They sit on you. They walk in circles before lying down. They often don’t like little kids. They HAVE TO get the squeaky thing out of the toy. Here’s why.
Oh, how we love them. Just ask any dog “parent.”
According to the National Humane Society’s “Pets by the numbers,” the number of households with dogs is on the rise.
Humane Society estimates show in 2012 there were nearly 43.3 million households in the country with one or more dogs. By 2016, that number jumped to 54.4 million, and by 2018 60.2 million — 48.5 percent of all U.S. households — were expected to have one or more dogs.
That translates to a U.S. dog population of 70 million in 2011, 77.8 million in 2016, and an estimated 89.7 million dogs by this year.
With so many households with so many dogs, we decided to ask some Maine dog experts to help us better understand dog behaviors — behaviors that may make perfect sense to canines, but can have humans scratching their ... heads.
Why do they like to tear apart pillows, dog beds, stuffed animals?
It could be one or more of several reasons, said Dr. Alex Munroe of Auburn, a veterinarian in Portland who also fills in at Animal Emergency Clinic of Mid-Maine in Lewiston.
Ripping a stuffed animal or other object could be a part of their primal drive that stems from their wolf DNA. “Tearing a pillow apart is what a wolf would do when it grabs a prey animal,” he said.
When it comes to the intense canine desire to get that squeaky noise maker out of a dog toy, most experts say that also appeals to their wild instinct to catch, kill and eat small prey.
The behavior to rip things apart is more common with younger dogs, said dog trainer Mallory Hattie of Raising Canine, who trains in Scarborough and Fryeburg. When dogs destroy stuffed objects “I call that dissecting,'” she said. “It really is a prey-driven activity. My dog Penny likes to whip the poor stuffed animal back and forth on the floor.”
It could also be just plain enjoyable. “It’s fun!” Hattie said. “Picture human kids having a pillow fight, feathers flying everywhere. Good times!”
Supervision is needed when such good times commence though, Munroe cautioned. At times he’s had to operate on a dog to remove a stuffed animal’s squeaker or fabric and stuffing ingested by the dog.
Why does one dog act so differently than another?
Our experts said dogs have many of the same personality traits that humans do. Some dogs are easy going and submissive. Others are strong willed and stubborn. “Dogs assimilate to their environment and their personalities come out accordingly,” said Dave Chabot, Maine State game warden and dog search and rescue handler.
Breeding also matters. A dog’s personality is determined by its genetics and life experiences, Hattie said. A shy mother dog may produce shy offspring, a confident mother may produce confident offspring. Either way, if young puppies are not well socialized they can become fearful adult dogs.
And like people, as dogs age, their likes and dislikes, their behaviors and personalities, may change. As young dogs they may have enjoyed meeting puppies and other dogs. As they mature, some “are not going to tolerate that anymore,” Chabot said.
Why do some like to cuddle, while others want space?
How glued dogs are physically to their humans ranges. “That is totally individual from dog to dog,” Munroe said. “Some dogs are more independent and will be fine to strike out on their own. Others are pack glued to other critters” and people. The “pack glued” often include Great Danes, he said.
When Munroe sees dogs in his office, he sits on the floor to be at the dog’s level and show he’s not a threat. Great Danes are among the breeds that want to sit on people, showing their affection, even to their veterinarian, Munroe said. “There’s nothing quite as fun as sitting on the floor and, ‘here comes the tush!’ That’s happened more times than I can count.”
Speaking of affection, some dogs may want to break up what they see as packs of humans to protect their leader. A German shepherd may see people hugging and want to separate them, perceiving human hugging or closeness as intruding on their human, Munroe said.
And while we all know a wagging tail means the dog is showing friendship, it can also be a dog’s way of saying “I’m submissive, I’m no threat” to a person or dog. Most often tail wagging is a sign of happiness,” Munroe said.
Why are some dogs friendlier off leash than on leash?
When out with Bella or Charlie, you may have noticed he or she is more friendly to other dogs off their leash than on their leash. That’s because, experts say, while humans meet each other through eye contact and face-to-face positioning, in the dog world that’s all wrong.
