Dogs do the Darndest Things… For a Reason
Dogs do the Darndest Things… For a Reason
If you’ve ever been around dogs, it probably took you less than a minute to observe something that made no sense to the untrained human eye. What’s with their fascination with grass? What makes them unable to resist rolling in the most disgusting-smelling things? Why on Earth would some dogs chase and bite their own tail? Well, since we cannot ask them to tell us exactly why they do what they do, here are a few of the most credible explanations for a few curious canine behaviors.
Before we get started, a disclaimer: the information in this blog post has been collected from reputable sources and is meant merely to satisfy your curiosity. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any physical or behavioral issues. If you suspect your dog is not acting “normal,” talk to your friendly neighborhood vet, or better yet, a veterinary behaviorist.
Why do dogs chase their own tail or attack their own leg?
I’ll start with what inspired me to write this post. A couple of months ago, the following video was circulating around social media, and most people thought it was hilarious.
Unfortunately, I knew too much. And I knew this was as bad as laughing at a person with a nervous tic disorder. I realized then that there are several canine behaviors that dog parents don’t understand but probably should. And why should they? Not only so they understand their dogs a little bit better, but more importantly so they can tell apart when a dogs is being a Canis lupus familiaris, and when a dog is in need of help, like the dog in the video.
True, attacking their own leg with such anger is perhaps more serious than your average tail chasing episode where a dog spins in a circle trying to grab his own tail, like the ones in this video:
Nonetheless, any behavior that resembles the dogs in these videos should not be taken lightly as it could tailspin, pun intended, into a serious obsessive-compulsive behavior that may be harder to stop down the line.
First, let’s differentiate between the need to bite their tails because of flea or worm issues and tail chasing or leg biting as a manifestation of a behavioral problem. Have you noticed that when vets check dogs for fleas, they run this special little comb near the base of their tails? That’s because it is prime real estate for fleas, and so it is quite common for dogs to try to scratch or bite that area. If it is a matter of them circling around a couple of times just trying to scratch an itch, you should check your dog for fleas, give them a bath with an anti-itch shampoo, and consult with your vet if the problem persist for more than a day or two. Some dogs are allergic to flea saliva, and it only takes one bite for them to itch like crazy, even several days after all the fleas have been eliminated.
It is also important to point out that playful tail chasing on the part of puppies is harmless if it only lasts for a short phase. They’re discovering their own limbs, how cute is that?!
Tail/leg chasing/biting in adult dogs, on the other hand, is more worrisome. The more common causes are boredom, anxiety, and/or stress. In cases like the dogs in the videos, or any dog who spins repeatedly without trying to scratch an itch, the dog should be evaluated for a possible obsessive-compulsive disorder. Left untreated, it might advance to self-injury or other unwanted behaviors, such as aggression. Although some people posit that it is a sign of isolation, I have seen this behavior in dogs surrounded by many other dogs at daycare or in a multi-dog household, so arranging play-dates or getting another dog might not do much to deter tail chasers from doing their thing. Nonetheless, some dogs chase their tail as a way to get attention from their owners, so spending quality time with your dog might go a long way to minimize this issue. If they’re given lots of love and attention for other behaviors, and not for tail-chasing (not even negative attention!), they will gradually learn to make the right choice.
What can pet parents do, besides checking with a vet? First and foremost, exercise your dog both physically and mentally. Walks are not enough. Dogs need to play! A great toy, especially for dogs with a high prey drive or who have a strong urge to chase things, is the Kong Chase-It toy; check out the video demonstration here:
Food puzzle toys are a great way to provide mental stimulation and relieve some of that need to chew (check out our first blog post for a review of several treat dispensing toys!). Training is also a must: teaching your dog new things will get them to focus on more productive things than attacking his own limbs; through obedience training, your dog will also become better at impulse control, and you will be able to divert his attention to you, rather than his tail, and reward more appropriate behavior.
Why do dogs scrape at the ground with their hind legs after doing their business?
Speaking of scent, have you ever seen your dog do something like this?
Both male and female dogs tear at the ground with their back feet after urinating or defecating. Why? An urban myth is that dogs do this to cover up or clean up their own mess, as if it were a surprise present for whoever walks around that area later, but that is the opposite of what they’re actually doing. And no, they’re not wiping their paws like we wash our hands after going to the bathroom either. Although urine or feces are most times enough to indicate “I was here,” some dogs kick it up a notch and leave physical marks on the ground. The scent glands located between the pads of their paws also help to leave information about their identity to whoever comes next. This combination of olfactory and visual marking is a way for them to make it very clear who was there. It is almost like the difference between carving your initials versus your full name on a park bench.
