Many dog behaviors are downright baffling. We’ve all noticed our canine friends chasing their tails, barking at the mailman, or hiding when a thunderstorm rolls in. It’s kind of weird.
Then there’s their strange, humanlike qualities, like their seeming desire to love and be loved or their shame after seeing how mad you are that they’ve used your favorite shoes as a toilet.
What is a dog’s reality? What motivates him to chase his tail, booty-scoot, or kiss you directly on the mouth? Can he recognize himself in a mirror? Does he love you or does he just want your leftover steak tips? These questions have driven the research of the Duke Canine Cognition Center for the past 20 years.
“[Dogs] have a rich understanding of their world, which allows them to be flexible problem solvers,” the center’s website says. “Some of their skills even resemble those we see in young children.”
While it would be easy to attribute dog quirks to their wild roots, the truth is that dog behavior is a fascinating mixture of these ancestral tendencies and human socializing. If you want a better understanding of your four-legged friend, read on.
As you might have guessed, howling is an evolutionary trait. Wolves, dogs’ canine brethren, howl to tell other members of their packs where they are, to mark their territory, or for social reasons. It’s one way to say, “I’m here, so consider yourself warned.”
But domesticated dogs don’t really need to howl. It’s more of a residual instinct, and the truth is, we’re not entirely sure why the behavior has stuck around. But, as the American Kennel Club notes, “Whether your dog is howling for friends, barking for fun, or baying during the hunt, it’s not so important to ask why they are doing it, but rather to listen [to] what your dog is trying to tell you.”
The American Kennel Club lists a number of possible reasons why your dog might be howling. Some motivations, they say, are pretty straightforward: your dog wants attention, your dog wants to let you know you’re in danger, your dog wants to communicate with other dogs, or your dog wants to respond to high-pitched noises like sirens.
Dogs, like kids, often find any attention rewarding—even if it’s negative attention.
But there are a few categories of howls that may require some intervention or further investigation: separation anxiety howls often paired with other repetitive and potentially destructive behaviors, medical condition howls that indicate some kind of injury or illness, and excessive noise-response howls that annoy the crap out of you and your neighbors.
If you’ve ruled out loneliness and depression (please play with your dog!) and injury, you might need to show some tough love by simply refusing to engage with attention-seeking howling. “To avoid accidentally rewarding your dog when he howls, totally ignore him as soon as he starts making noise,” advises WebMD.
Sometimes when I get home I ignore my dogs because then they start howling and yelling at me and it’s heckin cute
— Nicole Johnson (@nicolepaige44) March 24, 2018
“Don’t look at him, touch him or speak to him. Don’t try to scold him either. Dogs, like kids, often find any attention rewarding—even if it’s negative attention. So scolding your dog might make his howling behavior worse! Just pretend your dog is invisible. If you find it difficult to do this, try folding your arms across your chest and turning away from him completely.”
2. Chasing Their Tails
Puppies start chasing their tails for the exact reason that you think they do: They’re confused.
Your little one might not realize that his tail is a part of his body. “Pups consider the tail as a toy rather than anatomy,” Lynn Buzhardt, doctor of veterinary medicine, wrote for VCA Animal Hospitals. “Youthful tail chasing is usually a passing phase that doesn’t require intervention.”
But if you reward your pupper (by laughing, for instance) when he’s on tail patrol, you might reinforce the behavior, and it could continue as he ages. The dog may start chasing its tail in an effort to draw your attention. “Tail chasing is an invitation … for you to take notice and play with him,” wrote Buzhardt. “Obviously he prefers that you chuckle at his antics, but even scolding qualifies as attention so a reprimand serves as positive reinforcement of the behavior.”
Be sure, also, that you’re spending enough time socializing with and exercising your dear doge, as the restlessness that brings on behaviors like tail chasing can be brought on by too much time spent alone and unstimulated in tight quarters. “Some dogs weary of lying on the sofa staring at four walls,” wrote Buzhardt.
Dogs can also begin chasing their tails for medical reasons, so if a dog suddenly develops this behavior, Buzhardt advises scheduling a visit to the vet. “Dogs will also chase their tails when they are infested with intestinal parasites like tape worms that migrate out the rectum,” Buzhardt warned. That fervent donut-ing might have more to do with a dog’s attempt to itch its booty because of fleas or food allergies. “In addition, discomfort in the tail area due to impacted anal glands or neurological problems affecting the caudal spine often cause dogs to nip at their tails.”
