Dog Behaviour – How Dogs Think
Secrets of your dogs mind
Most dog owners are intrigued by what their dogs are thinking or why they do what they do whether chasing their tail or appearing as blind as a bat when detecting a bright coloured toy in grass.
Recently I was walking with my colleague Lisa and my dog. Whilst ambling through the local forest as the winter sun was setting enveloping the woodland world, she noted that we were most careful where we placed our footings in the darkened undergrowth whilst simultaneously my German shepherd Dieter was racing through the thick snow and undergrowth at full speed without mishap. Lisa asked why is the dog so fast and unimpeded in such poor light? Most readers may concur and notice their dogs exciting complex manoeuvres in darkness – something we can only marvel at.
Simply calling your dog to come in out of a dark garden at night at the gallop is something we simply could not do.
Eye see the light – Rods & Cones
It’s not chance. Dogs being predators and designed to hunt prey and have all the skills and evolutionary attributes for hunting at dawn or dusk in the natural world, whilst humans in their natural world as primates tend to hide in the dark being vulnerable and helpless without good clear vision. We simply cannot see too well in poor light and that makes us nervous.
The canine eye (retina) has two types of photoreceptor called rods and cones. Rods allow in more light and cones more colour. In darkness there is no colour hence the canid hunters advantage having far more rods than cones. Of course in good light we see colour and use it to determine what we see, dogs have little use of colour and that’s why we often can’t understand why a dog seems not to recognise colours as we do -we have more cones which produce high colour definition and the bright red ball in the grass is clear to us which is our advantage as a daytime hunter. One additional other factor often overlooked is our height which gives us a clearer view at a better angle of the toy. Try getting down on your knees at dog visual height and the view is less clear. In essence to species with different evolutionary visual developments for different hunting lifestyles.
Drinking too much water – from any source!
Since the development of dry dogs foods, dogs need water in greater quantities than dogs which eat normal wet food. As a result many clients ask me why their dogs drink so much and worse sometimes from the loo, when they have water available in a vessel nearby. Sometimes, I hear the sound of lapping water from my downstairs toilet only to discover my own dog gleefully enjoying the cool refreshment and he too has water nearby – next he wants to welcome me to his great water find with a further lick on my face.
Water to a dog is water; they are not too fussy about having a quick drink from any source be it a muddy puddle in the park or from the U bend of a toilet. Dogs have far fewer taste buds on their tongue than do humans and obviously have no psychological disgust that a toilet equals unpleasant odours or tastes. It is possible that toilet water may just be colder than water in a bowl which warms up to room temperature and most dogs live in houses which are too hot. Dogs are also attracted to smelly areas such is a goldmine of whiffs for them and a horror for us – now don’t take that the wrong way. Keep the loo lid down if this is an issue but don’t get upset with the dog. They are also often attracted to the sound of running water of the toilet cistern filling; combined dogs think it’s cooler water on tap or on suite. Funny they don’t often have the same view of a bath time when most dogs scatter from water and shampoo.
Why dogs want to touch our nose or mouth with theirs?
Dogs especially a large dog jumping up at our face is often addressed for obvious reasons as inappropriate behaviour. I wish to explain why dogs have such a strong natural drive to be face to face with us, touching our nose with theirs and moreover with such determined relish. The dogs mental drives simply believe in good canine manners, getting to know you welcoming you back into the pack if you have been of hunting all day (otherwise known as Waitrose), we return bags laden with wonderful food smells banging through the front door with too many bags at hand, our dogs become most excited by our hunt at the local store.
Their thrust of excitement to us is by way of executing their natural nose to nose or mouth wish to extract scent messages from what you have been eating or even worse yes…wait for it, to encourage you to regurgitate the feast. This is an adolescent food solicitation behaviour and pack reuniting behaviour communication exchanges and most of all its the dogs finishing school manners something which we as owners don’t always appreciate.
Remember this behaviour to contact nose on nose is natural – our training methods to discourage or stop this behavioural exchange is equally natural and for safety and maybe health reasons. In general we tend to compromise and reach an equitable greeting level that suits both species – I don’t mind my dogs nose or touch as long as it is on four feet and not jumping up.
Why do dogs love poking their big noses out of a car window at speed?
We are all familiar with dogs and their huge noses which dominate their faces and of course correspondingly contain copious amounts of scent rectors connecting to a large part of their brain, unlike our misery receptor space. Why do dogs so love poking their big noses out of a car window at speed? Well we gaze out of the car window marking familiar land marks, beauty and other visual pleasures dogs visually miss but their big wet nose envelope the wind rush into their olfactory system for speedy computerisation and identification through an epithelium covered with scent receptors causing a pleasure dome of uplifting pleasure.
