We’re all familiar with this enduring trait – when we speak to our dogs, they sometimes cock their heads. Some believe they’re trying to decipher what we’re saying, or they recognize that we’re positively responding to the gesture, and treats or other rewards are close at hand.
However, according to Dr. Stanley Coren, canine expert and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and writer for Psychology Today, neither of these is the case. If you place your fist in front of your nose, you’ll have some idea of what the world looks like through a dog’s eyes with a muzzle obstructing some of its vision. Dogs read emotional cues in our facial expressions as well as our voices, and they may just be trying to better gage where you’re coming from emotionally when they repeatedly tilt their head from side to side as you speak.
But what about brachycephalic breeds with flatter muzzles? Their vision is also obscured, but to a much lesser degree, and as such, the results of Coren’s study showed that dogs with longer muzzles did tilt their heads more often than their flat-faced counterparts.
That running in circles thing your dog does after a bath or eating has a name – “zoomies.” Also known as “FRAP” (Frenetic Random Activity Period), it’s believed dogs do it to instigate play with their furry friends and people. The assumption is that you, the leader of the pack, will chase your dog when she play bows before darting off. Dogs are kinetic by nature, and even senior pups have their zoomie moments – zoomies are also believed to release tension after a stressful or unusual event, like a bath.
When your dog smiles, it’s to let you know that what you say goes. It’s called a “submissive grin,” and dogs flash their pearly whites to diffuse any unwanted aggression. It’s a sign your best pal is seeking attention in a non-threatening way. Dogs are also suckers for positive reinforcement – if there’s a treat at the end of this trick, your dog will turn its frown upside down on the regular!
You’ve heard the stories – a dog wakes a family up in the middle the night to alert them of smoke; a soldier is saved in the line of fire when his dog jumps in front of a bullet. What is it that propels them to do this? According to researchers – empathy.
Dr. Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni, a professor at City, University of London, says “humans don’t fully recognize others’ feelings until age 4 or 5.” Dogs, on the other hand, have a “rudimentary form of empathy” built on the strength of their bond with humans. Dr. Brian Hare, the founder of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center, says that bond is formed from something called an “oxytocin loop” – when a dog and human look into each other’s eyes, their levels of oxytocin rise. In other words, they both make each other feel loved.
Dogs are primarily lovers – not fighters – and they will use a series of “calming signals” to prevent aggression in other dogs and people. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas coined the term and says there are about 30 actions that a dog will employ to keep the peace, including yawning, licking, averting his eyes, sniffing the ground, slow walking, laying down, softening the eyes, blinking, and even sneezing. If you sense your dog is giving you a calming signal, take a breather. If he’s stressed, employ your own calming signals to let him know he’s safe and loved.
There are as many types of growls as there are barks, and not all are uttered in anger. Some dogs growl as a warning to show they’re anxious (and a bite is imminent), while others vocalize when they are frustrated and wish to be close to something. Still others growl during play to show they’re having fun, but if you’ve ever come across a dog that “purrs” – well, you know you’ve shared a special moment with your best friend. These low-pitched growls, called “rumbles,” are a sign that your dog is simply loving the affection and attention you’re giving her, and she wants it to continue.
You love your dog and want to show it affection, but one of the worst things you can do, according to researchers, is to give your dog a hug. Dr. Stanley Coren studied hundreds of photos of dogs being embraced by humans. He was looking for signs of stress or discomfort, and the markers, albeit subtle, were there. In a whopping 81.6% of images, the dogs exhibited some evidence of anxiety, including folded-down ears, half-moon eyes, yawns, or a complete avoidance of eye contact. Coren calls dogs “cursorial animals” – their first line of defense, if threatened, is not to bite; it’s to run away. Hugging them impedes that instinct and may lead to unwanted trouble.
We’ve all seen dogs walk in circles a few times and dig at their beds before finally laying down to sleep. Experts say this is a residual habit from the days when dogs lived in the wild. Canines subconsciously circle an area – which would have been covered in leaves and grasses thousands of years ago – to create a level surface for sleeping. They also scratch at a spot before curling up in an attempt to stay warm or cool. This, once again, is a leftover from the days when digging a hole was paramount for regulating body temperature.
When you yawn, does your dog immediately follow suit? If it does, that means your bond is a strong one. Canine behavior experts in Japan studied 25 dogs and discovered that they were more likely to yawn after their owners did than when the yawn came from a stranger. More amazingly, the pups generally didn’t respond to fake yawns. That means they knew when their owners were genuinely fatigued. Now, if your best friend could only hand you your slippers and the remote…
Like vocalization, tail wagging communicates various emotions. A loose, low-swinging tail indicates calmness, while a high or extremely slow tail indicates a cautious and, possibly threatened, dog.
But what of the “propeller tail?” When your dog’s tail does a complete 360, and his body moves back and forth along with it, he’s excited and happy to see you! He’s also likely aware that you find it adorable and will reward him with treats and praise. Certain dogs, like pugs or short-tailed breeds, can’t do the “helicopter wag” for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t mean they love you any less.