Why(?) Do Dogs: Strange Dog Behavior Explained
Our dogs do the strangest things sometimes. Have you ever been out for a walk with your dog and he starts ravenously eating grass? You worry that passersby think you’re starving your pet, even though he has a bowl of premium dog food at home. Why do dogs eat grass like it’s the best thing since sliced bread?
Or have you ever been sitting on the couch and your dog starts licking your hands or your bare feet? Why do dogs lick people?
It turns out, we’re not the only ones with these questions about strange dog behavior. If you Google the phrase “why do dogs,” these are the questions that Google automatically suggests, meaning these are the top questions people search:
- Why do dogs eat grass?
- Why do dogs lick people?
- Why do dogs howl?
- Why do dogs pant?
- Why do dogs shake?
Once you understand the motivation or cause behind these weird dog behaviors, the conduct itself makes a lot more sense. Also, if necessary, you can figure out a way to stop the behavior. In some cases, the cause might be an underlying health issue, in which case you need to contact your veterinarian.
Why Do Dogs Eat Grass?
A dog eating grass might seem strange, but it’s actually quite normal, says Sarah Wooten, DVM, a veterinarian at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital in Greeley, Colorado. She points to a University of New England study, “Grass eating patterns in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris,” that found grass eating to be common among dogs and generally not something to worry about.
“Grass-eating should not be seen as a problematic behavior for most dogs or as indicative of illness,” researchers wrote.
So, why do dogs eat grass? They probably just see it as food and enjoy a nice grassy salad from time to time.
“Grass might be considered to be food by dogs, as dogs [in the study] were less likely to eat grass when they already were full of kibble,” Dr. Wooten says, adding that “dogs enjoy eating greens.”
While grass generally is safe to eat, don’t let your dog eat any ol’ grass, as it might be treated with herbicides or pesticides. And steer clear of any grasses with barbs or spears, such as foxtail grasses, which can cause serious injury to dogs.
“Bottom line: If the grass is in your yard, you know it’s not being sprayed with anything toxic and if there are no dangerous plants near it, it’s probably OK to let your dog munch on the grass,” says Irith Bloom, CPDT-KSA, CDBC, owner and director of training at The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles, California. “But check with your veterinarian to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical condition [with your dog] or a concern with your particular type of grass.”
If your dog vomits after eating grass, talk to your vet. Even if your dog throws up once after eating grass, Dr. Wooten says that warrants a call as it could indicate underlying disease.
Why Do Dogs Lick People?
Dogs lick people for a variety of reasons, according to experts. These include:
- Something on your skin—say, that turkey sandwich you just ate—tastes good.
- It helps relieve stress.
- They want attention.
It also could be something they learned as puppies when they would lick their mother and siblings, Bloom says.
“That means licking may relate to trying to placate a person who seems angry or simply expressing affection,” she says.
Or it could indicate submission, Dr. Wooten says.
“In packs, lower ranking dogs will lick higher ranking dogs,” she explains. “The same goes for dogs and humans.”
To stop your dog from licking you, Bloom recommends teaching your dog that licking makes you go away.
“Licking is usually about attention,” she says. “If you yell at your dog or push him away, that can actually reinforce the licking behavior—after all, you touched or spoke to the dog [after licking], right?”
Instead of scolding, she recommends standing up and moving away for a few seconds.
“If he follows you, put a closed door between you for an additional second or two, and then come back and give the dog another chance to interact with you in a way you like better,” she says. “Be ready to pet and praise for behavior you like, such as standing or sitting calmly beside you, so your dog doesn’t fall back on licking again!”
Be on the lookout for excessive licking. Excessive licking—whether your dog is licking you, himself or objects like the carpet—is cause for concern, and you should contact your veterinarian.
“If a dog licks you excessively, the dog may be relieving his own stress through licking,” Bloom says. “The stress might be caused by pain, for example, or by being unsure how to behave around you. Dogs with allergies and pain often lick themselves, too.”
Why Do Dogs Howl?
You’ve probably heard your pup or other dogs howling at one point or another and wondered if they’re channeling their inner wolf. Howling is believed to be a form of vocal communication. Not all dogs howl often or even at all, Bloom says. Those who do howl typically do it to:
- “Call out” to other dogs.
- Respond to another dog’s howl.
- Get attention from humans.
- Respond to sound, such as a siren
That’s all pretty normal stuff. However, Bloom says, howling also may be a symptom of emotional distress, such as your dog dealing with separation anxiety.
“It’s important to remember that dogs are social, so being isolated from others can be very stressful to them,” she says. “Howling may be a way to try and attract company.”
If howling is your dog’s way of demanding attention, Bloom suggests teaching him that howling actually results in less attention.
“Instead of saying ‘no’ or anything else, look up at the ceiling and wait patiently until the howling stops,” she says. “Once the howling stops, count to 10, and then give your dog attention for being quiet.”
In addition, reward your dog when he approaches you quietly.
“Most dogs approach quietly before they start howling,” Bloom says. “If you can spot that quiet approach and reinforce it with praise, petting or treats, the howling won’t even start in the first place.”
If you suspect your dog is howling because of separation anxiety (he howls every time he’s left alone, even if it’s only during short periods), consult your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist, a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) or a certified dog behavior consultant (CDBC). An animal behavior expert should be able to address the underlying emotional issue causing the howling and may help you put an end to it.
If your dog howls a lot even when he’s not alone, Bloom says it might mean your pet is in pain or suffering from some other medical issue. Definitely contact your vet about this.
Why Do Dogs Pant?
A dog panting on a hot summer day is a common sight. It’s how they cool off, or thermoregulate.
“Dogs only sweat in areas where they don’t naturally have fur, so panting is the best tool dogs have for lowering their body temperature,” Bloom says.
So, if it’s hot out and your dog is panting, it’s probably normal. Make sure you provide a cool place for your dog and keep him hydrated, or else he might be at risk for a heatstroke or heat exhaustion.
Aside from cooling off, dogs pant for several other reasons, some of which warrant a trip to the vet.
“They can pant if they are scared, overexcited, in pain, if they have a fever or if they feel nauseous,” Dr. Wooten says. “Dogs also can pant after having seizures.”
If your dog is panting out of stress, Bloom recommends removing him from the stressful situation and working with a certified dog behavior expert or certified trainer to devise a training plan to help your pet better cope.
If you think a dog is panting because you suspect he feels sick or is in pain, then it is time to see a veterinarian.
Why Do Dogs Shake?
Similar to how dogs pant when they are hot, dogs shake when they are cold. If you suspect your dog is cold, Dr. Wooten recommends bringing him indoors or getting him a dog coat or sweater to keep him warm.
Dogs also shake if they are scared or excited.
“For example, if your dog is nervous about loud noises, he might shake during the fireworks on the 4th of July,” Bloom says.
If you suspect your dog is shaking because he is anxious, Bloom recommends consulting a certified dog behavior expert or certified trainer.
Pain, toxins and health issues could cause a dog to shake or tremble, as well.
“Seizure disorders can cause trembling or shaking,” Dr. Wooten says. “Some small white breed dogs, such as Westies, Maltese or Toy Poodles, can have white dog shaker syndrome.”
Shaker syndrome is a condition involving generalized head and body tremors in dogs. It’s often referred to as white dog shaker syndrome because it is seen commonly in small-breed white dogs. If you suspect your dog is shaking because of a medical condition, consult your veterinarian.
Now that you know why dogs do the strange things they do, their behavior doesn’t seem so weird, does it? Paying attention to changes in your dog’s behavior and figuring out the cause can help ensure your pet is getting the best care possible.
Original text by Stephanie Brown