How Well Do You Know What Dogs Do, Think, and Feel?
A crash course about how to study dogs and why it's important to do so.
Posted May 20, 2018
"I have emotions you can relate to as a human, but I need you to understand me as a dog."
So, you want to become an ethologist or a naturalist at a dog park?
Merl arrives at the dog park, waits impatiently for his human to open the gate. He strides through the gate and immediately goes over to a rock, lifts his right leg high as if he’s the “top dog,” pees a steady stream, scratches the ground vigorously, walks over to the fence surrounding the park, lifts his leg again, dribbles some pee, and then looks around either to see who else is there or to see if anyone saw him do this. This is Merl’s routine, and I’ve seen him do it many times. However, after he pees a bit the second time, if Merl sees his friend Antonio, he takes off, runs straight at him, does a few quick play bows, and the two wrestle, bite one another with abandon, chase one another all over the place, often running over other dogs and nearly taking down some people. They play as long as their humans allow them to. However, if Antonio isn’t there, and Merl sees other dogs looking at him, he pees and scratches the ground again to be sure they know what he’s done. And if another dog comes over and sniffs Merl’s pee and pees over it, pissing matches ensue. I once watched Merl and another dog engage in five rapid exchanges of the yellow stuff.
This description of Merl playing and peeing is an excellent example of what field notes look like. Indeed, people at dog parks and elsewhere spend a lot of time watching and commenting on these two behaviors. At dog parks, when I teach people how to become ethologists, I usually focus on playing, peeing, ground scratching, and dogs observing other dogs. These behaviors are excellent teaching tools because individuals can be identified, they can be seen throughout the encounter, and the actions are clear and easy to score. It's also possible to learn about personality differences among the dogs being observed. When training students and other people, I often use a standard clip of these sorts of interactions, and over time they learn to become better observers. Everyone is pleased when we agree on what dogs are doing and on what behaviors mean. Instances of occasional differences in opinions are instructive as well. People can see things differently, and these differences are important to parse.
At dog parks and elsewhere, people are often grateful for these mini-lessons in ethology. I remember one man, Jack, whom I coached in observing his three dogs, Henry, Max, and Violet. He was pleased that I had taken the time to train him to become a citizen ethologist, which allowed him to “become” one of his three dogs whenever he chose to do so. He told me he really felt closer to his dogs, and he had begun training other humans at the dog park. I consider this outcome advantageous to everyone affected, since the dogs and the humans always benefit from these quick courses on dog behavior.
When we carefully observe dogs, what we learn is a never-ending story. There always is something more to the puzzle of why dogs do what they do. Further, to understand dogs, there are no substitutes for careful observation and description. For ethologists, watching dogs in every type of setting and situation is critical for generating experiments, models, and theories. For you, as the human companion of a dog, closely observing your own dog is the best way to improve your dog’s quality of life and to relieve the stress so many dogs endure day in and day out (please also see "Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them").
This essay is for those who want to learn how to observe like an ethologist, including dog trainers. A good place to begin is with the realization that to learn what it is like to be a dog, we have to, in some sense, become a dog. We have to try to adopt a dog’s perspective, even if this takes an imaginative leap. When we watch dogs and other animals, it’s essential that we see exactly what they’re doing and try to understand it from their point of view; in this way, we, the seers, become the seen. There’s a narrative to a dog’s body movements, and within the larger narrative, there are micro-movements or smaller narratives. To understand what a dog thinks and feels, we must pay close attention to the subtleties in their behavior, all of which matter. And, there are many good reasons for learning as much as we can about dog behavior, including learning if they're in pain. (See "New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior.")
What do ethologists do?
Simply put, ethologists observe animals and ask questions about the evolution and ecology of different behavior patterns. In the most basic terms, ethology is all about the details of who does what to whom, how many times, and when and where. Many psychologists are also interested in the behavior of dogs, but they typically don’t take such a broad evolutionary and ecological view of behavior. (See "Ethology Hasn't Been Blown: Animals Need All Help Possible.")
Ethologists also usually focus on free-ranging rather than captive animals. Some dogs are free-ranging and we can learn a lot by watching them and seeing where they go, with whom, and for what purpose when no humans interfere with their choices. We can study feral dogs just as we study other wild animals. However, we can also study companion dogs in every setting and context. In a general sense, this field of study is called the behavioral ecology of dogs because we can observe and study them in different ecological niches, if you will, including trails where they can run free, dog parks, and in our homes, on leash and off leash, and during their various interactions: with other dogs, with combinations of dogs and people, with strangers, and with their human family. One major advantage of studying companion dogs is that it’s possible to identify individuals, see them interact with other identifiable dogs, and watch them over time. When studying other animals in the field, it’s not always possible to identify individuals reliably or to watch them over time.
It’s essential to realize that behavior is not only something an individual does, but it also is something an individual has, actions that can be measured. Behavior patterns that endure over time (or across generations) are considered evolutionary adaptations. For example, the play bow is adaptive because it works to initiate and to maintain a “play mood.” This gesture has been exhibited for many generations, and each new generation continues to use it. (See "The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun.")
