dog biting

Understanding dog behaviour

dog bitingTraditionally, being anthropomorphic (attributing human emotions to animals) has been frowned upon in scientific circles. However, in the last decade, a field of study known as ethology has allowed us to be able to discuss how animals might think and feel, and make some careful interpretations on how dogs see the world around them, based on a detailed analysis of their behaviour.

Dogs talk. There’s little doubt about that. They also feel emotions comparable to humans’, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anticipation and joy. Believe it or not, most dogs can even understand the emotions of their owner.

They do this by reading our faces and body language with what is known as ‘left gaze bias’. It was thought that this was a unique characteristic in humans, but recent studies have shown dogs to be the only other species that can do it too!   

The Greeting Stretch

The Greeting Stretch is a posture used to display affection and comfort. Dogs tend to do it as a friendly and welcoming greeting, and it’s very deliberate. This posture is not the same as a dog simply stretching when tired or sleepy.

Puppy biting

Puppy biting is normal for pups under 16 weeks, but often comes as a shock and source of worry for a new dog owner. Given the right approach, this is soon resolved and a puppy will learn to interact with humans without the need to put things in their mouth!

For puppies, exploration is accomplished by their mouth and their nose. They have to “sample” everything, including each other and their new owners. If you have ever watched a litter of puppies, you will have noticed that they are constantly biting at each other or their mum. Biting is their way of exploring– in much the same way that human toddlers try to put new objects in their mouths.

Tug of warTug of War

While tugging might just be play for us, to the dog it is a little more meaningful.

Many owners take things away from their dogs to initiate play, but to a dog you may be considered as a ‘toy snatcher’, enforcing the belief that humans are strange creatures who will take away a gift we have just given them. A good way around this is to play with two identical toys – you can then hang onto one while your dog plays with the other – and then you can swap when he brings it back. This way you never have to take the toy from your dog because he will readily give his up for yours.

Good play should be balanced between a dog and owner and you should only repeat toy games if your dog is willing to give up their toy. Play involves a level of trust and good play needs impulse control from both owner and dog.

Rewards: food vs petting

In most situations, dogs enjoy being petted, but in a training environment where they are anticipating only one type of reward (food, in this case) and then get another (petting), then it’s frankly a little disappointing.

It is important to be consistent with rewards. Dogs repeat what gets rewarded.


Theories of ‘social dominance’ in dogs are based on old- fashioned theory and poor science. It is actually more likely that two dogs will live together as part of a team (or family) rather than having to exert dominance over each other.

Disobedience or confusion?

Most owners interpret their pets’ failure to respond to commands as disobedience or deliberate resistance. However, there are often other explanations. No dog comes into this world understanding spoken language – they have to learn the meaning of every single word we use, and just as when we are learning a foreign language, the clarity of the words is very important for a dog to understand. For this reason, any variation in wording may result in lost association and confusion.

Do dogs like a cuddle?

These are very much primate behaviours, and dogs do not regard this as a way of showing affection. Although some dogs do enjoy close contact, many find hugging a little overwhelming and will not enjoy it, but tolerate it.

Although some dogs enjoy human expressions of affection, some just tolerate it. Watching your dog’s reaction to this in all situations – especially where children are involved – is essential.

Dogs will be dogs!

Owners shouldn’t dismiss, or punish natural behaviour – even when it is something that we wish they would not repeat. Exercising natural behaviours is often a sign that your dog is relaxed and happy around you, so perhaps we should take it as a compliment!

Although rolling in mess, digging and eating strange objects are part of a dog’s natural behaviour, it’s important to make sure your dog is routinely treated for parasites and wormed at least every three months. Just one pile of dog poo can contain a million Roundworm eggs, which can survive in soil for a long time, even after the poo has gone.

Part of the


With Canine Behaviourist and Author, Sarah Whitehead

BA (Hons), MSC

Full report available at:

For more information on intestinal worms and treatment, visit

Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK) –

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