Decode Your Dog’s Behavior: 17 Dog Behaviors Explained
To better understand the furry goofball you call your best friend, find out what common dog behaviors mean, according to pet experts.
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What is normal dog behavior?
It’s our natural tendency to project human traits and emotions onto dogs, yet we come to expect daily dog zoomies as normal dog behavior. And while we can pick up on things like dog anxiety from dog body language, and understand why dogs howl, some dog behaviors—like rolling in stinky things or barking at nothing—are truly bewildering.
What’s classified as normal dog behavior might surprise you. Here’s what canine experts have to say.
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Barking at the mail carrier
Every day, the mail carrier delivers letters and packages, and every day your dog barks. Does this dog behavior mean your four-legged friend hates postal workers? “Barking at people outside is a protective behavior,” says Gary Richter, DVM, veterinarian and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition. “Dogs see their house as their territory, and anyone approaching or near their territory is a potential threat, so they bark to ward off the intruder.”
Think about it from your dog’s perspective: The mail carrier delivers mail, the dog barks to ward off the intruder, and the mail carrier goes away. It creates a pattern that is reinforced over and over. “From the dog’s perspective, they are saving the house from invasion every day by driving away the invader. We never appreciate their efforts,” Dr. Richter says.
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Nipping and biting
Little love nips from your puppy are sweet and adorable, but if you don’t nip this dog behavior in the bud, it’s a puppy-training mistake you’ll regret when your pet’s adult teeth come in. “Dogs may bite playfully at their owners’ hands or feet because they know it results in them getting attention—even if it is negative attention,” says Jo Gale, DVM, a veterinarian with Mars Petcare. Playful biting can quickly become more serious as dogs become excited or overstimulated.
Biting can also be a result of a dog’s anxiety and stress, or a warning sign your dog is in pain, especially if it nips at you when you touch or move it. As for biting as a form of aggression, you can usually identify it by paying attention to a dog’s facial expression and body language. That’s not always the case, so be sure to turn to the experts. “Always seek veterinary and behavioral advice for biting behavior due to the risks of human injury,” advises Dr. Gale.
Begging for food
“Dogs are, by nature, opportunistic feeders. Most will happily accept any type of food, at any time of day,” says Dr. Gale, who notes that we can’t put all the blame on dogs. “Humans actually reinforce the begging behavior when they react and share their food with the dog. The dog quickly learns that this is a successful tactic to get extra snacks.”
Staring at you and waiting patiently to grab a morsel from the table or a treat after a job well done is an expected and common behavior. Growing puppies, pregnant and nursing dogs, breeds with high energy requirements, and those that exercise a lot may have an increased appetite says, Dr. Gale. “If your pet’s appetite changes or their weight looks to be increasing, be sure to get them checked by your veterinarian to investigate the cause.”
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Peeing and pooping in the house
One of the things veterinarians want you to know about potty training is that you can expect accidents in the house. But what happens when your house-trained dog suddenly starts peeing and pooping inside? It’s not necessarily due to bad behavior. “My biggest concern when I hear this complaint is that your dog may have an underlying medical problem, such as urinary incontinence, inflammatory bowel disease, urinary tract infections, or even kidney failure,” says Dana Varble, DVM, chief veterinary officer with the North American Veterinary Community. It is also important to spay and neuter pets at the age recommended by your veterinarian to reduce the chance of urine marking, which is especially common in male dogs.
Rolling in stinky things
It’s no wonder dogs can smell so many things that humans can’t. They have upward of 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, and humans have a paltry six million. With all those receptors, you would think dogs’ high scent orientation would steer them away from vile and pungent smells, like dead animals, yet it’s like eau de (stinky) parfum to them. “Their opinions about what constitutes an attractive scent are often different from ours,” says Jennifer L. Summerfield, DVM, a veterinarian with Brown Veterinary Service in Wayne, West Virginia. “It’s thought that the behavior of rolling in dead or especially stinky things may have originated as a way of disguising the dog’s scent, which could be useful for hunting.”
Eating gross things
Why do dogs eat poop and other gross things, like rotting food? Just as a dog’s sense of smell is highly advanced, its sense of taste is vastly different from ours. We both like a juicy burger, but dogs find a rotting chicken or even vomit quite tasty. “Dogs originally evolved as scavengers, eating scraps on the periphery of human settlements, and feral dog populations today still manage to survive quite well on less-than-ideal food sources, like trash, roadkill, and other unsavory options,” explains Dr. Summerfield.
So why don’t they get sick when they eat nasty roadkill or expired food? “A dog’s GI tract can process bacteria and other contaminants that would make a human sick and is often able to extract some nutritional value from ‘gross’ things like poop or vomit.” Your dog’s eating habits could also indicate a serious medical condition, so it’s important to know why your dog eats nonfood items, like dirt.
Searching for the perfect place to poop
Dr. Summerfield says there are three possible reasons for this dog behavior. One theory is that your dog is stamping down the grass for a clean place to poop. The second is that it’s scanning the area for predators before it goes. But a study found what may be the most fascinating reason: “A study done in Europe found that dogs tend to align themselves in a north-south position when they poop,” says Dr. Summerfield. Even more interesting, dogs rarely relieved themselves along the east-west alignment. Think your dog’s bathroom requirements are strange? You’ve probably never heard these other unbelievable facts about your dog’s behavior.
Of all the things your dog actually wants from you, you wouldn’t think sniffing human crotches would be one of them. Though this dog behavior presents an awkward situation, it’s totally normal and not something you should be embarrassed about. Dr. Summerfield says dogs collect a lot of vital information via their noses, and the most concentrated sources of pheromones are in the crotch or butt areas, whether you have two legs or four. “Although we might find this behavior socially inappropriate, sniffing the anus or genital areas of another dog is a very polite and normal way to say hello in the canine world, much like shaking hands for humans,” she says.
