Animal Psychology Module 2

Normal Dog Behaviour

Behaviors that you find strange or annoying could be perfectly normal in the dog or cat world. In this module we will help you understand what is normal so you can distinguish normal behavior from what needs to be addressed.

What you will learn in this module:

2.1 Socialization

2.1.1 Packs or family groups?

2.2 How intelligent are dogs?

2.2.1 Learning ability

2.2.2 Problem solving ability

2.2.3 Communication intelligence

2.2.4 Associated learning

2.3 Juniors and Seniors – puppies and elderly dogs

2.4 Habits – licking, digging, jumping, chewing and more

2.1 Socialization

A dog’s social group includes the family or household it lives with and other dogs they socialize with regularly. Dogs are not born instinctually friendly to humans. They learn that it is safe to be among us. This is one reason why your pet’s beginnings are so important. A dog needs to be introduced to friendly and caring human behavior when it is a young puppy. This allows them to easily integrate and learn that it is safe to accept us as friends. Another gentle reminder is to avoid ‘manufactured’ dogs and breeding for the wrong motives.

Puppies that learn fear and anxiety at a young age often carry these as default dispositions. It can take a lot of time and focused attention for them to ‘unlearn’ this message about the human social world – to trust and be comfortable with people. In 1961, Science magazine published a study on the social development of dogs – the bond formed between man and dog. It reported that puppies who were introduced to loving human care between three and eleven weeks old, when they were still with their mothers, were instantly friendly toward humans throughout their lives.

When trying to understand true domestic dog mentality, the most widely used model is that of the hierarchy of the wolf pack. This model believes that dogs’ motivations are centered around dominance, submission, and competition. It concludes that a dog’s motivation for establishing social relationships is predominantly focused on having needs met and surviving. It is what underpins most dog training and approaches to behavior modification.

2.1.1 Packs Or Family Groups?

Pack hierarchy, dominance, and submission can be found in wolf packs. We can take many valuable lessons from observing this type of social behavior. There are other theories about how dogs relate to each other that contributes to our understanding of their behavior.

A study carried out in Bengal on wild dogs that live freely and unhindered or ‘owned’ by the human inhabitants around them showed different traits. They appeared to organize themselves in family groups rather than packs. They lived in a more harmonious coexistence with other family groups. Unlike wolf packs that largely avoided other packs and fought aggressively if in close contact. Yes, there was some aggression between groups from time to time but it was not routine. They did not seem to be motivated by a desire to dominate or displace neighbors, even though they were all essentially in competition with each other for food. ‘Leader of the pack’ was not a defined position.

It is possible that thousands of years of domestication have conditioned dogs to accept that they can live in relative affability with one another, and with humans. They have adapted their instincts to understand that they can live among a large group with a centralized food supply that is shared.

A study was done on a large group of dogs in a sanctuary in order to observe their relationships. They did not show any tendency to form a wolf-type pack based on hierarchy and dominance. They tended to pair in buddies of two with other adult dogs they did not previously know.

We do agree that certain principles from the pack mentality are useful in creating a safe and workable environment that you and your pet can share. Moreover, we remain open to seeing where the domesticated dog shows little or none of these desires for domination and submission. Competition for food, yes!

2.2 How Intelligent Are Dogs?

The level of intelligence and ability to learn among dogs is a constant fascination to dog lovers, owners, and those who work with dogs. Some researchers believe that the intelligence of dogs has co-evolved with humans due to the long history of sharing our lives.

There is a tendency to try to compare a dog’s level of ability with that of children or adults. This is not a very useful way to understand them. We have a multitude of abilities they will never have. They have several useful abilities we are not up to, like detecting a bomb or drugs just by using their sense of smell.

As far back as the 12th century, studies have been done to assess dogs’ cognitive abilities, such as the puzzle box experiments of Edward Thorndike. In the 19th century a Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov also did extensive research.

Dogs’ intelligence may be divided into three areas:

  • Learning ability
  • Problem solving ability
  • Communication intelligence

2.2.1 Learning Ability

Dogs have inherited flexible brains from their ancestors – in other words, they have an innate ability to learn new things and add to their store of knowledge about the world. They are adaptable to their environments. They add learning from experiences to their overall understanding of the world. If they come across someone who treats them badly, they will learn wariness. Being surrounded with positive experiences means they learn trust.