Finally, your dog may have OCD. Yes, you read that right. A study published in the research journal PLOS ONE revealed that some of the same mechanisms that drive human obsessive compulsive disorders, including genetic and environmental factors, might be to blame for compulsive behaviors in your dog like the chasing of lights, shadows, or their own tails.
3. Barking at Reflections
Dogs aren’t capable of recognizing themselves in the mirror—that’s why puppies often mistake their mirror images for other puppies. As they age, however, they learn to ignore their reflections. We know, it’s sad to see this silly behavior go, but since a reflection is just a free-floating waste of time not attached to anything else your doggo can make sense of, know that when he leaves the mirror, he’s making an adult decision.
For more information on this habit (and also to see some dogs acting pretty silly), watch our video below:
As Marc Bekoff points out in his book, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, “Odors and sounds are very important in the worlds of many animals.” Sometimes these are the primary ways through which they make sense of their worlds. “Many mammals differentiate between their own and others’ urine and glandular secretions, and many birds know their own and others’ songs,” for example.
Sick of seeing your dog chat with himself? Want him to, say, chat with you? Good for a lonely lunch break or a cross-country vacation, PetChatz HD allows for two-way audio and video communication between you and your dog. It also allows you to reward them for entertaining by dispensing a treat.
4. Walking in Circles Before Lying Down
This behavior is another holdover from ancient canines. Wild dogs didn’t have access to all the cushioning (or cushiness) of modern house life, so they had to make their doggy beds from the earth, stamping down tall grasses and whatever else was in their way.
“This behavior was hard-wired into the dog’s ancestors as a way to build a safe ‘nest,'” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist who specializes in the roles of animals in society, told LiveScience. “In the wild, the circling would flatten grasses or snow and would drive out any snakes or large insects. I have also heard that circling the area and thus flattening it leaves a visible sign to other dogs that this territory has been claimed.”
Some dogs will also try to “dig” at cushions or pillows, owing to the same instinct; their ancestors would dig to create comfy napping places or dens for raising their young. “Sleeping in a den protects the young pups from extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) and from predators,” according to WebMD. “Our pet dogs share the desire to sleep in and under things that resemble a den. They often dig at the ground and circle before lying down, as though they’re trying to make a softer resting place.”
Thankfully, you can give your dog a nice, comfortable place to lie down with this orthopedic pet bed—no digging required. You won’t be mad at the removable, machine-washable cover.
5. Sitting on Your Feet (And Other Weird Ways Your Dog Tries to Touch You)
Ever wondered why your dog sits (or stands) on your feet? What about why, during a walk, she hugs your legs with her body, making you almost you trip over her? Or the thing she does (even during the hot summer nights!) where she basically tries to sleep on top of you like a living dog comforter—why?
… dogs—pack animals that they are—are fond of close contact as a safety measure, and you’ve got a great rationale for your dog’s lean-on-a-leg approach to life.
“Some animal behavior authorities would have you believe your dog is trying to dominate you with her weight,” said Patty Khuly, VMD, in a video for vetstreet.com. “Others might say you’re being manipulated by a poorly socialized, misbehaving suck-up who knows just how to push your buttons.”
But, said Khuly, that’s probably not true. “In most cases, this is affection-seeking behavior, plain and simple. Dogs love to cuddle. And if the person you want to cuddle with is always sitting and standing, then cuddling takes the form of leaning on her or sitting on her shoes as she taps away at the keyboards or whatnot.”
There’s also, Khuly said, an element of instinctual safety-seeking. “Add [dogs’ love of cuddles] to the fact that dogs—pack animals that they are—are fond of close contact as a safety measure, and you’ve got a great rationale for your dog’s lean-on-a-leg approach to life.”
Yes, it’s adorable; your dog is awesome.
6. The Old Booty-Scoot
As funny as it may look, if your dog sits down on the carpet and skootches herself along, it might be time for a trip to the groomer—or even the vet. This butt-scratching behavior suggests that your dog has an itchy backside.
That may be a sign of a health problem. More likely, it’s just an unruptured gland or two in the anus, which, if you remember from the tail-chasing section, is a thing that dogs have. Not to get too gross, but your dog has a pair of glands that give her poop a little special something. We’re tempted to call it “flavor,” but that is sick. It’s more of an odor, which is still sick.