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Running in their sleep
As you may have guessed, this usually means they’re dreaming, and fortunately, it’s not usually of any medical significance, says Dr. Richter. Still, it makes you wonder what dogs dream about. Probably nothing too weird. Studies have revealed that certain dog breeds acted out their hallmark traits while dreaming, like an English springer spaniel flushing out prey or a pointer “pointing” in its sleep. If all that “running” during sleep seems excessive, Dr. Richter says it could indicate underlying stress or a medical condition. Dogs sleeping too much could be a sign of sickness too, so find out how much dogs usually sleep.
Being aggressive toward other dogs
“Many dogs are anxious or uncomfortable about interacting with other dogs,” says Dr. Summerfield. “This can be due to genetics, negative past experiences, or a lack of adequate early socialization as a puppy.” A dog may lunge forward and bark at another dog to keep it from getting too close—a dog park etiquette no-no you should watch for.
Other dogs may hide or cower behind you, while some just lay down in an overly submissive posture because they’re fearful or uncomfortable with the situation. “It’s not uncommon for a dog to be wary of other dogs but very friendly toward humans—or vice versa,” she says.
Licking faces (and other body parts)
Let’s start with the most licked area of the body: the face. “Licking the face, especially around the mouth, is a normal, friendly greeting behavior that dogs often display toward other dogs when saying hello. This is usually seen as a submissive gesture, a way of saying, ‘Hi there! I’m no threat to you!'” says Dr. Summerfield. So it’s perfectly natural (and adorable) for a dog to lick a human face too.
What about other body parts? As far as feet, fingers, and in between toes: The stronger the smell, the higher the attraction. “This may be due to the higher concentration of scent in these areas, which is also why many dogs are attracted to dirty socks and dirty laundry,” she says.
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Scooting on their butt
The butt scootin’ boogie is a comical dog behavior to watch, but it may also be one of those things dogs do to let you know they’re sick. What’s going on? The answer is kind of gross: They have plugged or infected anal glands.
“Normally, these sacs express their contents, a very pungent-smelling brown fluid, when the dog defecates. But occasionally, the sacs might become plugged or infected and have a hard time emptying on their own,” says Dr. Summerfield. To relieve the discomfort, they scoot their butt on the floor. “If this happens, your veterinarian can normally resolve the problem by expressing the glands manually.”
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Pawing at you
Why does your dog put its paw on you? All dogs are quite tactile, so this is their version of holding hands, according to Dr. Varble. “Have you ever seen pictures of foxes or wolves playing or sleeping side by side in the wild? Although most dogs don’t like the restraint of a hug, they like to make contact with their closest friends by placing a paw on their friends, and human companions are no different,” she says.
Your pup may also put its paw on you to let you know it’s ready to play or to ask you to keep petting it after you stop. It’s one of the telltale signs you’re not showing your dog enough attention. “It is a great way to get our attention, and it always seems to work,” says Dr. Varble.
Why do some dogs bury their bones (and other treasures) or stash them behind chairs or under a stack of pillows on the sofa? Dr. Richter says this is a purely instinctual dog behavior. “They are keeping track of their stuff,” he says.
To prevent their treasures from being stolen by another animal, they hide them for safekeeping. Dachshunds, a breed known for stashing, may have a cache of toys and treats nestled in the corner of a dog bed. Some breeds known for hunting, like hounds and terriers, are prone to digging and hiding, as the prey they hunt lives underground. If your dog is fond of burying its goods outside, make sure its digging grounds are free of common backyard dangers.
Bolting to the door
Dogs can be dead to the world when they’re sleeping, but they’ll instantly come to life and sprint to the door when it opens. This dog behavior is similar to ours when we’re surprised by something—we jolt into action to see what’s up. But for a dog, there’s a little more to it. “This is an instinctive self-protection behavior. Something has moved suddenly and unexpectedly, and they don’t know what may be coming through the door,” says Dr. Richter. Some dogs, including guard dog breeds, take it further and bolt through the door because they want to investigate potential threats and defend their space.
Picking up stuff during a walk
There’s a good chance you’ve seen your pooch collecting found objects during its walk. These could be anything, really, from a stick to a used mask someone dropped. “Dogs use their mouths in much the same way that human children use their hands. Many dogs are naturally curious about the world, and if they find an object interesting, they may want to pick it up, hold it, or carry it for a while,” says Dr. Summerfield.
Wonder what your dog is thinking about while collecting these treasures? It’s probably less complex than you imagine. They’re really curious, like toddlers. And they’re attracted to certain objects the way toddlers are to their blankies. That’s especially true of sporting and retrieving dog breeds.
Wagging their tail to the left
A dog’s tail can express a wide variety of emotions, and with close observation, you can decipher the secrets of what your dog’s tail is trying to tell you. For example, a low-wagging tail with a wide, sweeping arc is a friendly wag, while a high, stiff tail may indicate aggression or arousal. But why do dogs wag their tail to the left?
“Recent studies on dog body language do suggest that there may be a difference as to how the left- and right-sided tail wags are interpreted by other dogs and in how the dogs feel when wagging their tails to the left versus the right,” says Dr. Summerfield. In the study, dogs remained relaxed when they saw images of another dog wagging its tail to the right, but when dogs saw the image of the tail wagging to the left, it stirred up anxiety. More research is needed, but it indeed points to the tail as a key communicator.
- Gary Richter, DVM, veterinarian and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition
- Jo Gale, DVM, veterinarian with Mars Petcare
- Dana Varble, DVM, chief veterinary officer with North American Veterinary Community
- Jennifer L. Summerfield, DVM, veterinarian with Brown Veterinary Service
- Frontiers in Zoology: “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field”
- Current Biology: “Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs”