And other everyday canine behavior explained, from why they circle before pooping, why they lick your face and what makes their leg kick when you rub their belly.
There's been a slew of new dog owners walking in our local woods lately. And as a self-confessed dog nut, broadcast by the t-shirts I wear, I've been quizzed on dogs' 'strange' behavioral traits, often relating to poop! And after consulting my two favorite dog bibles (links below) to confirm my answers, almost everything your dog does is inherited from their wolf ancestors.
Decoding your dog's inner wolf
From why they lick your face, why they ask for their belly to be rubbed, why they dig at their bed, to the less desirable habit of eating poop - there's an evolutionary reason behind it all. So whether you have a Pitbull, a Pug or a Pomeranian, there's a little bit of wolf left in them all. Let's look at the most common quirks of canine conduct.
Table of contents with quick links:
Why does my dog try to lick my mouth?
Perhaps you've left some fried chicken on your face from the lunchtime drive-thru... In fact there are a number of reasons, and your face tasting nice and salty is an obvious one, and simply showing affection and wanting to groom you is another.
But the inherent behavior comes from when wolves would return from the hunt and regurgitate food for the pups. They would lick at the adult wolves mouth until they were rewarded with their meal.
Today, we have conditioned and reinforced this behavior by our joyful and excitable response when they do it, so the reason they do it now is to show their love and trigger that happy response. But if you do bring up a little undigested fried chicken, all the better.
Why does my dog yawn a lot?
He's not bored, but he could be stressed. Yawning is a sign that your dog is a bit anxious or stressed and they might do it when encountering an unfamiliar situation, person or another dog.
They might also experience low levels of stress while you're teaching them boundaries or prefered behavior during training, and they will yawn when they give in and acquiesce to what you're asking of them, releasing that tension and letting go.
But in today's dogs and in yesterday's wolves, yawning serves as a visual communication too, showing other dogs or wolves - often accompanied by averting their eyes - that they are not entirely comfortable with the situation, yet pose no threat.
Why does my dog eat poop?
You want to prevent that first trait if your dog does this a lot! There's a word for it: coprophagia - and many dogs do it. In fact a 2012 study found 16 percent of dogs are serious stool eaters, and around a quarter will do it at least once. It's more common in female dogs, and the harder and fresher the stool the better!
Broadly, there are two reasons: food and house cleaning. That incredible nose of theirs can decode the 'ingredients' of a poop and determine if there's anything in there worth scoffing. Eating horse manure or sheep droppings is common, as the dung of herbivores often has undigested nutrients in it. While eating their own poop is harmless, some manure from other animals, such as horses, could contain parasites or even toxins from medications.
Other dog's poop can also contain undigested protein and nutrients, but also parasites. If this is a regular habit of your dog's, it could be a sign their diet is lacking in certain vital nutrients and they are trying to reset their normal gut bacteria.
"Eating of fresh stools is a reflection of an innate predisposition of ancestral canids living in nature that protects pack members from intestinal parasites present in feces that could occasionally be dropped in the den/rest area.” - Dr Benjamin Hart, University of California
In reality, there are many reasons for your pup's poop picnics, such as attention seeking, nutrient deficiency or even anxiety or stress from isolation. But the unfortunate fact is that is just doesn't taste that bad to them.
The wolf callback for this problem is that a mother wolf would clean up after her pups and any other errant poop in the den to keep the pack safe from any potentially harmful parasites. Basically, it's in their DNA to eat poop.
Why does my dog circle before pooping?
Staying on the subject of pooping, this fact is rather mind-blowing and highlights how amazing dogs are, retaining incredible innate abilities, the kind we as a species lost a long time ago.
Dogs poop along the north-south axis. Yes, you heard me right. Like many mammals, dogs are sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field and, for some reason, prefer to do their business while facing north or south. Some more than others, but also specifically at certain times: only when the magnetic field is calm.
A 2014 study, led by zoologist Hynek Burda of Germany's University of Duisberg-Essen, found that not only can dogs sense the magnetic field, but it's the first study to show any mammal exhibiting a specific behavior in response to it. Why they do it is unknown, but the ability to detect the magnetic field must have roots in navigation as a once free-roaming wolf.
"Dogs prefer alignment along the magnetic north-south axis, but only in periods of calm magnetic field conditions" - Zoologist, Hynek Burda of Duisburg-Essen University
This quirk might not be obvious to us during each dog walk, as in the research the Earth's magnetic field was only calm during 30 percent of the time, and it was only when they correlated that data to the dog's actions that the results were discovered.
Other reasons your dog circles before finding the perfect spot to poop is simply because they're reading all the data left by other dogs, in the form of scent, which tells them if this is a safe spot to do their business as it's a vulnerable position to be in.
Why does my dog kick up dirt after pooping?
Yep, we're still on pooping... But your dog isn't doing what you think; they're not trying to cover up their business at all. In fact, if anything, they're drawing attention to it by leaving even more scent in the area to let other dogs know they've been there.
If you've ever felt your dog's paw and thought they had sweaty pads, you were probably right. Dogs have eccrine glands, just like us, that excrete sweat. Theirs are on their paws and aren't that effective at cooling, but keep their pads moist to prevent drying out. They also release pheromones to communicate with other dogs and these are much stronger and longer lasting than the scent in their pee and poop.
As with this entire list, this is inherited behavior and originally the wolf would have been marking their territory. But these pheromones also communicate sexual availability, warnings of danger, whether it's a safe place to poop and even possible food trails. So they're really leaving a note to other dogs on the community noticeboard that they can read while circling before pooping.
Why does my dog squint at me?
Obviously, it's time for an eye-test and some reading spectacles! Only kidding. It's far more obvious than that: they're content and calm and are letting you know. But from an evolutionary perspective, and in terms of communicating with other dogs, they're saying that they have peaceful intentions and are not looking for any rough play; they just wanna chill, man.
Why does my dog dig at their bed?
This goes back to wild canines simply making their bed of leaves or grass or dirt more comfortable before they lie down. Again, this behavior lives on in their DNA and is more instinctive than practical these days, but you might see this happen more with a pregnant female (note: I avoid the real term for female dogs in case Google's algorithm misinterprets it!) as they are preparing their den for their new offspring. This can also be the reason why a female dog might start digging holes in the garden, too.
Another reason for bed digging relates back to the pheromones in their feet: they're marking their bed as their own. It's common for this to occur or increase if you introduce a new dog to the household or another dog visits your house.
If they do this a lot however, maybe that cheap bed you bought on the market just isn't up to their high standards. I recommend you check out our post on Luxury Dog Beds for Pampered Pooches!
Why does my dog roll about on her back on the grass?
Because it's fun. They really enjoy it. Yes, there is an ancient reason for this behavior and, like many of these, it relates to scent again.
Wolves would roll about like this to mask their own scent from their prey. And that's also why our delightful dogs roll in fox mess and other animal deposits, to smell like their prey and not like its predator, even if they don't know that's what they're doing.
(A friend of mine has a lovely lurcher called Gus, and he gets overwhelmed with joy when he rolls in fox poop, as his nature tells him it's the beginning of the chase, which he's bred for. And then he's off, like a rocket, disappearing into the woods after rabbits, instigating a mass search party for the next hour or so...)
But scent marking is also in play here, and the wolf would be leaving their own signature smell to mark their territory. But our domestic dogs don't know any of this; all they know is it's great fun, it feels good and they can scratch an itch while doing it, be it on the grass or on the carpet at home.
If your hound has a penchant for rolling in poop, you might want to look at a selection of dog cleaning kit, here!
Why does my dog sit on my feet?
This is most often just a sign of affection towards you, but when outside the home it can also be a territorial sign of ownership: 'This is my human - get your own!'
Most dogs get great comfort from physical contact with their owner so sitting on your feet is a way of making that connection as they're easily accessible to them. If your dog starts doing it more than normal, they may be suffering from anxiety. Fear could be triggered by loud noises or an unfamiliar location or situation. Signs of stress can be excessive panting, their ears pulled back or their tail tucked between their legs.
Finally, conditioning, or learned behavior, can lead to them choosing your feet as a perch if you routinely get excited or affectionate every time they do it. It makes you happy, which makes them happy, which makes you happy, which... You get the idea.
Why does my dog ask everyone for belly rubs?
The chances are that they don't, but belly rubs are an awesome consequence of a natural, instinctive behavior. Rolling over and showing their belly is a submissive act, and communicates to other dogs, wolves and humans, that they are no threat. Today it's their friendly way of saying 'hello, you can rub my belly, I'm a friendly dog'.
And if you hit that spot, the one that sends their back leg quivering and kicking, well, that dates back to their ancient self, too. There are nerve endings below the skin around sensitive belly areas that are connected to the spine and trigger the leg to kick. This is an evolutionary response for getting rid of irritants, such as bugs, by shaking or kicking them free.
Why does my dog hump visitor's legs?