2.2.2 Problem Solving

This is the ability to mentally come up with a solution to a problem. This is less developed in dogs and can often be a challenge. Levels of problem solving abilities vary among different breeds. The Border collie is known for their well-developed problem solving abilities.

It is not quite problem solving but dogs and cats have a natural ability to mentally map large territories. Many people can tell remarkable stories of members of both species finding their way home over long and complicated terrain. However, through lack of use, this keen sense of direction is not exercised among domesticated pets. Dogs and cats do instinctively patrol, investigate, and mark their territory showing the basis of this ability.

2.2.3 Communication Intelligence

Gun-dogs such as Labradors are chosen because they have shown an excellent capacity for intelligent communication with owners. Dogs largely communicate through body language and scent. Some dogs like this breed show an unusual willingness and ability to respond to vocal commands from people. They have long attention spans and can show persistence by concentrating on a task for long periods.

2.2.4 Associated Learning

Dogs and cats often work things out on the basis of association, rather than cognitively working it out through problem solving. This is part of the learning ability we spoke about in 2.2.1. Associative learning happens when two previously unconnected events become connected in the pets’ mind. If they hear the sound of a bowl being placed on a floor then food appears. If you bring their leash then they will get to go on a walk. If they hear the sound of a doorbell then another person will come in.

This association technique can also work with negative experiences. A dog that was hurt in a certain spot will probably want to avoid that particular area. It is used to teach dogs to remain inside a boundary by creating an aversion. Pet fences work by emitting a small electric shock when a pet wearing a programmed collar gets close to the boundary. The radio signal programs the association between proximity to the boundary and pain. The collar makes a beeping sound just before the shock is introduced allowing more learning from association, and avoiding the need for the electric shock.

Owners need not worry about the dog sitting and reflecting on this kind of experience – they do not think about it; they just respond. They will not take offense, honestly!

For associated learning to work, the two associated experiences must happen within seconds of each other. If you try to let a dog know your displeasure for certain behavior, you are wasting your time unless you are on the spot at the time they perform the offending act. For example, if you come home to find the leg of your expensive table chewed to bits, do not expect that the dog will understand why you are upset. If they were busy gnawing an hour earlier, they will have long forgotten about it. They will not be able to connect your reaction with their action. Even if your beautiful feather cushion is still floating around the room and you speak angrily or put them outside brusquely, they may not get the connection. They cannot mentally time-travel, go back to when they were having fun, and put that together with your upset mood. The dog will not have a clue as to why you are upset. They may become progressively more anxious and stressed if they associate your arriving home with anger for, in their eyes, no reason.

One exception to the time span in associated learning is with food. If a dog comes across spoiled animal flesh on a walk, eats it, and half an hour later gets sick, this is integrated in his learning; useful survival intelligence.

Domestication has made dogs and cats more responsive and attentive to humans than any other animal, whether wild or domesticated. It is clear that in forming the bonds and interdependence that we have; we have shaped their cognitive evolution.

2.3 Juniors And Seniors – Puppies And Elderly Dogs

0 – 2 WEEKS

When puppies are born, they rely almost totally on their senses of touch, taste, and smell for the first two weeks. This is referred to as the neonatal period. They have a strong instinct to stay exactly where they are – with their mother and the litter. That is where a large amount of vital, survival learning is done.

3 – 11 WEEKS

Socialization, the next stage in a puppy’s life, is between three and eleven weeks old. It is the point at which the basic learning of socialization with other dogs, and humans is largely formed for the remainder of their life. The characteristics of the mother are slotted into the ‘parenting’ development and learning capacity, and will stay ingrained for life. It will provide information for the puppy on a myriad of things concerning social engagement within its species.

Because dogs clearly have a capacity for multiple socialization categories, people are also able to ‘program’ a social response protocol at this time. It is also possible later but does not happen as easily or quickly. In a way, we act as a substitute parent/teacher. This is less of an influence up to about 6-8 weeks old but when weaning occurs around this time that influence becomes stronger.

