Sometimes, we humans can get so used to a particular practice or behavior that we become oblivious to how it might look through another set of eyes. Yet when you serve as pet parent to an inquisitive canine, another set of eyes is almost always watching — and the owner of those eyes is often thinking, “Okay, please cut that out.”
Here are seven human behaviors that many dogs just don’t understand.
We human beings generally understand that hugs are a show of concern and support. But consider for a moment how you feel when someone invades your personal space unexpectedly, without invitation. That’s how certain dogs feel as well. When it comes to standard canine communication, big ol’ bear hugs are basically a foreign concept.
Don’t get me wrong: My own dogs can sometimes appreciate hugs because we’ve bonded over time. Other dogs may silently endure hugs, while still others reject them in no uncertain terms. If you’re not sure what kind of canine mood you’re dealing with, don’t even try to hug the dog.
“When it comes to close body contact, the signs of canine distress can be extremely subtle,” explains Dr. John Ciribassi, board-certified veterinary behaviorist at Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants. So pay very close attention to basic body language. If the pup’s jaw is slack and the ears are relaxed and angled forward, odds are your proximity is being tolerated. If the animal is leaning away, blinking rapidly, lip licking, flattening his ears, glaring, or growling, make some extra space pronto.
Let’s face it: Dressing up as the planet Jupiter or a giant bottle of ketchup can be doggone hilarious, especially after an adult beverage or two. But if you’re a canine, it usually means having your range of motion restricted without comprehending why. It can also mean having something block your line of vision or trip you when you try to go up the stairs.
Consider the general annoyance level for a moment. Some dogs are actually so irritated (or just plain petrified) that they’ll gnaw the costume in half. Others, like our sweet Maizy, are innately submissive people-pleasers who will suppress their inner exasperation at being tricked out like a pineapple so that six different strangers with smartphones can enjoy a quick photo-op. I’ve learned to monitor a dog’s reaction very closely, especially with multiple costumed canines in close proximity (think birthday parties, pet parades, etc.). If you notice signs of anxiety such as crouching, panting, eye-rolling, growling, or trembling, it’s time to let your dog be a dog.
In many human cultures, consistent eye contact is a sign of respect, empathy, affection, and engagement. Dogs communicate volumes with their eyes, so it must be the same for them, right? Not so fast. To a canine, locked eye contact can communicate domination or aggression. Our dog Grant, for example, was terribly abused during the first few years of his life. As a result, he interprets sustained eye contact from a stranger as a direct and imminent threat. Woe to the stranger who does not recognize this in time.
Certainly not all pups are this provoked when it comes to eye contact. But generally speaking, never stare down a dog, especially a dog you’re meeting for the first time. Approach a new dog crouched down, angled to the side. Allow the animal to scent you before going in for an enthusiastic ear scratch. Also, avert your eyes until that canine displays clear signals of friendliness and approachability — affectionate nuzzling or a high, energetic tail-wag, for instance.
Sometimes, you just want to enjoy some quiet alone time curled up with a favorite book or watching sports in the man cave. Our dogs are not feeling this at all. Dogs are intrinsically pack animals, meaning that they feel more secure with nearby companions and some kind of leader. If they’re left alone for long intervals, many begin acting out due to boredom, stress, confusion, or anxiety. You may eventually come home to detonated sofa cushions or some sort of trash container debacle. Remember that certain high-energy dogs, including various working breeds, may be particularly prone to this behavior, but ANY dog can struggle with separation anxiety.
Okay, this is a term I totally made up because it’s just easier than saying “carting your canine around in a diaper bag.” Mind you, I’ve had several laid-back pups who undoubtedly wouldn’t mind this a bit. These are the kinds of dogs who tend to arrange themselves on the couch in a throw pillow-like fashion and then hang out, more or less inert, until the pantry door swings open.
But many canines like to sniff, explore, walk around, pee with abandon, and romp. When you insist on carrying this sort of pup like an accessory, odds are the dog is wondering why he’s constantly being waved around in the air or jostled against the loose change in your purse. There are certainly exceptions — for instance, if your dog is extremely old, injured, or disabled. In such cases, assistance is sometimes not only helpful but necessary. Beyond that, however, the baby treatment can confuse many canines and deprive them of beneficial exercise.
All right, fine, I’ll confess: I’m Italian, and I have an Italian temper. Sometimes — let’s say when certain people leave certain caps off certain containers a certain number of times in a row — I’ll basically lose it. When we humans feel like we’re not being “heard,” we have the occasional urge to crank up the volume. But as I’ve been reminded by numerous animal behaviorists, a canine pack leader is calmly assertive, not overly emotional.
When it comes to communication, dogs place more emphasis on energy, touch, and subtle cues. Combine this with their sensitive hearing, and you can see why a vocal meltdown may sound especially aggressive and scary, particularly when directed at the actual dog. Constant screeching at our dogs to “stop barking!” or “drop that!” can often provoke a frightened “flight” response (in the pup, and possibly the neighbors). Over time, this can create chronic anxiety issues (the neighbor rule applies here, as well). Trainers have always encouraged me to shape pet behavior using treats, praise, and corrective words spoken at a firm but normal volume.
Summer celebrations and annual events like the Super Bowl can be especially dazzling, what with all those sparkly, booming fireworks. But remember, our dogs often view them as repeated explosions coming from all different directions for no discernible reason. If you were placed in a similar situation, you’d probably panic and hide, too.
In fact, certain dogs, like our Grant, are so horrified that they’ll actually self-injure in a frantic attempt to escape the turmoil. When it comes to pyrotechnics, thunder, and other loud noises, canines sometimes feel comforted in a secure, windowless “safe zone” or even a familiar crate. And as animal behaviorists have repeatedly told me: Never, ever leave a nervous dog home alone during the Fourth of July or other firework-laden festivities.
Have you noticed that certain human behaviors confuse and sometimes exacerbate your dog? Share your experiences and tips in the comments!
Read more by Marybeth Bittel:
About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.