All Things Dog

Understanding Your Dog

Dogs may be our best friends, but no matter how "human" they sometimes seem, they're really very different from us. This article talks about the differences, and helps you relate to your dog on his terms.

For over 12,000 years, dogs have been closely associated with mankind. It is even likely that the relationship may have begun up to 80,000 years earlier with man's first attempts to tame the common ancestor of all dogs, the wolf.

Although dogs would have had to earn their keep by means of their hunting, retrieving, guarding, and scavenging skills, there is no doubt that, even in those very early days, their relationship with man involved the qualities of mutual affection, trust, and understanding.

To help you understand your dog better, here is some detailed information and explanation of the way your dog behaves and interacts with his environment.

The dog's senses

In the wild, dogs survive by hunting, and their body senses have developed to help them do this in the most efficient way. Hearing, sight, touch, taste, and smell are all important, but in today's pet dog, the degree to which each of these is developed has been modified by years of selective breeding. For example, the fast hounds, such as the Greyhound, Afghan and Saluki, all hunt by sight and lose interest if they cannot see their prey. On the other hand, Bloodhounds, Basset hounds and Beagles all hunt by smell and will follow a scent—which may be up to a week old—for hours on end.

All dogs, in fact, have a very well developed sense of smell: Their nose is about as sensitive as our eyes when it comes to distinguishing between two similar individuals. Smell is not just important for finding food, it's also one of the most important means of communication for the dog. Although they can see well in the distance (which is useful when hunting) most dogs are not able to focus on objects which are closer than about 10 inches. They are able to distinguish between colors, although these may appear muted to the dog, and they see more clearly than humans in dim light.

Although their ability to see detail is limited, dogs are very sensitive to movement. A stationary object, for example, may not be noticed from a distance, but the dog will be able to detect it as soon as it moves.

Hearing is well developed in dogs and they can hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies and a greater distance than man. We often exploit this ability when we use ultrasonic whistles as training aids. Dogs may find high-pitched noises—such as those emitted by the vacuum cleaner and other household appliances—uncomfortable or even painful. Hearing ability is superior in breeds with erect ears, which act as amplifiers for incoming sounds, and in those which can swivel their ears in the direction of the sound.

Taste, along with smell, plays an important part in determining the particular foods an individual dog prefers to eat. Most dogs enjoy a wide range of tastes and many are known to have a "sweet tooth."

Like all other mammals, dogs are sensitive to temperature and pain, and will respond with pleasure to a friendly touch. Body sensitivity varies among dogs, but most enjoy being stroked around the head, chest and back. However, many are defensive about being touched around their tail and rump, or on their feet.


Scents in the air and those on the ground can provide the dog with a wealth of information about the comings and goings in the locality, and may be considered the canine equivalent of the local daily newspaper. There are two ways in which the dog may communicate through smell. First, they may deposit scents in feces, urine, or glandular secretions in the environment for other dogs to discover; secondly, the smell of their own body will convey information about themselves.

Urination in dogs does not simply serve to empty the bladder. Most owners are aware of the male dog's desire to lift his leg frequently and deposit small quantities of urine at numerous locations. This is a means of marking his territory and advertising his presence. By raising the leg to pass urine, the scent is deposited at nose level. Female dogs may also raise one hind leg when urinating, and some will perform an acrobatic handstand by raising both hind legs off the ground in order to leave urine against a vertical object.

Both male and female dogs will investigate the scent marks left by other dogs and may over-mark the area with their own urine. A dominant female may stand behind another urinating female in order to deposit urine on the same site. Although territorial marking is less important for the domestic dog than in the wild, it is likely that scent marking helps to make him feel relaxed by inundating the area with his own, familiar scent. The urine of the unspayed female dog will also contain information about her estrus cycle and sexual receptivity. Unneutered male dogs, in particular, can detect this and may travel long distances to seek out a female dog in heat.

General body odors are also an important means of communication between dogs. The scent is produced by the secretions of glands around the body, particularly around the face, the anal region, and the tail. When unfamiliar dogs meet, they will investigate each other by sniffing, particularly the head and anal region. The more submissive dog may carry his tail between his legs to prevent further sniffing.

Body language

One of the reasons why dogs make such good pets is the remarkable way in which they can communicate with humans. Pet dogs see us as an extension of their own canine family and are very quick to interpret our own mood and intentions. An understanding of how dogs communicate with other dogs will help the observant owner to correctly decipher the message their pet is trying to convey.

Dogs can communicate with other dogs through a series of signals, including a variety of facial expressions, body postures, noises, and scents. Your dog will use his mouth, eyes, ears, and even his tail to express his emotions. By reading the combination of body signals, you should be able to work out who is top dog in any confrontation or situation.

A dog that is feeling brave or aggressive will try to convey the impression of being a larger, more powerful animal. He will stand tall with ears and tail erect, thrust his chest forward and may raise the hairs around his neck and along his back (his hackles). He may also wave his tail slowly and growl.

A submissive dog, on the other hand, will try to appear small and puppy-like. Adult dogs will chastise puppies, but they do not usually attack them. His approach to a more dominant individual is likely to be from the side, crouching low with the tail held low and wagging enthusiastically. He may also try to lick the paws/hands and face of the dominant dog or person. And if this is not sufficiently appeasing, he might then roll on to his back to expose his groin. In this position, some dogs will involuntarily pass a small volume of urine.

One pattern of behavior that is characteristic of dogs and familiar to almost everyone is tail wagging. Most people would recognize that loose, free tail wagging is indicative of pleasure and a general friendliness. Exaggerated tail wagging, which may extend to the entire rump, may be seen in excited or subordinate dogs, as well as those dogs with very short tails.

