Animal Psychology Module 5

How Well Do You Know Me?

Dogs are even more fascinating when you know what is behind their strange, endearing, and amusing behavior.

What you will learn in this module:

5.1 Clever digging

5.2 Carrying big sticks

5.3 Tail tucking

5.4 Tail chasing

5.5 Circling

5.6 Belly up – rolling over

5.7 Muzzle grabbing

5.8 Gift giving

5.9 Responses to human gestures

5.1 Clever Digging

Dogs that live in very warm climates learn to adapt. It can be very difficult to keep cool when you are covered in fur especially the double coat type of fur. Lying on the hot ground can sometimes be too much to bear. Therefore, they will always try to find shade.

If they do not have access to shade, like on a beach, dogs know if they dig down, then the sand beneath is a lot cooler to lie on. Clever!

5.2 Carrying Big Sticks

We are not aware of any studies on this behavior in dogs but it is very common. In fact, it is so common that it has led to this wonderful collection of pictures. The pictures show brave dogs carrying sticks that vary from rather large to downright enormous as compared to the size of the dog:

Could it be part of the instinctual practice of picking up prey, and bringing it back to the family group? Could it be a learned behavior of domesticated dogs when they lived on the edges of human settlements thousands of years ago, and were trained to carry firewood back? Or could it be to exercise jaw muscles?

Whatever the reason, most owners find it amusing, endearing, and we think you will love these photos of many brave doggies.

5.3 Tail Tucking

It is common to see a dog tucking their tail between their legs when they are scared or intimidated; mostly by another dog.

As well as giving the message that the dog is non-threatening, there is another reason they do this.

The anal area in a dog is where millions of micro-organisms hold odors that relay a lot of information to other dogs. The odors come from the male or female glands in this area, and also the anal sacs. It is why dogs almost always sniff each other as soon as they meet. They can gather information on age, gender, sexual stage, disposition, and probably much more than we know. When a dog chooses to keep their tail tucked between their legs, they are not just showing a non-threatening, submissive stance.

It is a defensive, protective gesture. The dog does not want to give another dog the opportunity to gather this information about them.

5.4 Tail Chasing

It is usually puppies that have recently been separated from their litters that chase their tails. This suggests that it is a symptom of being without the company they were accustomed to, and they are probably feeling lonely or bored. Tail chasing is their answer to looking for stimulation and occupation.

Dogs that have been subjected to punishment for aggression, as the underlying problem is still unaddressed, can often divert the suppressed urges into obsessive compulsive behaviors including tail chasing.

For a dog to be balanced and happy, they need an appropriate amount of exercise, plenty of opportunities for exploring new places and things, and company for most of the time. A dog that is left in a small space for long periods without stimulation or company can resort to behavior like chasing their own tail.

Wild dogs that have been confined in Zoos show this behavior. It is a symptom of boredom and anxiety – not having enough opportunity to wander, explore, play, and generally engage in the world.

Even when a dog is no longer in these types of conditions, the learned behavior of tail chasing can continue. If you are present when they start chasing their tail, use a gentle interrupting technique to distract them from the habit. You may use a dog distract-er or by spraying a little water at them.

5.5 Circling

Many dogs circle before lying down to sleep. This is a different action than the circling that happens during tail chasing. It is an instinctual habit of preparing a place to settle down to sleep in.

Some dogs scrape and paw their sleeping area, and turn several circles before they are happy to lie down.

In the wild, this would have cleared and flattened the natural environment to make a comfortable patch to lie on. It would also have disturbed, and displaced any small animals that might have been in the immediate area.

5.6 Belly Up – Rolling Over

When puppies are being raised by their mothers, they often roll onto their backs exposing their tummies. This serves two purposes – the mother can groom them, and lick their tummy to stimulate urination. The pups are still unable to do this on their own. It is an infantile instinct.

As a way to appear submissive in order to deflect or diffuse aggression; rolling over is the ultimate gesture. The dog that has rolled over is very clearly giving up power, and is leaving the dominant dog or human to control the situation. Although, some dog experts argue that there is a certain amount of control being exerted by the dog that has rolled over. Moreover, this especially makes sense when a dog goes belly up for their owner or another human.

