we have a slew of answers for questions you might have on your four-legged, faithful friend.

Understanding dogs requires a little study. Everybody knows what dogs are like. But not everybody knows why dogs are like that. Well, what if dogs could tell you the doggone truth about themselves. The facts might surprise you.


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    So, Rover, please answer these questions…

    1.) Why do dogs wag their tails?

    It’s a means of communicating emotion — that’s the main reason I have a tail. A rapid, high wag means I’m excited — could be that I’m happy or could be a sign of aggression, so be careful! Wagging to the right generally expresses positive emotions. But if I wag to the left, beware! A lower, slower wag is usually a sign of submission.

    2.) Why do dogs eat grass?

    I do it for different reasons at different times. When I have nausea or an upset stomach, I can’t wait to get out in the backyard, munch on some tall grass, and maybe make myself throw up. I feel much better afterward. Sometimes, it’s just a satisfying change from my usual dog food.

    There might be some nutrients in that grass that are lacking in my diet. Other times, I eat grass because I’m just plain bored — you can’t spend the entire day scratching and running after tennis balls!

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    3.) Why do dogs drag their butts?

    On each side of my butt, there’s an anal sac. They fill up with fluid sometimes, and it’s kind of annoying. When the fluid doesn’t get expelled, infections can set in and it hurts like heck. Dragging my bum on the grass, on a carpet — whatever — temporarily helps. But you might have to take me to the vet.

    The vet can show you how to expel the fluid yourself, but — trust me — you might just want to let the vet do it (that fluid doesn’t smell so great). There could be other reasons I drag my bum — like diarrhea or parasites — but odds are it’s that darn anal fluid.

    4.) What foods should dogs not eat?

    When it comes to table scraps, I like most everything, but everything doesn’t like me. You’re not doing me any favors by giving me chocolate. It contains a stimulant called theobromine, which can cause vomiting and even seizures. Most nuts are bad for me as well — especially macadamia nuts, which can cause weakness and tremors.

    I’m OK with a few cashews, peanuts, or hazelnuts, but otherwise nuts are off-limits. Grapes are a no-no, as are raisins. They can cause kidney failure. And onions and garlic wreak havoc on my gut. Also kindly keep me away from alcohol, caffeine, blue cheese, and anything containing the artificial sweetener, xylitol.

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    5.) How long do dogs live? — Understanding dogs

    It varies, depending on what breed of dog I am. Generally, the smaller the dog, the longer the life. For example, you can expect Chihuahuas to hang in there for 14 to 18 years.

    At the other end of the scale, Great Danes will usually stay with you for only seven to ten years. That may not seem like much, but remember, we canines know how to make the most of every minute — we pack about seven years of human life into just one year, so we’re not complaining!

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    6.) Why a dog sleeps facing away from me?

    There are a bunch of possible reasons for this, and it depends on the dog. For some of us, it’s an instinctual desire to protect you from oncoming danger — we can do this best with our mouth (bark and bite) facing away from you.

    Also, sharing scents is a sign of friendliness in dogs, and since our scent glands are located in the rear, you can take it as a compliment. Of course, since this is our desired position, we might also be doing it to show our dominance. And if we’re not asleep, there’s a good chance we just want you to scratch our butt!

    7.) Why do dogs pant?

    To cool off, of course. Remember, even in summer we go around wearing a fur coat (not to mention the sweaters and vests you sometimes make us wear). Panting lets us take in more air — it’s kind of like putting coolant in your car.

    A cool drink of water would also probably help us. Sometimes you can tell how hard we’re panting by the number of inches our tongue is hanging out of our mouth. If we pant when it’s cool and we haven’t been running around much, check with your vet — we might be sick.

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    8.) Why are dogs afraid of thunder? — Understanding dogs

    Sure, we’re sensitive to the sound of thunder, and we usually hear faraway thunder before you do. But that’s not the main reason we hate it — if it was just the sound, you wouldn’t have so many dogs that hate thunder but don’t mind fireworks! What really drives a lot of us up the wall is the static electricity that accompanies thunder — it sends electric shocks through us, and that’s about as pleasant as accidentally going through an electric fence!

    That’s why dogs often run to the basement or the bathroom during a thunderstorm. Those areas — especially the bathroom, with its porcelain bathtub — help shield us from the electricity. Putting a jacket or wrap of some kind around us also may lessen the static and the anxiety.

    9.) Understanding Dogs: Do dogs dream?

