“What is my dog thinking?!”
As a dog owner, you may well have asked yourself or others this question many times. Whilst it’s true your dog cannot verbalise what it’s thinking, it is giving you tell-tale signs of his/her needs and feelings throughout the day.
Respected dog behaviourist John Bradshaw provides an excellent explanation of your dog’s ability to convey emotions in his book ‘In Defence of Dogs’. Let’s deal with five common questions around our dog’s behaviour and emotional state, beginning with the most important.
1. Does my dog love me?
Dog owners will confidently assert their dog loves them. Sceptics may say this is a learnt behaviour based on their dependency on humans for survival. The reality is almost certainly that your dog does indeed possess real and genuine feelings of love that go way beyond physiological need. Consider the pleasure your dog expresses when you walk into the room. Whether your dog is hungry, thirsty or in need of a walk is irrelevant to this signal. They simply want to express their state of pleasure at being in your company. This leads onto question 2.
2. Why is my dog destructive when I’m not there?
A common punishment many dogs face from their owners is caused by chewed furniture, unwanted bowel movements or complaints of incessant barking. Some dog owners may even attribute this kind of behaviour as revenge for you leaving them. Thankfully, revenge is an emotion dogs are almost certainly incapable of – that’s a human trait.
If your dog has ever exhibited these behaviours (and most do), then it is purely and simply due to separation anxiety that you have left them. Chewing, howling and defecating are simply ways a dog inherently copes with anxiety. How often have you felt the need to visit the toilet when anxious? The sudden urge to have a wee moments before going into a job interview that miraculously subsides as you leave the interview an hour later!
Your dog is not thinking “who will feed me if he/she doesn’t return?” They are simply missing someone they love, just as we do when we’re separated from our loved ones. So, punishing a dog for this kind of reactive behaviour is not just counter-intuitive, it’s also totally cruel.
“Why don’t they learn we always come back?” you might have asked yourself. Sadly, your dog lacks this kind of rationality. Their overriding emotion is anxiety, caused by love.
3. Why is my dog choosy with food and then eat faeces in the park?
What is my dog thinking of?! The truth is dogs don’t have human taste mechanisms and are somewhat less grossed out by poo. Dogs have strong associations with previous physiological responses. So, if a dog has an upset tummy, they will associate that feeling with something and avoid that in future.
Faeces in the park, whilst being gross to us, is nothing more than a remarkable clue to a dog. It is simply processed food with a huge amount of learning to be gained from its smell. A dog is much more likely to pick up on an unhealthy aroma in its food than you or I would be able to. What’s more, it can associate that smell with previous experience. Much like we might be put off a food for life once it gives us food poisoning, so a dog has similar memories. It is simply avoiding potential contamination – it’s not being picky.
While we’ve got you: Have you seen the amazing dog bowls made by the wonderful Chow Bella? You can read about them here (opens in a new window).
4. Why does my dog look guilty?
Bradshaw devotes a whole chapter to the emotion of guilt. As owners, many of us associate looks our dogs give us as guilt – knowing they have done something they shouldn’t have. The cues are often a submissive look, slow tail wagging and making themselves small.
The reality is that dogs don’t feel guilt or regret. What we interpret as guilt is in fact anxiety brought on by our look of suspicion or surprise, which they will likely associate with previous instances where that action has caused a similar reaction in us. The first time a dog does something wrong, they may get a stern look or some kind of punishment. It’s the recollection of that anxiety inducing experience that brings about a look associated to guilt.
Why doesn’t my dog learn from previous mistakes, like rolling in fox poo or stealing food? Sadly, our dogs cannot weigh up the cost-benefit of an action in the way we do a chocolate bar or cream cake. They live in the here and now and the heuristics of the consequence of wrongdoing only kick in once we enter the space and signal disapproval. They’re almost certainly not thinking – “I so know this is not going to end well, but to hell with it, it smells too good!”
5. Why does my dog sniff other dogs’ bums?
Few things confuse or embarrass a dog owner more than seeing their dog sniff the genitalia of other dogs! Why do they do it and can they please stop? Well, as we know, the dog’s sense of smell is significantly more powerful than our own.
So, whilst we may go around the park idly chatting with strangers or people we know vaguely, a dog derives the same sense of social interaction using their dominant sense. We may gain pleasure from a walk through the sights and sounds, but it is worth remembering the dog’s pleasure is in the smells. Removing that delight from a dog’s walk is effectively like forcing us to not talk or look around during our walk.
What do they gain from it? Well, its’ quite clear they gain a lot of information from each other. And whilst they like doing the sniffing of others, they’re less keen to be sniffed themselves. But precisely what they do with this olfactory knowledge remains unknown to us. And it probably always will. Perhaps we should take some comfort from our own ignorance in such matters and allow our pets to have a knowledge all of their own?!