This behavior is something dogs have inherited from wolves, who also do a backward-motion scrape to mark their territory or establish dominance among the pack. In the case of some dogs, you may notice that sometimes they scrape the ground more frantically or for several seconds, but other times they do their business and move on without even looking back. This could be a sign that they are indeed reacting to another dog’s message regarding their dominance or territorial claim. Of course, it is possible that for some dogs, this is an instinctual behavior that they do without a particular motivation. For example, some dogs scrape at the ground every single time after defecating but never after urinating. In cases like that, it may very well be that it is somewhat of a habit rather than a purposeful way to indicate territorial boundaries.
Why do dogs eat grass?
Dogs’ fascination with grass goes beyond tearing it up with their hind legs after going to the bathroom.
You would figure it would be easy to explain why dogs eat grass, but there are several possible explanations:
a) Tummy troubles. If this is the cause, they will eat a lot of it at an almost obsessive-compulsive rate, and promptly return it to Mother Nature. In some mild cases, they eat just a few juicy blades of grass to appease a temporary stomach ache (say, after getting really excited or scared about something or maybe after eating one too many treats) and not throw up, but in the more severe cases, they might even go back for more after throwing up.
b) Hunger. If this is the cause, the dog will likely come to you if you offer them a treat or food; they’ll obviously take that over grass! But if you offer them a treat and they proceed to chow down the green stuff, re-read the first possible cause explained above. Some dogs suffer from “Empty Stomach Syndrome,” in which bile starts collecting in their tummy after being empty for a certain amount of time. If your dog is waking up early every morning just to go outside and eat grass, you should consult with your vet and see if that is indeed the case with your canine.
c) Lack of certain nutrients in their diets. These cases are harder to spot. Grass has little nutritional value to them, but it is their way of indicating their cravings for something fresh. Check out this list of dog-friendly fruits and veggies, and try offering some of those to your dog. Not all of dogs like all of those options, so have a “veggie tasting party” with your dog and discover what they like.
d) Enjoyment. Yup, some dogs just like the texture and/or taste of it. If that’s the case, the dog will probably graze casually (like some people chew a piece of straw just for the heck of it), and they won’t throw up afterwards.
e) Boredom or nervousness. Some people bite their nails, other play with their hair; well, some dogs chew grass if they happen to be in a grassy area, and there’s nothing else to do or they are a little nervous about mingling with others.
Should you stop your dog from eating grass? It depends. If they’re just casually grazing and not throwing up, and if the grass doesn’t contain pesticides or any other toxins that might make them sick of course, then it’s probably OK to let them be. You can divert their attention as soon as they start eating grass if they’re just doing it for fun (e.g., asking them to sit for a treat, getting a toy and playing, etc.), and they should respond (i.e., what you’re offering sounds more interesting than a salad). However, if the dog is eating non-stop and throwing up, something is wrong. Dogs can get dehydrated if they throw up repeatedly, so it is better to stop them after you see them throw up once. And yes, you should then check with your vet.
Now, if what you’re wondering is why they vomit grass, the explanation is much simpler: dogs lack the enzymes needed to break down the fibers. Just like with any other indigestible matter, it comes out from one end or the other! And when they eat it rapidly, swallowing the blades whole instead of chewing them, the texture of grass blades “tickles” their throat and stomach lining triggering regurgitation. I sincerely hope you didn’t choose to read this blog post while having a salad for lunch.
Why do dogs grab a mouthful of food out of their bowl and take it somewhere else to eat it?
Does your dog prefer to eat on your expensive rug or newly polished hardwood floors over the cutest food bowl and mat you bought for them? This is quite common and it has nothing to do with how nice your rug feels or how much they enjoy watching you clean the floor.
This is evolutionary instinct behavior. When a pack of wolves or wild dogs kills another animal as their food source, the lower-ranked members of the pack grab a piece and take it away from the corpse in order to avoid any possibility of competing or fighting with the pack leader. Think about it: if they’re eating side by side, one of them might think “hey, I was gonna eat that!” and a fight would ensure. Even if your dog is the only canine child in your home, he or she might not be able to fight their instinct to eat away from the food source.
In most cases, that is the one and only explanation, and it’s not a serious issue. However, some dogs are picky about eating out of certain bowls, particularly metal bowls, so you should see if they act the same way if you use a plastic bowl instead. If they do, it’s purely instinctual behavior. If they don’t, then it might have been the reflection of themselves on the metal, or the noise of their tags banging against it.
Why do dogs turn circles or scratch the ground before lying down?
Is this a familiar sight in your home?