    Indeed we do. Our dog brains are similar in a lot of ways to your human brains, so it’s no surprise that our dreaming patterns are pretty similar as well We often dream about stuff that happened to us during the day.

    If our legs twitch while we’re dreaming, we might be imagining we’re chasing something (or someone). If our eyeballs move, we may “see” another dog. And if you hear a muffled bark, we may be dreaming about an unwanted intruder. Yes, there are even dog nightmares!

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    10.) Can dogs see color? — Understanding dogs

    Yes and no. I see mainly brown, yellow, blue, and (sigh) gray. When you see a red fire hydrant, I see brown (although it’s obviously still appealing to me!). Your orange is my yellow. And your turquoise turns into a dull gray for me — I’m green with envy!

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    11.) Where do dogs like to be pet, scratched, or rubbed?

    I could tell you what I like, but every dog is a little different in this respect. Odds are your dog will like being scratched on the neck, under his collar, and down from there, on the upper chest. Scratching or tickling the butt and hips will send a lot of us into ecstasy. And rubbing our ears usually feels good, especially if there’s some itchy wax under there. If your dog is submissive or feels very close to you, they may roll onto their back and invite you to rub their belly.

    On the other hand, most dogs are not very fond of pats on top of the head — we can feel threatened. It’s also important to remember that some dogs don’t like being petted, period. Don’t pat strange dogs, and if they freeze, stick their tail between their legs, or look away, you’d best back off. Sure, it feels good to show affection to your own pooch. It lowers our blood pressure — and often lowers theirs.

    But don’t force yourself on us. We’re individuals, just like people. And some of you guys don’t like to cuddle, right? So my best advice is to experiment. Find out what we like by studying our reactions. If we jab at your hand with a paw when you stop petting us, we’re saying “Don’t stop!”

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    12.) Why do dogs bury bones? — Understanding dogs

    Our ancestors were hunters — it was either feast or famine. When we found a tasty morsel, we’d instinctively bury it, so we could go back and get it when we really needed it. Today that instinct is still with us, even though we may never need to go back and get that bone, and even forget all about it! Also, a lot of us dogs simply like to dig, and the bone gives us a reason to do it.

    13.) Why do dogs mark their territory?

    When we sniff another dog’s urine, we know that dog was on that spot. So we want to let other dogs know that we were there as well — it’s the “scents-able” thing to do.

    Similarly, we pee at fire hydrants and bushes, partly because we smell the urine of the other dogs that have been there. Sometimes we’ll even walk up to another dog and pee next to them. It’s not that we’re being rude but just our way of saying “hello.”

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    14.) What happens to dogs after being “fixed”?

    A lot of people believe dogs that have been spayed or neutered get fat and lazy. Silly people! We get fat and lazy because you guys feed us too darn much! What’s important is what doesn’t happen afterward.

    Neutered males are less likely to hump your leg. And spayed females are not going to go into heat and won’t surprise you with a litter of puppies. Don’t wait too long to get your dog fixed. Research suggests that having your female dog spayed before its first heat is likely to result in a healthier adult dog.

    15.) How often do dogs need rabies shots?

    This depends on what state your dog lives in. Some states require a rabies shot every year, while others say every three years. Complicating the situation further is that there are both three-year vaccines and one-year boosters available.

    Research suggests that rabies vaccines may be effective for a lot longer than the advertised interval — and too frequent vaccination may be harmful to your dog’s health. So approach those rabies shots with a questioning attitude, and hope that your vet has the right answers.

    16.) Why do people like dogs more than they like humans?

    This one’s a no-brainer. For one thing, I don’t judge you. If you leave those dirty dishes on the table after dinner, I don’t mind — in fact, I might even help you by jumping up and licking your dirty plate!

    Also, my loyalty is off the charts. Your spouse may divorce you, but I’ll stick it out with you as long as we live. And, of course, I never talk behind your back, mainly because I never talk. As the famous proverb says: “Dogs have so many friends because they wag their tails, not their tongues.”

    Then there’s my sixth sense. All kinds of literature tell us about dogs who warned of their master’s imminent epileptic fit or sensed that a tree was about to topple over before it actually happened. Yes, I’d be very proud to tell you a lot more great things about myself — but pride is a human trait. I’ll just let my actions speak for themselves.

    See, understanding dogs isn’t that hard.

    By Art Novak and Mike O’Halloran

    Art Novak is the author of Doglegs, a novel dedicated to the proposition that canines are superior to humans (who too often act like animals).


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