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Why Does My Dog Do That?


© Text: the American Kennel Club, Inc., 2004

No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from Text: the American Kennel Club, Inc., .

Nicholas Dodmon is a veterinarian, behaviorist, and founder of the Animal Clinic at Tufts University. He is the author of five books, most recently, if Only They Could Speak: Stories About Pets and Their People. 

Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, Fall 2004, Volume 2, No. 2. To subscribe:

What is the universal play position or down-play position?

Both these terms are synonyms for what is more conventionally known as a play bow-the position adopted by dogs to signal that they want to play or continue playing. The posture is one of having the front end down and forelimbs splayed, while the rear remains elevated, and the tail is slowly wagging. At the same time, the dog's ears are forward, its eyes appear relaxed and smiling, and its lips may be retracted in a sheepish grin. Excited barking sometimes accompanies this inviting posture.

The play bow is "universal" in the sense that all dogs (and even coyotes and wolves) do it. It is a genetically wired behavior that requires little in the way of learning for its completion. Other species engage in behaviors that invite play, but none is as characteristic or unequivocal as the play bow. Though viewed as a composite by another dog, the various components of the play bow may transmit different messages. The fact that the dog's head is lowered to the ground and its eyes are upwardly directed at the intended play partner is an invitation to come forward. That the dog's rear end is elevated implies a lack of complete deference and provides a foundation from which to spring. The flagging tail signals interest and energy while the smiling face implies friendship. The whole gestalt is somewhat ambivalent-a form of body language humor, if you will. Now that's enough to make anyone smile.

I have a female dog who marks. I thought only males did this.

No, marking behavior is not solely in the male province. Females may also engage in this behavior, especially intact bitches in heat. Even spayed females may urine mark from time to time when they have important territorial messages to convey. So, if you wonder why she is marking, you might want to start by noting the location of the "accidents" and go from there.

Often, the location gives away the motivation. If she's an intact female, spaying will likely address the problem. If she's already spayed, then anxiety is probably underlying the behavior. If the cause of the anxiety can be addressed, the urine-marking will cease. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication must be employed to help prevent urine-marking in neutered or intact females.

Do dogs have a sense of humor?

That's a very tricky question. The answer is that they probably do not--at least, not as we know it. Our sense of humor is sometimes very ethnic, often linguistically inclined, and often at the expense of someone else's misfortune. A joke that works well in the United States may not work at all in Japan. A play on words would not work for anyone who did not speak the same language. Some people may think it funny to see a person getting a pie in the face, but others do not.

Cartoonist Gary Larsen once did a cartoon of a man coming into a room, tripping and falling flat on the floor, his face coming to rest in the dog food bowl. The dog looked happy and was wagging his tail and the caption was, "Stimulus response." Cartoons aside, it is unlikely that dogs would share the same humor that we do. However, the play bow (as explained [above]), in its ambivalence and energy, a "come on" or "I dare you," accompanied by twinkling eyes and a smile, might be the nearest thing to humor in the dog world. Happiness they have. Humor, who knows?

Why does it take my Toy Fox Terrier, Jorge, so long to find just the right spot to urinate, even though I know he really has to go?

Most dogs must thoroughly investigate the area first to imbibe the various olfactory or pheromonal" signals previously deposited there by themselves or other dogs.

Even simply establishing an "all clear" (that no other pup has left a warning pee mail signal), is, to Jorge, a worthwhile exercise. Once the significance of the location has been established, a dog is free to evacuate his bladder. We fail to understand this type of behavior because humans do not live in the same olfactory world as dogs do. Our sense of smell is considerably inferior and, to us, the whole exercise of sniffing before urinating appears pointless.

Humans also fail to appreciate the dual significance of urination as an elimination process and as a means of communication. It's the ultimate "two-fer deal."

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