Behaviour and Senses of your Pet


For over 12,000 years, dogs have been closely associated with man. Although the dog would have had to earn his keep by means of hunting and retrieving, guarding and scavenging skills, there is no doubt that even in those very early days, his relationship with man involved the qualities of mutual affection, trust and understanding.

Dogs are descended from wolves, although there is some debate as to whether man actually domesticated the wolf to form the dog or whether it was a more gradual and passive process, whereby the less timid wolves gradually came into close association with man.

The exact timing of domestication is also under debate. Although most people agree that dogs were living with man some 12,000 years ago, there are some suggestions that domestication may have occurred as far back as 80,000 years ago.

Feeding Behaviour

Dogs are carnivorous by nature, although they do show considerable flexibility in their diet and in the wild they may also eat plant materials, such as grass and berries. Although the means by which domestic dogs obtain their food is rather different from their wild ancestors, the underlying behavioural mechanisms on which food selection is based may still be intact, if somewhat modified by the process of domestication.

Although some dogs appear to be largely indiscriminate in their choice of food, others, especially dogs of the smallest and the largest breeds, can be selective feeders. Dogs prefer a meat to a cereal-based diet although they may prefer one type, such as beef, over another. They enjoy a wide range of tastes and are often partial to sweet foods, as well as foods with a salty or sharp taste. The smell of the food is also important and has a considerable effect on its palatability.

Most dogs will quite happily eat the same type of food every day. This is perfectly reasonable provided that it is a balanced diet and contains all the essential nutrients. However, many dogs enjoy some variety in their diet, although unfamiliar foods may be rejected at first or can result in a bout of diarrhoea. An alternative variety of their usual brand is the best option.

Although in the wild it is common for several days to elapse between meals, most dogs would prefer to receive their food ration in more than one meal per day. Whatever regime you follow, problems may be avoided if you match your dog’s total food consumption to his energy requirement and, of course, ensure that the overall diet is nutritionally complete and balanced.

Most dogs will tend to overeat if allowed unlimited access to food, although there is considerable variation between breeds and between individuals. This may be related to the tendency to gorge-feed in the wild, when they may have to last several days between kills. They are protective about their food and will even fend off more dominant individuals while eating. In the home, your dog must be trained from an early age to relinquish his food to you if requested. However, children should be taught not to approach a dog who is eating or chewing a bone.


Scents in the air and those on the ground can provide the dog with a wealth of information about the comings and goings in the locality and may be considered the canine equivalent of the local daily newspaper. There are two ways in which the dog may communicate through smell. First, they may deposit scents in their faeces, urine or glandular secretions for other dogs to discover and secondly, the smell of their own body will convey information about themselves.

Urination in dogs does not simply serve to empty the bladder. Most owners are aware of the male dog’s desire to cock his leg frequently and deposit small quantities of urine at numerous locations. This is a means of marking his territory and advertising his presence. By raising the leg to pass urine, the scent is deposited at nose level. Female dogs may also raise one hind leg when urinating and some will perform an acrobatic handstand by raising both hind legs off the ground in order to leave urine against a vertical object!

Both male and female dogs will earnestly investigate the scent marks left by other dogs and may overmark the area with their own urine – a dominant female may stand behind another urinating female in order to deposit urine on the same site. Although territorial marking is less important for the domestic dog than in the wild, it is likely that scent marking helps to make him feel relaxed by inundating the area with his own, familiar scent.

The urine of the female dog will also contain information about her oestrous cycle and sexual receptivity. Male dogs, in particular, can detect this and may travel long distances to seek out a bitch on heat.

General body odours are also an important means of communication between dogs. The scent is produced by the secretions of glands around the body, particularly around the face, the anal region and the tail. When unfamiliar dogs meet, they will investigate each other by sniffing, particularly the head and anal region. The more submissive dog may carry his tail between his legs to prevent further sniffing.

The Dog’s Senses

In the wild, dogs survive by hunting and scavenging and their body senses have developed so as to help them do this.

All dogs have a very well developed sense of smell. Their nose is about as sensitive as our eyes when it comes to distinguishing between two similar individuals. Smell is not just important for finding food, it is also one of the most important means of communication for the dog. A dog’s sense of smell is 100 times more sensitive than humans

Although they can see well in the distance, which is useful when hunting, most dogs are not able to focus on objects which are closer than about 25cm. They are able to distinguish between colours, although these may appear muted to the dog and they see more clearly than humans in dim light. Although their ability to see detail is limited, dogs are very sensitive to movement. A stationary object may not be noticed from a distance, but the dog will be able to detect it as soon as it moves.

Hearing is well developed in dogs and they can hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies and a greater distance than man. We often exploit this ability when we use ultrasonic whistles as training aids. Dogs may find high-pitched noises, such as those emitted by the vacuum cleaner and other household appliances, uncomfortable or even painful. Hearing ability is superior in breeds with erect ears, which act as amplifiers for incoming sounds and in those which can swivel their ears in the direction of the sound.

Taste, along with smell, plays an important part in determining the particular foods an individual dog prefers to eat. Most dogs enjoy a wide range of tastes and many are known to have a “sweet tooth”.