Our olfactory area for scent absorption is half an inch, compared to 20 square inches in a dogs nose. Whilst the driver enjoys the views the dog enjoys the scented landscape most of which we are unaware of unless pig manure is in a lorry in front of us. Speed not only brings in scent at great and varies quality but many believe that when the wolf, your dogs ancestors hunting at the gallop it is also on a speed scent gathering process to help track or chase the prey. Of course we simply cannot imagine the mass scent identification a dog can.
How good is a dog’s sense of smell?
When I was a Police Dog Handler I used to track criminals with my dog – a scent trail. This in simple terms means a suspects shoe and body scent walking over grass perhaps five hours earlier. The dog can detect this flimsy scent trail, combined with the scent of squashed grass adding to the dogs information guidance ability. The Police handler observing and following his dog’s manoeuvres is blind and has to trust the dog’s scenting ability.
One canine scenting experience I recall was when our many boarding dogs were brought from London to my kennels in Hertfordshire every day. What was noticeable to most of the drivers was that when they were within a short distance of a village about a mile from my kennels the dogs would suddenly stand up and become excited in an anticipatory manner. The drivers noticed that only dogs which had visited the kennels more than three times executed this behaviour and so concluded the dogs could smell the locality – something we could never imagine replicating.
I noticed that dogs did not do this on the reverse journey to the West End of London with some exceptions. What none had noticed was that in the village was a pig farm where pungent odours were the norm. My colleagues argued that on most days the smell was not apparent, depending on the wind direction. This was true. Again I was curious so tested out through experiment what these dogs were noticing. It was an investigation.
The route we took was the shortest from London. However there was another route adding 10 miles we rarely used which circumnavigated the village from a complete different direction and further winds for most of the year were westerly and my centre was located on the west side of the village (pig farm). On days with time to spare I begin driving form London using the longer route and none of the same dogs stood up when we neared the centre and kennels. It was in my view the pig farm odours being the common scent cue for “we are about to stop and enjoy the holiday and meet and great all the dogs”. The jury is still out on this interesting hypothesis.
Finally with such powerful scenting abilities, dogs are the consummate speed daters – just watch how many dogs they check out on a walk.
Why do Dogs Howl?
Do dogs sing?
Dog howling in a neighbourhood can be very infective and numbers of dogs can engage in a mutual chorus with practice.
This is less common now as most dogs live inside not outside houses. We have all seen on TV dogs striking up a howling session when opera, pianos, police claxtons trigger some dogs into full chorister flow and lifting their heads to the heavens. Many owners find dog howling eerie creepy and my mother thought it indicated bad news generally at night – apparently in day time it was not bad news – only my mother can explain that.
As a young man I worked in a training kennels and looked after about 60 German Shepherd Dogs and other breeds. Every day we had at least three or four chorus sessions – yes sixty dogs howling and most joined in. The cacophony was defining but the norm. Each year we had about five litters of puppies and at about 4 weeks of age they too would try and join in the daily chorus in the most comical way. It appeared that though a natural ability of dog communication there very much was learnt component.
Occasionally friends’ dogs would board with us and most did not howl in the daily chorus, some would join in the doggy opera. Some never but were definitely not indifferent.
So why do some dogs howl?
In the wild state a wolf pack howls on regular basis and the howling sound travels further than barking. Wolves rarely bark, and we guess its about keeping touch or their mobile communication wolf howl networking.
Teaching Dogs To Howl
My German Shepherd never howled until he was two years of age and I taught him. I howled yes howled only when nobody was about in case people thought I was acting odd. Dieter looked at me with curiosity turning his head in every way but did not join in. If anything, as I tried to teach him his body language became quite extravagant, nudging me becoming agitated with excitement. It was like I was switching on his primeval instinct but there was no sound he had simply never had learnt to howl.
It took me a further 3 months to successfully teach him to howl and now we have weekly sing along to absolutely no logic or reason other than its a performance we both enjoy. He then retrieves his toy for a game. My new puppy Quintis also howls on cue but training him was easier as he simply learnt from Dieter notwithstanding his natural predisposition to pack howl. Of course many of my friends think I am nuts when the dogs and I begin and evening chorus – all together now.
The New Guinea Singing Dog exists which appears to have mutated in isolation a propensity to complex vocalised performances more than any other dog breed. Apparently they don’t make good pets being semi tame as opposed to be fully domesticated but their singing is an art.
If you want to teach your dog to howl to make sure the curtains are drawn otherwise the neighbours may just be suspicious of the woman across the road, head held high be turning into a werewolf.
Colin Tennant – Expert Dog Behaviourist – MA Canine Behaviour & Psychology