From then on the attachment to humans continues to grow stronger, and is reinforced every day through feeding, playing, training, and rewarding. Similarly, attachment to their siblings, and lessons learned from their litter is strongest during the first 12 weeks while they live in close proximity. After that, a dog’s opportunity to interact with and reinforce attachments to other dogs is vastly outweighed by interaction with people.

6 – 8 WEEKS

At weaning age, bitches will start to leave puppies for longer periods of time. It is beneficial to allow them to live together until puppies are 12 weeks old. If your breeder arranges for you to pick up a puppy before this time, insist on waiting. The learning gained and social skills developed are invaluable. The puppies learn how to send and receive signals. Through play, they know the boundaries around biting and wrestling without inflicting harm. They learn coordination and generally how to be a grown up dog.

5 – 9 WEEKS

Between 5 and 7 weeks, a puppy gets very inquisitive and is drawn to explore their immediate environment, venturing further as they grow. Being in a place where their experiences are positive is a big advantage. By now, all of their senses are available though they will sharpen considerably as they develop. From 7 to 9 weeks old, physical development is noticeable. Although it is early for many pups, house training can start at this time.

8 – 12 WEEKS

Once curious instinct and physical mobility have developed, the puppy learns to be independent of its mother and litter. They want to explore new environments, and know that they can return back to safety at any time. Reactions and social skills are being refined while they learn what to be cautious of. Puppies become more responsive to people and other dogs. While the formative learning is done up to 12 weeks, they will go on being receptive to new experiences and learning well into adulthood.

3 – 6 MONTHS

This is big play time with other dogs or with children and adults. Puppies may show signs of dominance, submission or just a willingness to please and integrate. Teething happens – loss of tiny baby teeth in favor of bigger, stronger ones. Chewing is plentiful. Provide plenty of safe things to chew and limit access to anything you would like to keep free from mangling!

6 – 18 MONTHS

This is adolescence for a dog. They will start to be more assertive. Chewing can continue through this time. Sexual behavior may also become obvious depending on whether they are spayed or neutered. For males, this includes territory marking, mounting, and aggression. For females, this includes going into heat when she attracts the attention of male dogs from far and wide.


As their lifespan is much shorter than ours, we are likely to see a dog through their full life-cycle. Ageing differs between breeds. Smaller breeds tend to live longer and age slower. Whereas, large breeds age more quickly and live shorter lives. Once a dog reaches around 8 years of age, they are considered an older dog.

Naturally, older dogs become less active, sleep more, and play less. Their need for exercise diminishes and often health issues can become an issue. Their senses can start to be less efficient including sight, hearing, and smell. Temperaments can also change. Some dogs turn into cuddly balls of fur wanting attention, affection, and stroking as often as they can. Others may become less sociable, more irritable, and less tolerant. Sometimes, this can be due to painful joint problems or fearfulness.

Keep up a routine of regular walking, even if it is reduced, some playtime, and giving nutritious food to help your dog through aging. Weight gain can be an effect of growing older and being less active. Adjust their diet accordingly. Veterinarians will weigh a dog at regular intervals, even outside of visits, without charge. Try to avoid any big changes in the dog’s life or environment as much as possible because these can be stressful or confusing to an older dog.

2.4 Habits – Licking, Digging, Jumping, Chewing, and More


The main reason dogs use licking is to groom themselves. They learned this early in their lives when their mother licked them clean after birth to stimulate the breathing process, and on occasions throughout puppy-hood. They also lick to clean wounds.

In packs, subordinate dogs tend to lick the more dominant dogs to groom them.

As puppies are nearing weaning age they start to learn to eat solid food as well as drink milk. They lick their mother’s mouth, and sometimes the father’s as a signal they want them to regurgitate food to share with them. Scientists believe this is behind their tendency to go on trying to lick people’s mouths throughout their life. It is a survival instinct they learned early.

It is difficult to say definitively but most owners will testify to knowing their dogs licking is a sign of affection, and it is very likely that it is. Dogs lick their owners and familiar people excitedly when they have not seen them for a while.