The worst thing a dog can do is scoot there booty on the carpet 😒
— EvanNicole (@SincerelyEvan) January 8, 2014
“In dogs, [these] sacs are considered vestigial, sort of like the human appendix,” wrote Denise Flaim for the Whole Dog Journal. “When marking and defending boundaries were crucial for canine survival, they likely had a key role, adding a dog’s unique and identifying scent to his excrement; today, salutatory butt-sniffing might very well be an evolutionary remnant of that territorial imperative. Another theory is that the liquid in the … sacs lubricates hard stool, making it easier for the dog to eliminate.”
Sometimes these glands get clogged and fill up with that special ingredient. That’s when some dogs will take to scooting along the floor liked little furry hoverboards. That means it’s time for a trip to the groomer, who might be able to express those glands, or to the veterinarian, who can tell you if there’s a bigger problem at play. Either way, don’t just take video for your social media feed. That animal is suffering!
7. Doggy Kisses
If a random dog runs up and starts tonguing your face, full-slobber, you’re more likely to think it’s gross than cute. But when your own dog does the same thing, you’re thrilled to get a “kiss.”
But what’s the motivation behind these face-licking (sometimes right-in-the-mouth) smooches? There are a few possible explanations.
“The most obvious reason for this behavior is that it’s a display of dog-like submission,” Khuly wrote in an article for the Miami Herald. “Dogs lick each others’ faces, particularly around the mouth, by way of indicating that they’re of a lower social status. These social cues are important for dogs in a pack setting to help establish a solid social structure with a minimum of pack-destabilizing strife.”
Additionally, dog mothers lick their babies for social and hygienic purposes. Given that dog-human relationships often mimic pack, or familial, ties, it computes that these behaviors would carry over, wrote Khuly.
“It’s also been proposed that in their long relationship with humans (at least 10,000 years), dogs have learned that licking equals affection, an act that buys them more of the same (and often happens in association with food),” she wrote.
Love the kisses but hate dog breath? Try some of these breath-freshening dog treats.
8. The Stare-Bear
Does your fuzzy-faced best friend sit and stare directly at you with a heartbreakingly earnest expression on his face? If so, you’re a lucky pet owner. That expression of longing is exactly what it looks like. (Be careful if a dog gives you what some call the “hard stare,” however, since eye contact can be a sign of aggression.)
Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone,” is well-known for its role in forging connections between people. The neuropeptide is released while holding hands with someone you love and breastfeeding, just to name a couple bonding activities. But could oxytocin be responsible for interspecies bonding—and could the stare-bear play a role?
As Khuly mentioned, researchers believe that humans have made an impact on the evolution of dogs. Some hypothesize that dogs have evolved in ways that facilitate their bonds with humans—and that’s unique.
“Comparisons of humans and dogs before and after they interact with each other have revealed notable increases in circulating oxytocin … in both species,” Evan L. MacLean and Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologists and researchers at the Duke Canine Cognition Center, wrote in Science Magazine. “In addition, exogenous administration of oxytocin causes dogs to initiate more social contact with other dogs and humans, and allows dogs to tune into human social cues even more faithfully.”
this service dog is just laying here next to me staring up at me at a coffee shop and I’m doing everything in my power to ignore it because I don’t want to distract it but like STOP IT I CANT HANDLE YOUR CUTENESS pic.twitter.com/LnsHoTeOZ8
— ashley (@therealashL) May 3, 2018
“These findings suggest not only an interspecies effect of oxytocin, but also the exciting possibility of a feedback loop.” That feedback loop is the ability for dogs and humans to pump up each other’s “love hormone,” which is exactly what’s seen when mothers and babies are bonding.
MacLean and Hare referenced a 2015 study that examined this notion of a special human-dog oxytocin feedback loop—and the role staring has in promoting it. Researchers observed 30-minute interactions between people and their pets. What they found was that after prolonged eye contact between participants and their dogs, oxytocin concentrations in both participants increased, confirming that oxytocin plays a big role in those long, tender stares between dogs and their humans.
“[The researchers] demonstrated that dog owners whose dogs gazed at them the most had the largest change in urinary oxytocin after interacting with their canine companions,” wrote MacLean and Hare. “Their dogs, in return, experienced a similar oxytocin increase, the magnitude of which correlated with that of the owner.”
Interestingly, wolves and the owners who raised them did not show the same results. The researchers concluded that this biological mechanism for bonding with people was a unique trait in dogs—a result of evolutionary adaptations brought on by their relationships with humans.
Not everyone agrees with this conclusion. But, programmed by nature to love us or not, we love dogs and all the wacky things they do.