My dogs do something very similar. One of the scratches the couch feverishly before he can even consider laying down. So what’s up with that? Will scratching the couch or turning circles make it any more comfortable? If dogs could talk, their answer would be “well, duh!”
The purpose of circling or scratching an area before laying down is essentially to flatten it out. Dr. Stanley Coren (author of many books on canine behavior) reported on an informal study comparing the rate in which domesticated dogs would turn circles or scratch at a smooth surface versus an uneven surface. He found that there was indeed a correlation, with the uneven surface leading 55% of the dogs to turn at least one full circle, whereas only 19% of the dogs on a smooth surface exhibited the same behavior. He also noticed that scratching or digging only took place among the group of dogs on the uneven surface, but never among those on a smooth surface.
Now, you’re probably thinking “but a couch is already smooth” or “my dog does that even on the smoothest and comfiest of beds.” Indeed, their behavior is not an exclusively and unequivocally triggered by the texture of the actual surface. Many dogs may be circling or digging out of instinct or habit, still ingrained in them from their wild ancestors. In a few rare cases, the possibility of it being a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder cannot be ruled out, especially if the circling or digging appears to be excessive and the dog shows signs of stress if they are prevented from doing it.
Why do dogs roll in smelly things?
You’re at the dog park or in your own backyard. Your dog stops to smell something irresistible and promptly drops neck-first to rub his entire body on it. Sound familiar? Or rather, smell familiar? This is one of the most common yet frustrating behaviors dog parents deal with.
There are just about as many explanations as variations of this behavior. Not all dogs do it. It’s not always excrement. And luckily, some of the things they roll over don’t smell that bad or at all (to us, humans). And yes, there’s more to it than just “they don’t think it smells bad.” That’s a given. A dog won’t roll in something they do not find appealing. The question is: why roll in it and make your owner nauseous as they’re dragging you to the bathtub? Why not just pee on it or smell it to your heart’s and nose’s content?
To make some sense of it, let’s consider the most basic function of smell or scent for animals: transmitting a message. Some animals’ scents say “don’t you dare” (i.e., it’s a repellent), others say “don’t you want me, baby” (i.e., it is an attractant), and others simply pass on useful info about where they’ve been. In the case of canines, who descend from wolves, the most likely explanation is that they want others to know about this wonderful stinky thing they have found, whether it’s to show off (“check out what I found!”) or to alert pack mates -real or imaginary- about something they should go check out themselves, sort of like a Yelp review of an interesting venue in town.
Why do dogs dig in the water bowl?
If you’ve never seen a dog do this, then you’ve never been to a dog park. I am always mesmerized by dogs like the one in this video (try not to be distracted by the adorable puppies in the background):
Why on Earth (or on water) would they do this? This is one time when we cannot blame it on wolves. Sure, wolves and wild dogs might play in streams or wading pools occasionally, but they never frantically dig in water like some domesticated dogs do. It’s not a behavior exclusive to retrievers or other water-loving breeds. It is a rather perplexing behavior that doesn’t have a simple explanation. There could be a variety of reasons, depending on a number of factors triggering the behavior:
a) Do they do this only in the summer and outdoors? Most likely, they’re trying to cool off. Since dogs cool from the bottom up, it makes sense that they would want to get their paws and bellies wet.
b) Do they do this with only metal bowls but not plastic bowls? Their own reflection might be throwing your dog off, and they may want to meet than handsome fellow on the other side of the water.
c) Do they dig in their bowl a little and then drink just fine? It could be a matter of preferring drinking out of a moving stream than a stagnant pool of water. If this is the case with your dog, a pet drinking fountain might do the trick. On the other hand, if your dog digs until there is not a drop of water left in the bowl, the next possible explanation might make more sense.
d) Do they do this anytime, anyplace, with any bowl? It could be something they do out of boredom or pure enjoyment, like a little kid who can’t resist splashing about in a pool. In some rare cases, the dog might be exhibiting some type of compulsive behavior that they have a hard time controlling or that is meant to get attention (i.e., they know it drives you crazy, but they also know you look at them and talk to them when they do it).
For the most part, this is likely a benign behavior. However, if the digging evolves to showing signs of guarding the water bowl from other dogs, or worse, from you, then it is a very serious issue that should be corrected through training (click here for some tips) but also consult with a professional dog trainer or behaviorist). Although resource guarding is typically associated with food, toys, and/or their human guardians, some dogs do indeed guard water, and that could be harder to manage since it can’t be as easily removed or controlled as toys or food, so prompt and proper behavior modification is highly recommended.
By Florencia Henshaw (Certified Crazy Dog Lady)