When dogs are off their leashes in a dog park, you’ll notice that dogs meet each other side to side, “nose to tush,” Munroe said. They circle around to determine dominance and pack order. “When we have our dogs on leash we’re forcing them to meet face to face. That’s confrontational behavior with dogs.”
Also, when a dog wants to go greet another dog but cannot, that can be frustrating and develop into what Hattie calls “reactivity,” such as barking and growling.
To minimize that, Hattie recommends when seeing a dog ahead, talk calmly to your dog. Feed him or her treats while the other dog is at a distance great enough to not react.
Why do dogs circle and dig the ground or floor?
When a dog digs on the floor, rug, even a cardboard box, he or she “is making a nesty,” Hattie said. Many dogs scratch up their bedding, a primal behavior from when dogs were wild and would make a bed in the woods by digging leaves or snow to form a comfortable place to sleep.
It’s the same reason why dogs often circle multiple times before laying down. In the wild they’d turn tall grass, leaves or snow into a better spot to nap.
Why do dogs develop behavioral problems, sometimes out of the blue?
Too many dog owners get a puppy or dog without realizing what kind of investment is needed in terms of time and money, Chabot said. Every dog needs training, and every dog is capable of being trained. They love to learn. “Dogs enjoy pleasing their masters,” he said.
“This thing needs you. It loves you every day. It needs walks, attention,” Chabot said. “Owning a dog isn’t like owning a cat. If you don’t have time, don’t get a dog.”
If a dog is getting fat, acting out, or if the dog jumps up on people when they enter the house, “that’s the trainer’s/owner’s problem, not the dog’s,” he said. “You have to set boundaries.”
Training can be done even when you don’t have a lot of time. For instance when you’re feeding your dog, don’t just put the food down, Chabot said. Take a few moments to look your dog in the eyes and train them with a command: Sit. Stay. Wait. Maybe even “back up.” Once they seem to get it, reward them with food.
And once they’ve mastered commands, continue to practice with them, the experts said. They enjoy it and it provides another way to bond with them.
Dogs need clear, consistent conditioning from everyone in the household. “Without basic obedience: Come, sit, stay, listening, it’s going to be a horrible dog,” Chabot said. Once a dog owner has taught and enforced basic obedience skills, “you can shoot for the stars.”
The most under-utilized tool in training “is the happy voice,” Hattie said. Dog owners can get so much more good behavior by using a happy voice praising good behavior than scolding.
“Scolding is not a training technique,” she said. Too many owners think their dogs are like a toddler and need to learn right from wrong. “Dogs don’t think like that,” Hattie said. In the dog world things are either safe or dangerous. “Dogs do not have a moral code.”
Dogs watch their people, and read human emotions, sensing when their owners are happy, sad, nervous, excited, Chabot said. And they sense what’s on a stranger’s mind, he added. “I trust a dog’s opinion over someone else’s.” If someone knocks at your door and your dog growls, Chabot said he’d pay attention to the dog’s concern. “Dogs are a fabulous judge of characters.”
How do dogs express their love, dislike, fear?
There are different signs dogs throw off to show dislike or fear before they progress to growling, Munroe said. When dogs are fearful they avoid your gaze. They lick their lips. They sniff at the ground to show they’re not interested in whatever’s up there. It’s an avoidance behavior, “a distraction,” Munroe said. “Dogs show that an awful lot before growling.”
Many dogs are uncomfortable around active, young children. To dogs, youngsters are “weird, noisy creatures who will walk up to dogs right in their face, or who want to go right up and give dogs a hug,” Munroe said. That makes some dogs uncomfortable. “I’ve seen little kids bitten by nice dogs. You always need to supervise little kids around dogs.”
Dogs show love and affection in several ways, including cuddling, being near where you are, laying or sitting on you, and bringing objects to people or other dogs, Hattie said.
Dogs also show love and respect by licking their human — your face, your arm, leg, even your toes. Again, it’s another behavior from their wolf DNA. In a wolf pack, beta dogs often lick the alpha dogs out of respect, Munroe said.
Another expression of love is greeting us enthusiastically at the door.
“We are their pack,” Munroe said. Staying at home is no fun for dogs, he said. When the pack is reunited, “they are happy to be part of that pack again.”