We like to ascribe all sorts of emotions to our dogs, but, truth be told, they are much simpler than humans. They’re motivated by the basics: food, activity and companionship. That said, a dog’s behavior around his owners does have meaning. From the desire to protect you to an intuition about your health and happiness, read on to discover what your dog would tell you if he could speak.
“I want to protect you.”
You may think your dog belongs to you, but you belong to your dog, as well. That means he is going to claim you and protect you. “When he’s sitting on your foot, it’s an ownership thing. If his [bottom] is on you, he’s marking your foot,” says Jennifer Brent, animal advocate and external relations manager for the L.A.-based non profit animal welfare advocacy group Found Animals. “It’s not just that he wants to be close to you, he’s saying, ‘This is mine; now it smells like me, don’t go near it.’ He does this for three main reasons: to feel secure about his place in your life, to warn other dogs that you are spoken for and because he wants to protect you.” To ensure your protection, dogs will also bark at guests, growl at other dogs when outside and pull on the leash while out for a walk. “There’s a line of thinking that the dog is your scout. He sees himself as a member of the pack, and he wants to make sure everything is cool before you get there,” Brent says.
“I can sense when you’re in a bad mood.”
Whether it was a stressful day at work or a fight with your significant other, your dog will pick up on how you feel—and feel it, too. “It goes without saying, when you’re stressed, they’re more stressed; when you’re happier, they’re happy. They match up moods with you better than a spouse or a partner,” says Marty Becker, DVM, pet expert at Vetstreet.com. “They sit there and study you.” This relationship works the other way, too: If you want to make your pooch relax, you know just where to scratch; if you want to be more playful, you know how to pet him. “You can, like a gas pedal, change that dynamic with your dog,” Dr. Becker says.
“I need more exercise!”
If she’s eliminating on the floor, chewing the furniture or running circles around the coffee table, your dog is probably trying to tell you she needs more activity in her life. “That’s where we see a lot of behavioral issues with dogs in households,” Brent says. This is particularly true for active breeds, such as herding or hunting dogs. “The Dalmatian was trained to be a hunting dog. You can’t take an animal that’s used to running eight miles a day, put it in an apartment, and expect it to be OK. If your dog’s destroying stuff, he’s saying, ‘I’m bored, you need to give me something to do.'” While exercise is important—dogs should receive 45 to 60 minutes of physical exercise and 15 minutes of behavioral training per day—Dr. Becker says you can also play mental games to keep your pooch entertained. Make her play search-and-seek games for her food or even use food puzzles that she has to solve before her meal is dispensed.
“I’m scared you won’t come back.”
While most dogs are going to bark for a few minutes when you leave the house—just to let you know you’re forgetting someone—some dogs have a much more serious reaction. “If you watch a video of a dog with separation anxiety, it’ll tear your heart out. It’s like the kid lost at the mall without his parents,” Dr. Becker says. “They freak out. They think you’re not coming back. They often attack the area where you leave; they’ll tear up the doorframe, they’re destructive. If you come home and they’ve had diarrhea or [are excessively] panting, their cortisol levels are high, and you have to take action.” Dr. Becker recommends speaking with a dog behaviorist to receive a training program and possibly a canine antidepressant. To help assuage the trauma associated with your departure, you can try these training intervals: Put your coat on, grab your keys and go stand outside for 30 seconds. Come back in, and then go out for one minute, then five, and build from there. It’s also helpful to give your dog a treat before you leave, or feed him using an interactive food puzzle to keep him distracted.
“I can tell when you’re not feeling well.”
It’s a hard phenomenon to explain, but many dogs seem to be able to detect illness in their owners. And new evidence has found that some dogs can actually detect a wide array of serious conditions, including cancer, as well as seizures related to epilepsy. “We know that there’s a chemical marker that a few dogs are detecting, just like they can detect bed bugs, mold, peanuts, drugs and explosives,” Dr. Becker says. “They can smell the ketones on a diabetic’s breath when their sugar is low. For epileptics [about to have a seizure], they can alert their owner so they can get out of harm’s way.” Some canines are even more naturally empathetic to humans. Often, these dogs become therapy dogs, providing affection to those in need, while also sensing—and being able to react to—health problems. “Some people just need a dog to lay still with them; others need a reason to get out of the bed. It’s the weirdest thing how therapy dogs know when to [move] close or far away,” says Dr. Becker.
“Pay attention when I’m not myself.”
It’s important to pay attention to your pooch’s behavior because if something seems amiss, he’s probably not feeling well. “You want to catch things in the earliest period to prevent unnecessary pain or worse,” says Dr. Becker. “I call it ‘Dog-ter Mom,’ because 80% of caregivers for pets are women. You just need to pay attention to your intuition.” That means noticing behavior that’s out of the norm: he’s not as playful as usual, he’s acting aggressively, he has trouble getting up or isn’t eating properly. “You want to pay particular attention to eating habits,” Dr. Becker says. “Food is their currency. If he isn’t eating enough or is eating too much, if he’s drinking more water or needs to eliminate more, or if you have a dog that’s losing weight, then something’s wrong.”
“I need a routine, but with a little variety.”
They say that a dog’s mental capacity is that of a toddler; and just like a toddler, dogs thrive on routine. “Knowing what to expect is really, really important, otherwise they don’t know how to react,” Brent says. A general routine is best, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything at the same time each day. In fact, varying the time will actually help in the long run, says Dr. Becker. Otherwise, your dog will start running the show. “You don’t want them to force how the clock works,” he says. If they do, it’s likely that your dog will “insist on his 5 a.m. feeding on a Sunday, when you want to sleep until 8 a.m. Vary it up. If you control their food, you control them—in a good way.”
“Be clear when I’m doing something wrong.”
Correcting your dog is important—and how you do it is key. Avoid explaining your dog’s behavior to him, or using a calm voice. Take a firm (not mean) tone and be direct. “Dogs respond to tone. If you say, ‘No!’ while a bad action is happening, you’re going to get a much better response than if you say it in a gentle voice or wait to say it afterwards,” Brent says. To ensure results, it has to be said in the moment of action, and in the same way every time. “If you want to train your dog to be calm when he sees another dog, you can’t wait until that dog has passed to give him a treat for being good. You can’t wait until you get home,” Brent says. “That says putting down the leash means a treat, instead of the action [you’re trying to reinforce].”
“I’m not a human.”
There’s no doubt your dog is part of the family—but that doesn’t mean she should be treated like a person. “Thinking your dog has the motivation of a person is the number one problem I see,” says Gina Spadafori, pet columnist and executive editor of the PetConnection.com. Whether your dog eliminates in the house or chews up the remote, the cause has nothing to do with revenge. “It’s not an emotional or rational response. It’s either a lack of training, illness or a stress reaction that can be triggered by a change in the house,” Spadafori says. So if your dog is acting out, start by trying to find the root cause. Is she sick, improperly trained or has there been a recent change in routine? Once you locate the cause, understanding and correcting her behavior will be much easier.