Dogs perform many behaviours that we humans think are adorable. They also perform some quite unsavoury ones, with some owners trying to prevent them carrying out these instinctive animal antics. Dogs are dogs and understanding why they perform certain behaviours should make it easier to know what is normal and what is not.
One of the questions I am asked above all else is “Is what my dog doing normal?”. And, in most cases, it is perfectly typical behaviour but just not something that we are familiar or even comfortable with. Even unwanted behaviour like dog-on-dog aggression can be typical behaviour as a result of mating rivalry or past trauma.
The key is to understand the root cause of the behaviour and then address that (if it needs to be addressed). I’ll be honest here, some behaviours you will just have to let happen.
Below are the questions I am asked most frequently, along with some comments on whether they are normal dog behaviours or not. You might read through this and find that you need further advice on a behaviour you are particularly worried about.
As always, my first advice if your dog’s behaviour takes a sudden change is to visit a vet and have them medically examined. Illness can cause your dog to seem odd, aggressive or withdrawn.
Why Do Dogs Sniff Crotches?
Most owners are aware that dogs sniff each other bums; they might not know why but they usually allow it. But when our dogs get their noses into a guest’s crotch, it can be embarrassing. Sniffing is one of the most natural behaviours a dog exhibits.
A dog’s most dominate sense is their sense of smell. They are able to gather a lot of information, such as sex, age, health, mood and well-being, from sweat glands. The scent produced by sweat glands is often most concentrated around the genital areas and (in humans) the arm pits but most dogs can’t reach up to those.
Crotch sniffing to a dog is not bad manners. It is the normal way to greet a dog, and is reinforced by other dogs when they greet in the same manner. A dog has no idea that placing its nose into the crouch of a human is not socially acceptable unless we teach them.
Training out unwanted crotch sniffing is easy if you are consistent and offer an alternative. Your dog’s instinct is to find out as much as they can from the person they have just greeted. Typically, strangers tend to get more attention as their scent is brand new. When dogs become familiar to a scent, they do not need to gain information from it as much as they already know everything they need to know. We cannot train out this instinct, instead we can redirect it.
Each time your dog attempts to crotch sniff, you give a clear instruction to stop, such as a “No, sit”, “No, back up”, “No, look at me”. You can then ask the person to offer their hand slowly and palm up (more sweat glands). When your dog sniffs their hand give the dog a signal that this is the right thing to do (“good boy” or ”yes”). Initially, you can also reward with a treat to reinforce the behaviour. Most dogs will cotton on and within a few months your dog will understand that hand sniffing is more socially acceptable than crotch sniffing.
Humping for dogs is very normal and is not always about sex! It is usually a satisfying way to relieve stress, however there are other reasons for it too.
Some dogs exhibit humping when in play. It may make us feel uncomfortable, but this is sometimes just another form of play. It does not mean they are being sexually aroused or being dominate. I have often seen side humping occurring. However, if your dog is especially targeting another, not listening to their communication to back off and their grabs are becoming harder, than this is a different situation and you should intervene to prevent distress or harm to the other dog.
Humping feels goods and can be a very intuitive way to relief stress. Dogs become stressed for many different reasons and can be masters at hiding it. Or, maybe more appropriately put, bottling it all up. They then use humping as a stress release outlet.
Dogs that have obsessive compulsive disorder will often turn to humping if their OCD habit is interrupted or prevented. A dog that compulsively licks the carpet may turn to humping the pillow (or the next visitor) if the owner stops them from licking. In some cases humping could actually work as an alternative to the unwanted OCD habit, if trained the right way. An owner could train a dog to hump their “personal” pillow in the room next door for relief, for example. The key is to work our why your dog is humping and whether it is connected to stress.
It's not always about sex!
Humping could also be a symptom of something beyond behaviour modification. It could be the result of a medical condition and could be worth visiting the vet. Dogs with anxiety often hump as a coping mechanism. You may find that homeopathic or prescribed medicine is necessary to treat your dog. But try to remember that it could also be a quick relief and the best thing is to let them get on with it.
Why Does My Dog Eats Poo
Some dogs eat poo. Not all, but you may have a stool-eater in the family and find it really gross. Some eat their own. Some eat the droppings of other dogs. And some will eat the poo of another animal. If your dog is into eating poop, it is a hard trait to train out. Now, whilst this is revolting to us, it is a normal behaviour for not just dogs, but much of the animal kingdom. My greyhound Tipps has no interest in poo whatsoever, thankfully. But when he stayed with my in-laws, their Bichon started following him out to the garden in hopes of another dinner.
There is a valid reason behind this unsavoury diet. When a dog has a well-balanced and rich diet, their digestion does not break down all the food completely. This leaves nutritious crumbs in their poo. Some dogs are then attracted to the possibility of a good meal and will tuck right in without hesitation. It is a chance to get more nutrients into their bodies and is quite instinctual, with hound breeds being the most likely to exhibit this behaviour. Probably because of their super-strong noses.
So, what are you supposed to do to stop your dog eating faeces when you are out? It’s a tricky one. Research has shown that changing your dog’s diet does not change their behaviour towards eating poo. It was commonly thought that dogs that eat poop are in some way seeking out more nutrients because they are lacking it, but I do not believe this the case. The best advice I have is to train him to “leave it” and reward good behaviour. If you have a dog that likes to eat poop, he likes to eat poop and that is that.
Why does my dog rub his bum along the ground?
Commonly known as scooting, and quite often a comical sight, dogs will drag their bums across the ground. But why? When it is your dog, it can be concerning, or even embarrassing in some circumstances. But it is useful to know that there are a handful of reasons that make this act quite normal behaviour from your dog.