The tail, however, is also an indicator for other emotions. A tail waved slowly and stiffly, in line with the back, expresses anger. Clamped low over the dog's hindquarters, it is a sign that the dog is afraid. Anxious or nervous dogs may stiffly wag their drooping tails as a sign of appeasement.

The normal tail carriage of the dog has been modified through breeding. Some breeds, such as the Whippet and the Italian Greyhound, naturally carry their tail in the clamped-down position—but in general, a tail held at higher than 45 degrees to the spine expresses interest and alertness.

The facial expressions of your dog will tell you a lot about his mood, whether he is anxious or excited, frightened or playful, or any one of a vast repertoire of emotions he may express.

The ears are pricked when he is alert or listening intently, but are held back or flattened onto the head when expressing pleasure, submission, or fear. To read his mood correctly, you must watch for other body signals at the same time.

The eyes may be narrowed or half-closed in pleasure or submission but are wide open when aggressive.

In the wild, the pack leader can maintain control simply by staring at a subordinate dog. The two animals will continue to stare at each other until one challenges the other or until one lowers his head and turns away. If the staring continues after the submissive dog has looked away, he will feel confused and may bite out of fear. If eye contact is not broken, the dominant dog will reinforce his threat by snarling, growling, or even attack.

You should not try to outstare your dog if he has aggressive or nervous tendencies since this could provoke an attack. Nevertheless, regular, gentle eye contact with his owner is reassuring for your dog and will reinforce your relationship.

Submissive dogs and those of certain breeds, notably Labradors, may appear to be "smiling" when they open their mouth to show the teeth in a lop-sided grin of friendliness. In the snarl of aggression, however, both lips are drawn right back to expose most of the teeth and may be accompanied by a growl.

A dog will indicate his desire to play, raising a front paw, or by performing the play bow, which is often accompanied by barking to attract attention. Other gestures include offering a play object, or bounding up to another dog to invite chase.


Almost as soon as they are born, puppies will cry in a variety of tones—the mother will know whether they are hungry, contented, or in pain from the noise they make. The first bark may be heard from about three to six weeks after birth. Barking is used by your dog to communicate a variety of sentiments, a different sound may be employed in different situations. He will bark as a warning—to ward off intruders or to claim his territory—or in greeting, during play or as a general call for attention.

Growling is used to convey a warning or threat or may be used in defense. You should not challenge (and children should never approach) a growling dog, since this may provoke an attack. Dogs may growl when playing with other dogs, but their body language in this situation is clearly not suggestive of aggression. Some dogs may emit a low murmur of "conversation" when petted by their owners, but again the body is relaxed and is not preparing for attack.

A howl is a long-distance call. It can be heard much further than a bark. A howling dog is usually alone and is probably seeking social contact of some sort. Whimpering and whining are used in submission, greeting, and pain; yelping when in pain or defeat; and high-pitched yapping when excited, as in the thrill of the chase.

Feeding behavior

Dogs are meat-eating hunters by nature although they show considerable flexibility in their diet and, in the wild, they may also eat plant materials, such as grass and berries. Although the means by which domestic dogs obtain their food is rather different from their wild ancestors, the underlying behavioral mechanisms on which food selection is based may still be intact, if somewhat modified by the process of domestication.

Although some dogs appear to be largely indiscriminate in their choice of food, others—especially dogs of the smallest and the largest breeds—can be fussy eaters. Dogs prefer a meat- to a cereal-based diet, although they may prefer one type, such as beef, instead of another. They enjoy a wide range of tastes and are often partial to sweet foods, as well as foods with a salty or sharp taste. The smell of the food is also important and has a considerable effect on its palatability.

Most dogs will quite happily eat the same type of food every day. This is perfectly reasonable, provided that it is a balanced diet and contains all the essential nutrients.

Dogs should be fed at least twice a day, unless otherwise directed by their veterinarian. In the wild, however, it is common for several days to elapse between meals. Whatever feeding schedule you follow, problems may be avoided if you match your dog's total food consumption to his energy requirement and, of course, ensure that the overall diet is nutritionally complete and balanced.

Most dogs will tend to overeat if allowed unlimited access to food, although there is considerable variation between breeds and between individuals. This may be related to the tendency to gorge-feed in the wild, when they may have had to last several days between kills. Many dogs are protective about their food and will even fend off more dominant individuals while eating. In the home, your dog should be trained from an early age to relinquish his food to you, if requested. Also, children should be taught to never approach a dog that is eating or chewing a bone.

Sexual behavior

Like all other animals, dogs have a basic drive to reproduce and keep the species alive. However, the female will only mate at specific times, usually twice a year, when she is in heat/in season. On the other hand, adult male dogs will mate at any time of the year and, if allowed to roam, may travel long distances to seek out a bitch that is in heat.

The bitch (female dog) is usually in season for about three weeks, and she becomes increasingly attractive to males during this period. Her own behavior may also change and she may become restless and more excitable, but it is normally not until the second week of her season that the bitch will allow the male to mate with her. However, all bitches are different, and sometimes a male can mate with a bitch as early as the first day of her season or as late as the last day.

Some bitches will show some of the signs of pregnancy one or two months after a season, even if she is not pregnant or has not even been mated. This is called a false pregnancy. Affected bitches may produce milk and display other signs of maternal behavior, such as making nests and mothering toys or other items.

There are some aspects of reproductive behavior in dogs that can be a nuisance for their owners. Neutering, or some other form of reproductive control , may be advisable if you do not want to breed your dog or if you want to prevent your dog from having litters of puppies for which you did not plan.Your veterinarian will advise you on the options available.

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