Dog behaviours and what they mean

Dogs will be dogs. They eat, lick, fetch (maybe) and give unlimited love. They’ll also chew, bite, dig and bark, and while some of these behaviours are not ideal, they are still pretty normal. Thankfully, you can train your dog out of most problematic behaviours. Here are some normal traits, and some you should be wary of.

The way a healthy dog behaves is individual and depends on its age, breed or type and past experience. For example, my border collie loves to herd the cats even though he’s never been on a farm in his life. Drastic changes in behaviour for no reason may indicate a health problem.

Crotch sniffing
When our dog buries its nose in a guest’s crotch it can be embarrassing, but sniffing is one of the most natural behaviours dogs exhibit. Their sense of smell is their most dominant sense and they can gather a lot of information with a good sniff.

When dogs greet other dogs, they usually sniff around each other’s rear ends. A lot can be gained from scents produced by dogs and humans alike: health status, gender and even mood are just some of the things dogs can learn from these odours.

The scent produced by sweat glands is often most concentrated around the crotch and (in humans) the armpits, but most dogs can’t reach up there.

So, crotch sniffing is not bad manners and a dog has no idea that it’s socially unacceptable unless we teach them. It can be easy to redirect unwanted crotch sniffing if an alternative is consistently offered when new people are around.

Each time your dog tries to crotch sniff, give a clear instruction to stop and ask the new person to slowly offer their hand, palm up, for the dog to smell. Make sure to offer praise and, initially, you can also reward with a treat to reinforce the behaviour.

Tail chasing
Typically, tail chasing is a playful behaviour, especially in puppies and younger dogs. It’s akin to babies grabbing their toes, it’s a way to explore the body and is not usually a problem unless they do it all the time. If it bothers you, try to distract them with a toy or ball.

It can indicate a problem with anal sacs or a skin condition, but you can determine whether the tail chasing is just for fun or if they are itchy or in pain by watching their general attitude. Are they playful and hopping around, or are they acting distressed and very focused on the tail? If the dog chews forcefully when the tail is caught or he does it at odd moments, it may be time for a check-up.

If they would rather chase their tail than eat or go for a walk, it’s a problem and you may need to talk to your vet about training or medication.

It can be embarrassing when you’re out for a walk and your dog defiantly drops to the ground to drag her bottom across the asphalt. But it may be nice to know that there are a few reasons that make this quite a normal dog behaviour.

It’s quite common for dogs to scoot after doing their business – especially if their stool is loose. And it can even be prompted by something as innocent as an itch. But it can also indicate some more serious issues like worms, wounds, or overfull or impacted anal sacs.

It’s good to keep a note of how often your dog does this and visit the vet if it increases in frequency.

Watching your dog get personal with the new sofa might be a bit awkward, but, unfortunately, it’s pretty typical behaviour. It may be good to know that it’s not usually about sex and is a good way for them to relieve stress. Dogs with anxiety often hump as a coping mechanism.

Some dogs may also hump while playing with other dogs and it doesn’t always mean they are sexually aroused or being dominating.

Male, female, neutered, intact, humping can feel good to all dogs and it is usually okay to look the other way. However, if your dog is especially targeting another, not listening to commands and won’t back off, you should intervene to prevent distress or harm to the other dog.

If your dog has suddenly started humping and you’re not sure why, it may be a sign of stress. Look at the household and try to pinpoint when it started and what could have triggered it.

Eating poo
Some dogs eat poo. Not all, but if you have one in the family it can be quite concerning. Usually, the first reaction is of disgust but that can quickly turn to ‘is something wrong?’ Unfortunately, it’s quite normal and is a hard trait to train out. You may be glad to know that it’s a common behaviour for much of the animal kingdom.

There is a reason behind the snacking. When a dog has a well-balanced and rich diet (like most family pets) their digestion does not completely break down all the food. That leaves nutritious crumbs in their excrement. Some dogs can sniff this out and are too tempted by the prospect of an extra meal. It’s just their instincts telling them they can get more nutrients into their bodies. Hound breeds are most likely to exhibit this behaviour, probably down to their super-strong sense of smell.

So, how do you stop it? Your best bet is to teach your dog the command ‘leave’ and reward good behaviour.

Sleeping all day
The average dog actually sleeps between 12 and 14 hours a day, made up of daytime naps and a longer overnight sleep. It’s more concerning if your dog is not napping or is very restless at night.

Lack of sleep can cause them to be cranky or needy and the odd day of this is expected, just as we have a bad night’s sleep every now and then. But severe sleep disorders can cause worrying behaviours like constant whining or crying, becoming disorientated or even aggressive.

Sleep apnoea can be common in flat-faced and obese dogs and will cause a dog to jolt awake when their airways become blocked, interrupting their sleep.

It’s a good sign if your dog sleeps in the day, as it shows they are getting enough exercise and feel safe in their surroundings.

Rolling in bad smells
I’m sure we’ve all witnessed this one before, along with the drop in your stomach when you realise there’s no way you can stop him before he flings himself down and starts rolling. The damage is done and now he needs a bath. We don’t know exactly why dogs like to roll in the dead, decaying and disgusting, but it’s not a dangerous behaviour and doesn’t indicate something is wrong.

There are some plausible ideas, including the innate desire to disguise their dog scent from prey. That’s something you can’t change, so try to steer your dog clear of the enticing smelly spots if you can.

Head pressing
If you notice your dog pressing its head against the wall or another firm object, there’s a need for your immediate attention. Head pressing is a common sign of numerous serious problems, such as toxic poisoning or brain disease. Make an appointment with a vet right away.

What type of dog do you have? Does your dog do any of those things? Do you have any more odd behaviours to add to the list?

Also read: Vegetables dogs can and can’t eat

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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