Dogs perform this behaviour in almost all cases because something is irritating their anus. The causes range from something as simple as an itch, to more serious issues such as worms, wounds or tumours. It is well worth taking note of how often your dog does this as a trip to the vet may be necessary to address a medical issue.
If you have it in you, you can check your dog’s bum before going to the veterinary clinic. Use gloves and lift your dog’s tail. The anus should be clean and free from any smells. If you see any form or swelling, redness, and/or discharge, visit your vet. One common causes of continuous scooting is a problem with your dog’s anal sacs. These are located just inside the rectum and are what our dogs are sniffing at when they greet each other. If you can smell a foul odour, this generally indicates that they are infected or impacted in some way and you should visit your vet. If you see tiny white specs that resemble grains of rice, it is likely your dog has worms and, you guessed it, you should visit your vet.
Why does my dog sleep all day?
The average dog will sleep between 12-14hrs, made up of day time naps and overnight sleep. It is more concerning if your dog is not napping during the day or consistently restless at night. This could mean there is something complicated going on.
Dogs need sleep to remain healthy. Much like us, when they do not have enough sleep, they become cranky. Lack of sleep may cause them to be needy and whine, become extremely restlessness or sluggish and disinterested. A day like this after a bad night’s sleep is normal and you should allow for the odd cranky day. Try and tire your dog out with a long walk or game of fetch to send them back to sleep.
Dogs that have severe sleep disorders will exhibit more concerning behaviours. Such as excessively whining or crying, becoming disoriented performing basic tasks or even aggressive as they are increasingly on edge and paranoid from the lack of rest. These symptoms should be discussed with a veterinarian to rule out any medical related issues. Painful arthritis, for example, could be causing insomnia as your dog cannot be still and comfortable. Prescribed pain relief or special massage treatments could help. Sleep Apnea which we commonly see in flat-faced dogs and obese dogs, will cause your dog to jolt awake when their airways block. Multiple sleep interruptions can be frustrating and leave a dog feeling constantly tired.
It is a very good sign if your dog sleeps during the day. It means they are getting plenty of exercise, they have a well-balanced and healthy diet and they are extremely content and feel safe in their surroundings.
My dog snaps when startled awake!
“Let sleeping dogs lie” is never more apt than if you have a dog that reacts when startled during sleep. Greyhounds are well known for this. I had quite a few shocks of my own when my retired racer, Tipps, suddenly lunged at me, teeth bared after I woke him.
The startle reflex is instinctive in wild animals for obvious reasons. Our domestic dogs still carry some of these wild traits and it’s not uncommon for a sleeping dog to attempt a bite when awakened. Most people could forgive a dog that lashes out if they were suddenly trodden on or struck by something falling on them as they slept. However, sleep startles can occur if your loving pet is woken suddenly by touch, movement or noise. It is impossible to know how deeply your dog is sleeping and what will startle them awake. This is why sleep startles can be quite alarming. In almost all cases, your dog will see within a second or two that it was just you and may even look horrified for potentially harming you.
How to manage it
If you have a dog with sleep startles, then that is just the way they are. Shouting or punishing them will not cure it. It is actually more likely to create a sleeping disorder as your dog worries about going to sleep. My best advice is to accept it and manage it responsibly. Advise family, friends and guests who are likely to come into contact with your dog while he is sleeping that he has this condition, so they can behave accordingly.
Try to gently rouse your dog by quietly calling their name before you move suddenly or want a big cuddle. They may just come around for a few seconds before nodding off again but this will be enough to prevent a startled wake up.
Why does my dog freeze while out walking?
This is a difficult question to answer precisely as there can be many reasons for freezing. We should also bear in mind that dogs are ever-observant to our responses, and will repeat a behaviour if it wields a reward.
When dogs feel uneasy they tend to freeze, access the situation and then decide what to do. Some of these freezes happen without an owner even being aware that they have occurred. Their dogs moves swiftly on and the moment of unease has passed. Other owners are coping with freezing multiple times throughout the course of a walk, making it quite distressing for both owner and dog.
Dogs have extremely sensitive noises, amazing hearing, and an incredible line of vision (sighthounds in particular). They may smell, hear or see something that us humans are not aware of. This smell, sound or glimpse can make them feel uneasy or frightened causing them to freeze and refuse to move. Maybe they can hear the neighbourhood bully dog in the distance, smell the treat lady’s biscuits or see kids in hoodies which remind them of past trauma. Any of these reasons, and many more like them, could cause your dog to stop and rethink the route you are currently on.
It could be something else.... which you should still listen to.
Of course, there are other reasons. Maybe our dog is tired and wants to return home. Or they are thirsty and want a drink. Their feet are aching. They are stubborn and want to walk a different route. They may remember the bread that was left out for the birds at No.21, two streets up and hope it will be there again today because today they are not interested in playing ball in the park.
Depending on how bad the walks have become, I say walk where your dog’s wants to go. If that is not the direction you want then humour your dog and circle back. Sometimes you may need to use a treat or lots of praise and encouragement to go in the direction you want. But, be careful not to create another reason for your dog to freeze. They may start to freeze in order to be offered a treat to start moving again.
Is your dog is showing signs of severe fearfulness. These include; tail between legs, shaking, flitting from one spot to another, distress peeing. I would suggest contacting a canine behaviourist and dog trainer to understand the triggers and work on building confidence.
Is my Dog Normal?
When it comes to whether your dog is normal or not my advice is: If in doubt, call a professional. Many of them will offer a free telephone or online consultation to talk though your concerns and offer advice. Please comment below or contact me if you have any dog related concerns you would like to discuss.