Mine is one of an estimated 23 million American families that have adopted a pet during the pandemic, and Ozzy, our beloved new German Shepherd, Afghan Hound, and Chow Chow crossbreed, brought us joy during a very difficult time.
A 2021 study found that in the pandemic, people who owned dogs felt more socially supported and were less likely to have symptoms of depression than those who didn’t own dogs but wanted to.
Ozzy’s rock star fur, which looks spiky and curled around his head — he’s named after Ozzy Osbourne — and his weird monkey-like noises make us laugh, and my kids love playing tug-of-war with them. him in the backyard.
But Ozzy is also very annoying at times, doing things like jumping over the kitchen table to steal my sandwich or pulling on the leash like a sled dog when we walk. So a few months ago my partner and I hired a trainer, Amber Marino, to help us understand him.
The first thing she taught us was that we were probably misinterpreting a lot of Ozzy’s behavior, which most owners do.
“Dogs are always communicating with us, but most of the time we’re not listening, which can lead to behavioral problems,” she said. I was surprised to learn that when a dog rolls around on the floor he doesn’t necessarily want a belly rub – he may just want more space.
I’ve always thought that when a dog wags his tail it means he’s happy, but in fact it can mean he’s excited and about to run.
I wanted to know more about what makes dogs act the way they do, so I got in touch with several scientists to explain to me what humans get wrong when it comes to canine behavior. Here are some fascinating things I learned.
Recognize the signs of stress
A major mistake people make is that they often don’t notice the signs that dogs are stressed or anxious — which often precedes aggressive behavior.
According to experts, a stressed puppy can show that it is scared by licking its lips, yawning, lifting a front paw, shedding fur, scratching, shivering, panting or pacing.
Eyes can change, too: when we used to take our other dog, Henry, to the dog park, he would sometimes adopt what my partner and I called a “crazy eye”—his eyes bulged and we saw more of the whites. I only recently learned that this is a phenomenon called “whale eye”, and it is often a sign of canine stress.
This doesn’t mean that every time your dog pants, yawns, or lifts his paw, he’s on the verge of a breakdown. Dogs also pant when they feel hot. Some of them, like Pointers, raise a front paw when they catch a scent. Yawning can also, of course, mean that the dog is tired.
To understand what a dog’s body language and behavior is saying, “you have to look at his whole body and assess the context he’s in,” said Sarah Byosiere, a psychologist and director of the Thinking Dog Center. ) at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, United States.
If the dog is in trouble, what should you do? First, try to figure out what might be causing the discomfort, said Angie Johnston, a psychologist and director of the Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory at Boston College. Are you in an unfamiliar place? Is your dog meeting new people or dogs? Once you have an idea of what might be bothering you, “walk away from that activity,” she said, and see if these anxiety 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 wagging is fluid and relaxed, then yes, he’s probably content, Johnston said. But if his tail is waving only slightly and feels stiff, it could be a sign he’s about to get aggressive. Research also suggests that when a dog’s wagging tail leans more to the right, he’s happy, but if it leans more to the left, he feels hostile.
Don’t treat your pet like people
Experts have told me that we often attribute our dogs’ actions to feelings they aren’t really having.
I’ve always believed that Ozzy licks my face because he loves me. But — and I’m sorry to hear this — dogs often lick their faces because they want to taste what you’ve eaten recently, said Evan MacLean, an evolutionary anthropologist and comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona. (This comes from the behavior of young wolves, who lick the inside of their mothers’ mouths so they regurgitate food for them to eat. Which explains why dogs do disgusting things, like eating people’s vomit.)
Also, that guilty expression you see on your dog’s face after he’s done something “bad”? Research shows it’s not really a sign that he’s embarrassed – it’s probably just reacting to his anger.
“Dogs adopt this appearance in response to their person’s behavior or tone, not because they’ve done something we think is wrong,” said Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who directs the Canine Cognition Laboratory at Barnard College.
Ultimately, dogs understand us much better than we understand them, Johnston said. Over thousands of years of domestication, they’ve become “very good at reading our emotions,” she said, but “I don’t think it’s worked as well in the other direction.” To get right with our beloved dogs, we need to really get to know them — and their weird little tips.
I realize now that Ozzy has communicated his needs to us quite clearly, but that we just haven’t been receptive — and now that we’re paying more attention he behaves much better. However, we are still working on his tendency to steal sandwiches. This one is harder to tame.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves