There are lots of behaviors that dogs engage in that are misunderstood by humans. While so many of us choose to share our lives with dogs, we often take for granted that we “know” dogs and what makes them tick. And, we often forget that dogs are a completely different species and learn and process information differently and that when they move in to our homes, we are asking them to learn a whole new language.
Some of the most normal behaviors for dogs are unacceptable to the humans who love them. We ask dogs to give up digging and humping, we want them to go potty on our timetable and often, we expect these things without teaching them the right things to do. Once we understand how dogs think, it becomes a bit easier to understand why they engage in the behaviors they do.
Humping or mounting behaviors are probably the least acceptable to humans. There are definitely times when this behavior can be problematic, like at the dog park or in a room full of company, but, it is totally normal. Dogs who are spayed or neutered don’t necessarily know that they can’t reproduce and this behavior is hard-wired and part of their genetic make-up….from way, way back. And, even though it serves no functional purpose anymore, dogs will often engage in this behavior during play or when excited or anxious. If you don’t want your dog to hump: give him something else to do, try to redirect his energy and if all else fails…give him a time-out; remove him from the stimulus for enough time to calm down. Punishing a dog by yelling, grabbing, throwing to the ground for what, to him, is a completely normal behavior will only result in a fearful dog who could redirect his energy in an aggressive way. Contrary to popular belief, humping or mounting is not about dominance. It is about arousal levels in the brain and old genetic software which is hard-wired, whether the dog is neutered or spayed, male or female.
In our house, we have had two examples of canine genetic software gone wild. Our first foster dog, Angie, really enjoyed grabbing a blanket and sucking on it. She would also knead it as if she was trying to stimulate milk production. It was interesting to watch her do it, and she would often choose to do so rather than go for a walk, play or do some training exercises. We also have a 2 year old cat who does this to our female dog, so it seems cats can have some misfires, as well. In our cat, Trixie’s case, it’s a double whammy: she is an adult, no longer in need of milk and obviously, our Savannah is not the same species. I was able to catch Angie in the act and it is interesting to watch.
Our current foster, Hazel, engages in a behavior known as “caching”, which is a digging and burying behavior. Again, it’s a leftover, hard-wired piece of genetics that no longer serves a purpose for her (or any of her domesticated friends) but she doesn’t seem to know this. Hazel does this when we give her any type of hard treat, like a biscuit or a Busy Bone. This behavior served her ancestors well…wolves are much more likely to encounter scavengers than Hazel, but, again, she doesn’t know this. To her, this biscuit needs to be protected and covered completely. Our beagle, Sugar, also engaged in this behavior, but, for her, it was always pretzels that she hid and always in the same spot: behind the chair cushion. At the time Sugar was doing it, I had no idea what it meant, I just thought it was cute…that she was “saving it for later”, but, now that I know, I made a point of recording Hazel doing it, because it is just so interesting to me.
So, next time you see your dog engaging in some unwanted behavior, ask yourself why he might be doing it. The behaviors I mentioned here are called “Fixed Action Patterns” and exist in all species and they manifest themselves in different ways, at different times, which is why they are considered a misfire, or as I call them, “wonky”. They are just part of an organisms make-up. Doesn’t make them right or wrong, good or bad…they just are. And, let’s do our dogs a BIG favor by remembering that they are indeed a different species and have a lot to learn when it comes to living with humans. And, that it is our job to teach them. I mean, they teach us so much, right?? We can learn about joy, unconditional love and the pure bliss of sniffing a breeze from our dogs. Let’s return the favor by learning a bit about how their brains work…since we already know so much about how big their hearts are