What humans get wrong about dog behavior

My family is one of nearly 23 million American households that have had a pandemic pet, and Ozzy, our beloved new German Shepherd-Afghan Hound-Chow Chow mix, has brought us joy during a very difficult time. . A 2021 study found that, during the pandemic, people who owned dogs felt more socially supported and were less likely to show symptoms of depression than people who didn’t own a dog but wanted one. Ozzy’s rock star fur, which looks teased and crimped around his head – he’s named after Ozzy Osbourne – and weird monkey noises make us laugh, and my kids love to play tug of war with it him outside.

But Ozzy has also been a pain in the ass at times, doing things like jumping on the kitchen table to steal my burrito and pulling his leash like a sled dog on walks. So a few months ago my partner and I hired a trainer to help us figure it out. The first thing our trainer, Amber Marino, taught us was that we probably misinterpret a lot of Ozzy’s behavior, as most owners do. “Dogs always communicate with us, but most of the time we don’t listen, which can lead to behavioral issues,” she told me. I was surprised to learn from her that when a puppy rolls over, he doesn’t necessarily want to rub his tummy – he may just want space. I’d always assumed that when a dog wags its tail it means it’s happy, but it could actually mean it’s excited and about to go wild.

I wanted to know more about what causes dogs to act the way they do, so I reached out to several scientists to explain what humans are wrong with when it comes to canine behavior. Here are some fascinating things I learned.

Recognize the signs of distress

One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they often miss the signs that dogs are stressed or anxious, which is often a precursor to aggressive behavior. According to experts, a stressed puppy may show fear by licking its lips, yawning, lifting a front paw, losing hair, scratching, shaking, panting or pacing. His eyes can also change: when we took our other dog, Henry, to the dog park, he sometimes had what my partner and I called “crazy eye”: his eyes would widen and you would see more whites. I only recently realized it’s a phenomenon called whale’s eye, and it’s often a sign of canine distress.

This doesn’t mean that every time your dog pant, yawns, or lifts his paw, he’s about to collapse. Dogs also pant when they are hot. Some dogs, like pointers, raise their front paws when they detect a scent. Yawning can also mean, of course, that your dog is tired. To understand what a dog’s body language and behavior is saying, “you have to look at the dog’s whole body and you have to think about the context that you’re in,” said Sarah Byosiere, psychologist and director of the Thinking Dog Center. at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.

So if your dog is panting but not hot or out of breath, or yawning but not looking tired, yes, he could be stressed. And especially if you see a constellation of these stressful behaviors at once, it’s a good sign that your pup is uncomfortable, Byosiere said.

If your dog is out of shape, what should you do? First, try to figure out what might be causing his discomfort, said Angie Johnston, psychologist and director of the Boston College Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory. Are you in an unfamiliar place? Does your dog meet new people or new dogs? Once you get a feel for what might be making your pup uncomfortable, “retreat from that activity,” she said, and see if those anxious behaviors dissipate.

Tail movements are another thing we think we understand but usually don’t. “By far the most common misconception is that wagging the tail definitely means the dog is happy,” Johnston said. If a dog’s tail wags smoothly and relaxed, then yes, they’re probably content, Johnston said – but if the tail only wags slightly and feels stiff, it can be a sign they’re on edge. to be aggressive. Research also suggests that when a dog is wagging its tail, it leans more to the right, it is happy, but if it leans more to the left, it feels hostile.

Managing a dog’s social life

Many of the mistakes we make as dog owners revolve around how we handle their social interactions. Often we don’t recognize the signs – panting, stiff tail wagging, lip licking, yawning – that our dog is uncomfortable around other people or dogs and needs help. Responding to their cues may mean asking other people to give your dog some space. Maybe that means leaving the dog park and going home. “The worst thing you can do is probably do nothing,” Byosiere said. If you don’t intervene, you also increase the risk of them becoming aggressive.

One of the reasons we make these mistakes is that we tend to assume dogs are more outgoing than they really are. “People who love dogs love meeting new dogs. But not all dogs love meeting new people or new dogs,” said Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who founded his Canine Cognition Center. If you want to meet a dog, first ask the owner if it’s okay and respect him if he refuses.

If the owner says everything is fine, slowly approach the dog. Stop a few feet away, kneel or crouch down and see if the dog approaches you, Hare suggested. If he doesn’t—and especially if he stares or walks away—take that as a sign that you shouldn’t approach any further. If you see some of the distress signals mentioned earlier, that’s also a sign that he’s feeling nervous and you should back off. And don’t approach a dog with an outstretched hand, Hare said — it can trigger aggression in dogs that have been abused, and it could lead to a bite. Instead, hold your hand in a fist or don’t extend your hand at all.

Don’t anthropomorphize your puppy

Experts have told me that we often attribute our dog’s actions to feelings he doesn’t really have. I always assumed that Ozzy licks my face because he loves me. But — and boy, was I sorry to hear that — dogs often lick their faces because they’re hoping to get a taste of what you’ve recently eaten, says evolutionary anthropologist and comparative psychologist Evan MacLean. at the University of Arizona. (This stems from the behavior of young wolves, which lick the inside of their mothers’ mouths so that their mothers regurgitate food to eat. Which explains why dogs do gross things like eat people’s vomit.)

Another mistake we make is assuming that dogs like the same things we do. Yes, some dogs like to be petted and cuddled. But many don’t. Ozzy sometimes rolls over on his back when my 11-year-old pets him, and that may be because he feels uncomfortable, not because he wants to rub his tummy, MacLean said – though it’s true, he said, that it can be hard to tell the difference.

Also, that guilty look you see on your dog’s face after he’s done something “wrong”? Research shows that’s not really a sign that she’s feeling sheepish — she’s probably just reacting to your anger.

“Dogs show this gaze as a response to their behavior or tone of person, not to them doing something we consider wrong,” said Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who leads Barnard College Dog Cognition. Lab.

Ultimately, dogs understand us much better than we understand them, Johnston said. Over thousands of years of domestication, they have become “very good at reading our emotions”, she said, but “I don’t think it has worked as much the other way around”. To do well with our beloved dogs, we really need to get to know them – and their weird little clues. I realize now that Ozzy communicated his needs to us pretty clearly, but we just weren’t receptive – and now that we’re paying more attention to it, he’s behaved much better. We’re still working on his burrito-stealing propensity, though. This one is more difficult to tame.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.