Why does my dog do that?

Dog behavior expert reveals what's behind your dog's strangest habits

ORLANDO, Fla – Why does my dog intrude on my bathroom breaks? Better yet, how can my dog always seem to find my socks in a hamper full of options? What about the endless laps he takes to find that perfect spot for a quick potty break? Plus, why does he destroy all his toys? They are strange questions, but I guarantee I am not the first dog owner to ponder them. 

To better understand my lovable golden doodle, I went in search of answers to some of life's "ruffest" questions. Lorena Patti, owner of Waggers Dog Works in Southwest Orlando, came to my rescue. The certified professional dog trainer has 14 years of experience in dog behavior and training. To my surprise, the answers she provided were far more scientific than I ever could have imagined. Enjoy. 

1. Why do some dogs hide their treats? 

Lorena: This behavior is believed to be a carryover from dogs' early evolution. Your dog may very well find hiding his treat intrinsically rewarding from a long-ago behavioral echo. And if it’s something your pup does repeatedly, then it most certainly is rewarding to him.

2. Why do dogs circle around before going to the bathroom or take forever to find a spot to go No. 2? 

Lorena: Ha! Seriously, right? Circling before going: Turns out this has been looked at by science (really!). So, evidence found in a study published in Frontiers in Zoology points to the culprit being - I kid you not - the Earth’s magnetic field. What they found was that dogs prefer to excrete with their bodies aligned along the north-south axis when the magnetic field conditions are stable. Since the magnetic field fluctuates throughout the day, when it isn’t calm, this N-S alignment goes out the window. So it looks like the circling behavior may be your dog’s "magnetic field antenna" trying to align itself to the Earth’s magnetic field. (There has to be a cartoon about that somewhere.)

Now, taking forever to find that special spot has much to do with the dog’s incredible sense of smell. Dogs use their noses much like we humans use our sight. They don’t “see” the world as much as “smell” it. And the information they pick up is ridiculously detailed. As they sniff around before relieving themselves, they are picking up on all sorts of things - previous animals that have been in that area, possible scent marking by some of those animals, the health status of those animals, etc.

When a dog leaves their refuse, it is also depositing their scent. All these factors can affect where the dog finally decides to relieve himself. Some dogs are pickier than others, and that’s OK! Let them take their time, let them “smell the roses.” This information gathering is crucial for their emotional well-being, in much the same way that a stroll through a beautiful park where we take in the sights can be soul-healing for us humans. 

Another reason is that your pup is just simply stalling. How can you tell? Well, when you take him outside, do you bring him back inside as soon as he’s done going potty? Because it’s hot, and it’s time to leave for work? If this has been the pattern, your dog has probably figured out that wrapping things up means going back inside and that outside fun time is over.

Like a kid not wanting to leave the playground, your pup could be holding it in as long as he can to make his outdoor time last that much longer. Fortunately, this has an easy fix that only requires a little planning on your part. Allow yourself more time for walks and reward the elimination with some outside playtime (3-5 minutes should do it) or. if you are walking him, with an extra lap around the block. After several days of this, you may find that pup speeds up the process for the fun that follows.

3. Staying on the bathroom topic. Why does my dog intrude on my bathroom breaks? 

Lorena: Probably because since we watch them do their business, they figure it’s just what one does. I’m kidding. 

This is most likely just your dog wanting to stay close to you because of the bond you have formed with him. It would not surprise me if it also has to do with the, um, aroma that is given off. It’s part of our chemical makeup, and to our dogs, it’s part of who we are. This scent (as repulsive as humans may find it) is just more information for our dogs to process. They’re weird like that ;) 

4. Why is my dog so obsessed with my socks? 

Lorena: It’s all about the nose! Socks, especially dirty ones, are full of our scent. When our feet sweat, we deposit our scent through it, which is like a jackpot for dogs. They can get a lot of information through the chemicals that we leave behind on our socks, and dogs LOVE to check that out as if it was the canine version of TMZ. Of course, the stronger the bond we have with them, the more comforting our scent will be to them as well, so sniffing our socks can be reinforcing to them for both those reasons: love and gossip. 

5. Why does my dog lick me so much? 

Lorena: It’s a sign of affection. Roger Abrantes, Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, states that it’s a dog’s way of telling you he likes you and that you can be his friend. This behavior is introduced to dogs by their mothers from the moment they are born. As such, it’s a very soothing behavior. When they do it to their littermates, it’s a bonding behavior and a pleasant social activity. When your dog does it to you, he’s showing affection. 

You may notice that after a good workout, your dog will also lick you - that’s because the taste of salt on your skin tastes good! But don’t worry, he’s not thinking you are being marinated. :) 

There is, however, a specific situation where licking seems to be a behavior that asks for personal space. This has been observed when a young child moves into a dog’s space (something to be avoided for everyone’s safety), and the dog responds by repeatedly and quickly licking the child. In this situation, Jennifer Shryock, founder of Family Paws Parent Education, has termed it “the Kiss to Dismiss” and is a sign that the dog is uncomfortable with the child in his space. If a caretaker sees this behavior, they should call the dog away from the child and reward it with a treat. However, the best practice is to prevent a child from moving into a dog’s space: teach the child to call the dog over, and allow the dog to make the call.