Like all other mammals, dogs are sensitive to temperature and pain and will respond with pleasure to a friendly touch. Body sensitivity varies between dogs, but most enjoy being stroked around the head, chest and back. However, many are defensive about being touched around their tail and rump, or on their feet.

Hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell are all important, but in today’s pet dog the degree to which each of these is developed has been modified by years of selective breeding. For example, the fast hounds, such as the Greyhound, Afghan and Saluki all hunt by sight and lose interest if they cannot see their prey. On the other hand, Bloodhounds, Basset hounds and Beagles all hunt by smell and will follow a scent, which may be up to a week old, for hours on end.

Pic1 One of the reasons why dogs make such good pets is the remarkable way in which they can communicate with humans. Pet dogs see us as an extension of their own canine family and are very quick to interpret our own mood and intentions. An understanding of how dogs communicate with other dogs will help the observant owner to correctly decipher the message their pet is trying to convey.

Dogs can communicate with other dogs through a series of signals including a variety of facial expressions, body postures, noises and scents. Your dog will use his mouth, eyes, ears and even his tail to express his emotions. By reading the combination of body signals, you should be able to work out who is top dog in any confrontation or situation.

A dog that is feeling confident or aggressive will try to convey the impression of being a larger, more powerful animal. He will stand tall with ears and tail erect, thrust his chest forward and may raise the hairs around his neck and along his back (his hackles). He may also wave his tail slowly and growl.

Pic2 A submissive dog, on the other hand, will try to appear small and puppy-like. Adult dogs will chastise puppies, but they do not attack them. The approach to a more dominant individual is likely to be from the side, crouching low with the tail held low and wagging enthusiastically. He may also try to lick the hands and face of the dominant dog or person and if this is not sufficiently appeasing, he might then roll on to his back to expose his groin. In this position, some dogs may pass a small volume of urine.
 Pic3 One pattern of behaviour which is characteristic of dogs and familiar to almost everyone is tail wagging. Most people would recognise that loose, free tail wagging is indicative of pleasure and a general friendliness. Exaggerated tail wagging, which extends to the entire rump, may be seen in subordinate dogs – as well as those dogs with very short tails.

The tail, however, is also an indicator for other emotions. A tail waved slowly and stiffly, in line with the back, expresses anger. Clamped low over the dog’s hindquarters, it is a sign that the dog is afraid. Anxious or nervous dogs may stiffly wag their drooping tails as a sign of appeasement.

The normal tail carriage of the dog has been modified through breeding and docking. Some breeds, such as the Whippet and the Italian Greyhound naturally carry their tail in the clamped down position, but in general, a tail held at higher than 45 degrees to the spine expresses interest and alertness.

 Pic4 The facial expressions of your dog will tell you a lot about his mood, whether he is anxious or excited, frightened or playful or any one of a vast repertoire of emotions he may express.

The ears are pricked when he is alert or listening intently, but are held back or flattened onto the head when expressing pleasure, submission or fear. To read his mood correctly, you must watch for other body signals at the same time.

The eyes may be narrowed or half-closed in pleasure or submission, but are wide open when aggressive. In the wild, the pack leader can maintain control simply by staring at a subordinate dog. The two animals will continue to stare at each other until one challenges the other or until one lowers his head and turns away. If the staring continues after the submissive dog has looked away, he will feel confused and may bite out of fear. If eye contact is not broken, the dominant dog will reinforce his threat by snarling, growling or even attack. You should not try to outstare your dog if he has aggressive or nervous tendencies as this could provoke an attack. Nevertheless, regular, gentle eye contact with his owner is reassuring for your dog and will reinforce your relationship.

Submissive dogs and those of certain breeds, notably Labradors, may appear to be ‘smiling’ when they open their mouth to show the teeth in a lop-sided grin of friendliness. In the snarl of aggression, however, both lips are drawn right back to expose most of the teeth and may be accompanied by a growl.

 Pic5 A dog will indicate his desire to play, raising a front paw, or by performing the play bow, which is often accompanied by barking to attract attention. Other gestures include offering a play object, or bounding up to another dog to invite chase.

Sexual Behaviour

Like all other animals, dogs have a basic drive to reproduce and ensure the survival of their particular gene pool. However, the female will only mate at specific times, usually twice a year, when she is said to be on heat or in season. On the other hand, adult male dogs will mate at any time of the year and, if allowed to roam, may travel long distances to seek out a bitch that is on heat.

The bitch is usually in season for about three weeks, and she becomes increasingly attractive to males during this period. Her own behaviour may also change and she may become restless and more excitable, but it is normally not until the second week of her season that the bitch will allow the male to mate with her. However, all bitches are different and sometimes a male can mate a bitch as early as the first day of her season or as late as the last day. Therefore, be sure to keep your bitch well away from male dogs right throughout her season, unless you wish to breed.

Some bitches will show some of the signs of pregnancy one or two months after a season, even if she is not pregnant or has not even been mated. This is often referred to as a false, phantom or pseudo-pregnancy. Affected bitches may produce milk and display other signs of maternal behaviour, such as making nests and mothering toys or other items. Seek advice from your veterinary surgeon if this occurs.

Some aspects of reproductive behaviour in dogs can be a nuisance for their owners. Neutering, or some other form of reproductive control, may be advisable if you do not want to breed from your dog. Your veterinary surgeon will advise you on the options available.

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