Is your dog a humper? Do they like to hump guest's legs, or your leg? Maybe they're prone to humping other dogs in the park? Or that poor teddy with the traumatized look on its face? Well, don't worry - they're not filthy sex addicts. In fact it's unlikely to be sexual at all and is instead an act of dominance, or at least testing dominance to find where they stand with the other dog before play begins. Placing a paw on the back of another dog is for the same reason and often happens prior to some mounting, or play.
But like all the evolutionary acts, dogs don't know why they do these things and often these natural, ancient behaviors become something different altogether, and simply releasing energy or expressing joy or over-excitement can manifest in many of the traits above, including humping.
Why does my dog like carrying sticks?
Carrying sticks is a habit that could arguably be dated back to the beginning of our domesticated dog, once wolves started loitering around our camps, scavenging for the remains of our dinners.
They soon started joining us on the hunt, protecting us from other predators, as they were protecting their new source of food. Eventually they would help with the hunt, and soon came to retrieve the food we killed. It's this retrieval that is the ancient behavior your dog exhibits by carrying balls and sticks.
Plus, a stick feels similar to a bone in the mouth, and is also a handy replacement for their favorite toys when they are away from the home.
Dogs younger than six months will also get a lot of pleasure from chewing a stick while they're developing their set of adult teeth, relieving any discomfort of teething. And as I've said, it's enjoyable, even if they don't know its historical significance.
In the same vein, the act of a wolf shaking prey in its mouth to kill it is why domesticated dogs shake their stuffed toys, but now it's just for fun. Unless you're Gus the lurcher - he knows what he's doing!
Why does my dog stare at me?
Because she loves you. And they've learned this from us. But they, like us, also get a boost of oxytocin into their system when we stare into each others' eyes, which is the hormone that helps us bond with our own offspring and makes us happy. They get that feeling too.
But she's mainly staring at you because she's watching every nuance of your own behavior, anticipating what you're about to do, for four reasons, according to Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan:
Attention - they just want you to notice them and give them some affection. You've been busy for a while with the dishes and they miss you. 'Look at me!'
Confusion - they can't always figure out what you're doing, especially when you're walking around the house talking to yourself! 'Is he talking to me?', she thinks. They're focusing on you so as to not miss any cue that might relate to them, or avoid doing anything wrong and getting told off.
Desire - If they stare while holding a ball, they want you to play ball. If they stare while sitting by the back door, they probably want to go outside. If they stare across a fresh-cooked pizza, they're waiting for their slice. They're trying to catch your eye to tell you what it is they want.
Direction - Similar to confusion, when they're trying to figure out what you're about to do, the need for direction might come during training sessions or when they're sat and waiting to be told that they can go and play. My dog Rumble will stop at the river and stare at me, waiting to be told if he can jump in the water or not. He does the same at the roadside, waiting for the signal to cross. A dog that is focused on you is easier to train, and you can marry the stare to a phrase like 'look at me', to help achieve focus in training or in dog activities like agility or obedience.
(Of course, if the dog has a tense, rigid posture while holding the stare, and their ears and tail are up, they may be exhibiting aggression. But it's unlikely your own dog will do this, and if it is a strange dog, don't stare back, look away. Aggressive dogs rarely attack submissive people as they see more forceful people as a greater threat to their social position, according to The Dog's Mind by Bruce Fogle. If it is your own dog doing this, seek professional help.)
So, in conclusion, dogs' behavioral quirks can be traced back to their ancestors, but these days the need to survive has been replaced by the desire to be happy and have fun. Learning to read the different ways your dog communicates with you will enhance your relationship no end. But good luck learning to read the encoded messages in their pee!
Disclaimer: your dog is NOT a wolf. The angle of this piece is slightly tongue-in-cheek, and it's important to stress that, while the quirks listed above can be traced back to domestic dogs' ancestor, the Siberian Wolf, they are a separate species.
Dog trainers worth their salt do not like the comparison between dogs and wolves as this thinking led to the development of dominance theory used in training, a flawed principle based on a 'pack' of wolves who exhibited abnormal, dominant behavior due to being forced to co-exist, despite being from different families.
Around 21,000 years separates Canis Lupus (wolves) from Canis Familiaris (domesticated dogs), and while most of these behaviors are rooted in a wolf's survival needs, relating to hunting and avoiding other wolf packs, domestic dogs apply their own meaning, and it's usually to make them happy. And you'll have a happier more well-balanced dog if you treat them as you treat other family members, rather than dominate them as an 'Alpha' pack leader.
* Two of my go-to books on understanding dogs are: The Dog's Mind by Bruce Fogle, and In Defence of Dogs by John Bradshaw.