6. I think my dog purposely gets his toy stuck under the couch. Could that be the case? 

Lorena: Did you know that dogs are fantastic trainers in their own right? Training really is a two-way street, and in communicating with each other dogs also figure out how they can get us to respond. If your pup does this a lot, pay attention to what you do as a result: Do you always stop whatever it is you are doing and help him get his toy back? At the start I mentioned that dogs do what works for them; that behavior is driven by consequences. If this is a common occurrence for your dog, then he’s getting something out of it. If the result was that the toy would then disappear, he would quickly stop “losing” his toy under the couch. However, if this results in your attention, it may very well be that he’s figured out how to get the human to play with him when he’s being ignored!

7. Why is my dog always licking his paw? 

Lorena: This can be due to different things. Is this something your dog does after he’s stepped in grass, or another area? If so, I would check with your veterinarian to make sure it’s not allergies or bites from bugs like fire ants or other insect he may have picked up on his walking route. It can sometimes also be that the paw is bothering him in some other way sometimes pain can make them lick an area like that. Again, something to ask your veterinarian about. If medical conditions are ruled out, this behavior is also shown in dogs that are stressed in some way (could even be boredom), in the same manner that some of us bite our nails. An interesting tidbit is that this behavior is also common among dogs that have been separated at a too-young age from their mother, which has shown to influence the anxiety level in those dogs.  

8. Why does my dog destroy every toy I buy him? 

Lorena: Because it’s FUN!!!! (for your individual dog). Some dogs will care for their toys as if they were family heirlooms. Others, well, believe toys deserve to be destroyed and disemboweled. Both behaviors are normal, and your dog is enjoying the toy he’s murdering just as much as the dog who is content to gently carry it around with her. As long as your pup doesn’t ingest the stuffing or the squeaker (which in many cases MUST. BE. DESTROYED!), then there is no harm in the activity. Many an owner will restuff the toy and put it away for a couple of days, only to give it back to their dog for more eviscerating fun. Rotate the killed toys on a daily basis, and your pup will have a blast. If your dog does like to ingest the stuffing, there are many toys out there that have no stuffing or squeakers. Also, there are other activities that can feed your dog’s need for evisceration, like feeding him at least one of his meals from a Kong or other food puzzle. Making him “work” for at least one of his meals is very satisfying for most dogs, and especially those that like to “hunt.”

9. Why does my dog sleep above my head on the pillow? I've read that this could be a sign of dominance or just because it's comfortable. 

Lorena: Boy, do I have GREAT news for you! Dominance in dogs? It has been disproven scientifically. (There’s even an  "Adam Ruins Everything" episode on this.) Take a deep breath: You don’t have to worry about having to show your dog that you’re in charge (trust me, he already knows that and is more than cool with it). They have no interest in running the household or the world. They just want to be safe, to be fed, to have affection, and maybe, just maybe, share in that slice of pizza you may be having (or nachos, or sandwich, or ice cream, or…) Seriously.

Your pillow is comfortable. It is imbued with your scent, which is extremely comforting to him. He’s next to your head, which also has your scent wafting from it. It’s an awesome place to sleep. He’s happy there! (Sorry about the resulting bedhead in the morning, though.)

10. Do dogs pick favorites? 

Lorena: That’s a very individual thing, depending on the dog. Having said that, however, bonds are built on common experiences, on doing things together, on building communication between both parties. If a person in the household is the main caretaker of the dog, the one that plays and trains him, the one that feeds him, bathes him, etc., then that’s the person that will have the strongest bond with the dog. If any family member wants to have a closer relationship with their dog, then I always suggest to start doing fun things together. Make sure you’re enjoying each other’s company. It’s not about control but about sharing life. Yes, your dog will have to learn the rules of the human world. Be a GUIDE to your dog, not his master. Never give your pup a reason to fear you. Bonds and friendships are two-way streets, and respect easily flows from them. And that very special bond? That’s the whole point of having a pup in the first place, isn’t it?

About the expert

Lorena and her late dog, Chayse.

My name is Lorena Patti, owner of Waggers Dog Works in Southwest Orlando. I’m a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (Knowledge Assessed), a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer. I’m also a Certified Fear Free Professional, and I’ve been doing this for 14 years. We specialize in dogs of all ages -- from welcoming a new puppy to the home of first-time puppy parents to training adolescent and adult dog -- and in helping those dogs that need more help with behavior modification in order to overcome challenges with fear and aggression.

It should be noted that ALL our training is done without the use of punitive methods to the dog. It’s gentle, safe, supported by veterinary medicine, and effective. Canine behavior science has repeatedly shown that this is the case, and that fear, pain, or intimidation are not only unnecessary, but harmful, in training or changing a dog’s behavior. I’m a self-professed animal behavior geek, and in addition to helping my clients and their dogs, I spend much of my time on continuing education in order to keep up to date with the advances in this field. The rest of my time I devote to my husband, son, and new puppy. Sleep, alas, is optional.

I’ll preface my answers with this very basic fact: Results are what drive every behavior. In other words, behavior doesn’t happen for its own sake: There is a consequence, a result, that will determine if that behavior is repeated. So if a dog does something (anything) and it works for them, well, they’ll keep doing it. The payoff will be worth it.

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