Dogs also gather a lot of information by licking, much like through scent. This could be another reason they want to lick. Undoubtedly, the taste of salt and sebum secreted through our skin’s hair follicles is another big draw to licking bare human skin. As many patient owners experience a good licking all over legs, arms, and any exposed skin. Licking releases endorphins in dogs, the feel-good biochemical, so it is pleasurable, and comforting.


We do not need to explain that digging is definitely natural dog behavior.

There are a few reasons your dog likes to dig:

  • Boredom
  • To bury food
  • To escape their confined space
  • To make a den

Hoarding food by burying it is easy to explain. Even though domesticated dogs have a guaranteed supply of food, dog instinct does not know that. If a dog has more than he needs at any time; he could decide to stash some for leaner times. They are particularly inclined to hoard bones. They often run back indoors with a surprise find – a previously stashed bone discovered during a boredom dig, and they settle down for a satisfying chew.

If your dog is a habitual digger, you can prevent this in areas you would prefer him not to dig by putting down chicken wire. Try to provide some space where digging is allowed to satisfy his urge. If it is due to boredom, that calls for more playtime, walks, and entertainment. If this is a struggle for you, look for pet sitters and dog walkers in your area. It may not cost very much and you and your pet will be happier.


We put these together as they are related behaviors. When dogs meet, they greet and get information about each other by sniffing – first noses, then under tails. They offer this facility to each other easily in almost all cases. It is natural, normal, and unstoppable in the dog world.

When it comes to greeting and looking for information from humans, they naturally are inclined to do the same – try to sniff your nose and your crotch. This behavior is not very appealing to humans. First of all, we do not want them to do this. Secondly, jumping up to reach a person’s face is very unacceptable to most people and they are in danger of knocking over children, the elderly, and smaller people.

Address this tendency early by instructing your dog to sit and wait at the first sign of their instinct to sniff a crotch or jump up. Reward sitting with praise and/or a treat. Then, turn away to remove attention and they will soon learn by association to stop doing this.

Dogs often jump on people as an expression of excitement, greeting, and affection. Even if you are ok with it, it is best to train your dog not to jump in order to be courteous to others.


Again, it is a perfectly natural, necessary instinct, and stage of development. It is only a problem because they live in human environments. Puppies start chewing at around 4 months and can go through more extreme chewing between 6 and 12 months. Like babies, it is mostly due to soothing sore and annoying gums. It also helps to strengthen growing teeth.

Puppies cannot distinguish between what they are allowed to chew on and what they are not. They would never have limits on this in a purely dog world so it is up to you to put boundaries in place. Limit your canine to a certain area where they cannot get at precious things like expensive table legs. Give plenty of toys or things that are safe, and satisfying to chew. Do not give things that resemble stuff you do not want to end up between their jaws – like an old shoe. They will naturally think shoes are fair game and you may find a new expensive pair has been given the chewed-up look.

If you cannot or do not want to restrict your dog from everything that is a likely target for chewing then look for sprays that are designed to dispense an offensive taste on them. Check the ingredients, though and avoid nasty ones.


Many dogs eat grass when out on their walks even though they are largely carnivores. Scientists believe the reasons for this are to relieve tummy symptoms, and to get natural roughage into their diets.


This is one of the most unpleasant of dogs’ instincts. They may do this in order to wear the scent of a possible predator, and disguise their own. Moreover, they may do it to wear the scent of an object of prey so they can get closer to them without being recognized. It is also a way to take back information to the family group or pack about a predator or prey.

It could also be because we like dogs to smell nice and clean and have developed a trend of using perfumed products for our sake; dogs do not like these smells. To them, they are just nasty chemical smells. (They are right about the nasty chemical bit). Therefore, they may be trying to get rid of this invasion of their olfactory space by disguising it with a much more acceptable smell to them of a carcass or feces.

To stop this instinct, there are a few things you can do:

  • Avoid using perfumed products on your dog.
  • Watch vigilantly and have a good recall command to intervene if you think it is about to happen. It is usually preceded by intent sniffing at a particular spot. If they respond well to being called, reward this.
  • Distract them with an exciting game.
  • You can get useful items from your pet stores that suddenly interrupt attention, and provide a big enough distraction to dissuade them from their intention, like one that makes an attention grabbing noise.
  • Interrupt the behavior by spraying a little water on their snout.

Well Done!