By Lisa Tenzin-Dolma
Dogs have a very different perspective on the world, and they employ different ways of interacting with the environment to that of we humans. Some of their behaviours make sense, whereas others seem odd, or are distinctly off-putting for us. If you were to take a leaf from your dog’s book and go to sniff someone’s butt during an introduction, you would at the very least be avoided and considered weird, or you’d receive an embarrassed or angry response from the subject of your surprising and unwelcome attention. Yet, to your dog, this is the polite way to gather information – and being a discrete distance from the toothy weaponry end is considered a safe way in which to get up close and personal. In this article we’ll be exploring just a few of the things that dogs do, and why they do it. We’ll look into puppy dog eyes, ground scratching, scent rolling, and whether your dog is really asking for a tummy rub when he lies on his back and exposes his belly.
Why are ‘puppy dog eyes’ so appealing?
In June 2019, a paper titled “The Evolution of Puppy Dog Eyes” was published in Science News. The authors, Juliane Kaminsky, Bridget M. Waller, Rui Diogo, Adam Hartstone-Rose, and Anne M. Burrows at the University of Portsmouth, had been researching the changes that have taken place in the anatomy and behaviours of dogs during their evolution.
"They developed the ability to raise the inner eyebrows to form the expression that we associate with feelings of sadness. This also makes their eyes look larger, and we are instinctively attracted to infant-like features that activate our protective instinct."
The research informs us that dogs have evolved new muscles around their eyes over a period of thousands of years to enable them to communicate more effectively with humans. They developed the ability to raise the inner eyebrows to form the expression that we associate with feelings of sadness. This also makes their eyes look larger, and we are instinctively attracted to infant-like features that activate our protective instinct. The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) is a detailed map used for humans and dogs that describes every facial expression through the use of all the muscles employed in facial movements. These are broken down into individually numbered muscle movements called Action Units which generate specific expressions that are used when an emotion is felt. When your dog raises his inner eyebrows, the Action Unit in the FACS system that he activates is called AU 101.
It’s testimony to how powerful the urge is for our dogs to communicate with us that they have evolved this ability to appeal to our nurturing instincts and emotions in order to bond with us.
Why do dogs scratch the ground after toileting?
That energetic flurry of paws and claws that scratch the ground and send chunks of earth and grass flying into the air after peeing or pooing is called (rather predictably) ‘ground scratching.’ Not all dogs do this, but if your dog is a ground-scratcher you’ll most likely have quickly learned to step aside as your dog gets into position, in order to avoid being hit by the fallout of unintentional missiles.
"The scent glands in the paws draw attention to the scent of the deposits made, and the scratch marks act as a visual marker to draw attention and guide other dogs to investigate."
Dogs do this to mark territory and give a clear message to other dogs that ‘Fido was here.’ The scent glands in the paws draw attention to the scent of the deposits made, and the scratch marks act as a visual marker to draw attention and guide other dogs to investigate. Dogs who ground scratch in their own gardens are likely to also do this in unfamiliar territory and during familiar walks. Other mammals also ground scratch, including wolves, coyotes, and lions.
Why do dogs roll in poo and other smelly things?
One of the behaviours that’s considered less than endearing is that of scent rolling, which involves our dogs writhing around in substances that smell disgusting to us. Poo from other animals and rotting corpses of birds and small animals are the most popular for sending dogs into a rolling frenzy, and are the least popular with their caregivers. If you’ve ever had to wash firmly embedded and very stinky fox or cat poo out of your dog’s fur you have my deepest sympathy! However, it’s not just unpleasant (to us) smells that attract dogs’ attention. They also tend to roll in scents that they find interesting.
"Some dogs simply relish certain smells and appear to enjoy them in much the same way as we find our favourite perfumes appealing."
Wolves do this, too, and Pat Goodmann, senior research curator at Wolf Park in Indiana, USA, has studied this extensively. Dogs are likely to scent roll for the same reasons. It enables them to carry the scent back to their social group for further investigation, and other members of the group can then go to the source. Scent rolling can also be used to disguise their own scent in the presence of prey.
Some dogs simply relish certain smells and appear to enjoy them in much the same way as we find our favourite perfumes appealing. These may be scents that we like, too, such as particular plants or herbs. Shep, my beloved elderly collie-husky mix, who came to live with me at the grand age of 15 years, would shuffle around and then lie down among the lavender bushes in my herb garden for long periods, shifting position and making sure that plenty of the fragrance was infused onto his coat. At the time I wondered whether he was seeking its medicinal properties as he arrived in very poor health, and that certainly is possible. Charlie, my ex-Romanian feral dog, was so passionate about the scent of Chanel No. 5 perfume (a dog with expensive tastes!) that whenever I wore it he would become almost delirious with joy and would rub himself against the pulse points where I’d put a drop of perfume, then would lie with his head in my lap and a blissful expression on his face.
Why do dogs roll on their backs?
"Dogs also roll on their backs as appeasement signals if play has become too rough, or if they are uncomfortable or anxious."
It’s commonly thought that dogs expose their bellies because they’re inviting a tummy rub. However, this is often not the case. Some dogs do enjoy having belly-rubs, and you can easily tell if that’s what your dog wants because his face, body, ears and mouth will be relaxed, and he will signal (perhaps with a paw wave or waggle) to keep it coming. Dogs also roll on their backs as appeasement signals if play has become too rough, or if they are uncomfortable or anxious. If your dog is displaying tension in the face or body, pinned back ears and a closed mouth, he is asking for distance rather than a hands-on approach.
Be your dog’s citizen scientist
Dogs are endlessly fascinating, and we can learn a great deal by simply observing them and their interactions. You may find it useful to keep a journal of the things that your dog does that intrigue or particularly interest you. If you note down what he has done and where this occurred, the environment, the context, and your response to his actions, this will add an additional layer of understanding and communication to your relationship.
First published in Edition Dog Magazine