Dogs who roll over often wag their tails, lick their lips, and dribble urine. This is reminiscent of puppy-hood, and something they used to do with their mother to form an emotional bond and attachment. It invites attention and affectionate gestures. In this way, the dog is trying to ‘control’ the human, and entice a response of affection and loving attention.

Most dogs sleep on their tummies and curl into a ball. There are some that sleep on their backs while showing their tummies with legs in the air – about 5 to 10 percent. This seems to be a result of the security and comfort of domestication. A dog in the wild would never allow himself to be this vulnerable and exposed. Tummy up sleepers clearly feel so secure and happy that they have no need to be protective of themselves!

5.7 Muzzle Grabbing

Muzzle grabbing is a social behavior among dogs. It is not an aggressive or violent behavior.

There is no intention to hurt. It starts when a mother, and sometimes a father, are raising their pups. The mother grabs the pup’s muzzle to let it know when not to suckle or bite. It can be alarming for puppies initially but they soon learn to yield, and act submissively by rolling onto their backs, exposing their bellies. This gesture seems to remain as part of a dog’s social learning, and even beyond puppy-hood.

Younger or softer nature dogs will offer to be muzzle grabbed by an older dog or one with a stronger temperament. It is like an acknowledgement of the relationship status – one dog saying “I’m still the more vulnerable one in this relationship,” and the dog who does the grabbing saying “I’m still the one who can protect and guide you.” This is reassuring to the other dog.

Puppies do this to each other. It is not to hurt but is a play gesture, and possibly to prevent biting. More self-confident pups will usually muzzle grab less assertive ones. It is usually only used between dogs who know each other well, which is an indication that it comes from a social gesture among a family group. It might be done at the end of a minor quarrel in order to settle which one is the dominant one.

In wolf packs, higher ranking wolves muzzle grab other pack members to confirm their position. Lower ranking wolves accept or offer muzzle grabbing to show their acceptance of their social positions, and to be reassured that they are accepted as a member of the pack.

5.8 Gift Giving

When you get back from a trip or when someone familiar comes to visit, it is an endearing gesture when a dog runs to get a toy or bone, and brings it to offer or show. Often, they will drop the bone by your feet, and look up knowing that it will be greeted with approval, gratitude, and affection.

In the wild, carrying and retrieving is part of natural hunting. A mother will carry prey back to the den to feed her pups. Members of a dog family group will do the same for other members of the group they respect and care about.

This is more than likely a left-over instinct from being in the wild. Moreover, in domestication it has become an expression of pleasing, and of expressing love. When it is received by us with excitement and delight it reinforces this habit.

5.9 Responses To Human Gestures

We offer many gestures to our dogs. How do they interpret them?

  • When a dog rolls over and invites a tummy tickle, we usually oblige with an affectionate rub. Some dog experts say there is a sexual element to this pleasure for the dog, and perhaps there is. Whether this is correct or not, dogs certainly seem to interpret this action as a confirmation of the bond of love and affection between them and the people they have an attachment to.
  • Similarly, being scratched behind the ears is received as a pleasurable act by most dogs. They writhe and wriggle in comfort. Ear licking, sniffing, and nibbling are part of the initial stages in dog courtship so it makes sense that it feels nice, and is well received.
  • Rubbing the side of a dogs head is another very popular form of affection for a dog. The dog being indulged will lean in to the hand offering the affection, and lap it up. It seems to be taken as a reassuring gesture.
  • Stroking is like grooming for a dog, and most have an endless capacity for it. As grooming would have been done by a dogs mother, they will feel nurtured, safe, and loved while being stroked. It is no wonder they will ask for more!
  • Hugging is an action that dogs are more than happy to receive. It is a familiar and natural feeling that they experienced often with their litter mates.
  • Patting is felt a little differently by dogs than stroking, and hugging. It is more like the nudging and nuzzling that happens between puppies and mothers or between more submissive and more dominant dogs. The patter in this case is the more submissive one. This action is not enough for the dog to feel dominant over you as long as there is a healthy relationship in place with appropriate boundaries.
  • Pushing your dog away gently is often done in play, and dogs instinctively take it as a signal for play fighting. As in puppy-hood, the dog may engage in pretend biting with no intent to inflict harm. These boundaries around how far they can go will have been learned among their puppy brothers and sisters. Dogs know this is bonding time with loved ones, and also very enjoyable.

Well Done!