By thinking of and studying animal behavior in this way, as a structure that an individual has, ethologist Konrad Lorenz showed how evolution can influence a wide variety of behavior patterns, including the signals used to communicate threat and dominance, as well as play, among other behaviors. The author of Man Meets Dog, Lorenz is often called the father of ethology, and he became famous for having ducklings and young geese imprint on him and follow him around as he crawled on the grass. The wide-ranging importance of ethological investigations was highlighted in 1973 when he—along with Niko Tinbergen, who is often called the curious naturalist, and Karl von Frisch, for his work on bee language—jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Many scientists who deemed their own work “real research” were quite irritated that this hallowed prize went to three fellows who got paid to watch animals. What, creating ingenious field experiments to study animal behavior—and having fun doing it—isn’t real research? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Becoming a dog by becoming fluent in dog
As an ethologist—a biologist who studies animal behavior with an emphasis on evolution, ecology, and comparisons of closely and more distantly related species—I always want to learn more about everything dogs do and why they do it. I am also interested in comparing individuals of one species to one another and doing cross-species comparisons to try to get a handle on why there are similarities and differences.
The bottom line is that, by becoming an ethologist yourself, you can “become a dog,” or at least get a good approximation of what it’s like to be a dog. Those readers well versed in philosophy will see I’m teetering on writing about phenomenology, a field that stresses the importance of direct experiences.
Patterns of social interaction. It’s important to note that often, when watching dogs or other animals, the different sorts of interactions become blurred awfully fast. Sometimes it’s simply impossible to figure out who initiated and who ended an encounter, and when there are more than two dogs, or a dog and a human, it can become a nightmare very fast. Nonetheless, we still can learn a lot from parsing out the different types of interactions using this simple matrix.
Initiator Dog Human
Dog 1 2
Human 3 4
On your journey to becoming an ethologist, you can make your own matrix or a set of matrices and fill in the numbers for all sorts of interactions. It’s a simple and fun exercise through which you’ll learn a lot about your dog’s personality. For example, is she or he a leader or a follower, a player or more of a loner? What types of interactions do they initiate, and what sorts of encounters don’t they especially like and try to avoid? You also can discover if they prefer some dogs rather than others, if they’re having a good or bad day, and how their behavior changes over time with familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans in different social and physical contexts. The list of things you can learn is long, depending on your interests. That’s what makes watching dogs so exciting!
How to Measure Behavior
As you become an ethologist, you’ll also learn that the sorts of data you collect depend on the methods you use to watch individuals or groups of animals. Ethologists try to use objective criteria and measurements when observing and analyzing behavior. Some of these measurements include:
- Frequency. This is simply the number of times a behavior is performed.
- Rate (frequency/time). This is a refinement of frequency, in that rate factors in time or duration. How frequently does a dog perform a particular behavior during a specific period of time?
- Intensity. It’s difficult to measure intensity (or concentration) when observing individuals, so some researchers often use what’s called the distraction index. Namely, how difficult is it to stop an animal from doing something? So, for example, when a dog is walking around with their nose pinned to the ground, sometimes it’s almost impossible to get their attention. Intensity is a subjective measurement, but it can be made somewhat more objective by measuring the strength of a scent needed, the loudness of a noise required, and the length of time it takes to get the individual’s attention.
Constructing an ethogram, or a menu of what dogs do
As I say, the easiest way to become a dog or other animal is first to spend time watching them. It’s incredibly instructive simply to observe them running freely, or nearly so, such as at dog parks and on trails where they’re allowed to run and explore on their own. However, observing dogs as they walk tethered by a leash to a human also yields data. And, it’s almost equally important to watch the people who are with the dogs. The outcome of these observations would be a list of behavior patterns called an ethogram. This list is just that, a descriptive menu of what the dogs and humans do with no interpretation or explanation for why they do it. Actions can be described by their physical characteristics—what they look like—such as postures, gestures, facial expressions, and gait, or by the consequence they have, such as an individual’s orientation to objects or to individuals in the environment, the results of which lead to the accomplishment of a task or to some result.
Developing an ethogram, or a menu of what animals do, is the most important part of a behavioral study. To me, it really is fun and a great experience in learning about how animals act. Some behavior patterns that people score include a dog’s approach to other dogs (speed and orientation); biting directed toward different parts of the body; biting intensity (inhibited and soft, or hard and accompanied by either shaking of the head or not); rolling over; standing over; chin resting, play soliciting; self-play; peeing and the posture used; pooping; growling; barking; whining; approaching and withdrawing; pawing directed toward different parts of the body; ear position; tail position; gait; and so on. Over the years, I have found that I can account for the behavior of most dogs by scoring around fifty different behavior patterns.
“So, what does all this ethological research do for me and my dog?”
Let me end by considering a question that I’m often asked: “So, what does all this ethological research do for me and my dog?” Some people follow up this question with something like, “You all need to get out of the ivory tower and into the field.” This is something I believe myself. Too many researchers and dog trainers only observe dogs in the lab and when the dogs are at work, but they also need to go to places where dogs are walked and allowed to run freely. Dog parks are excellent places to study dog behavior. (See "Social Behavior of Dogs at an Off-Leash Park in Newfoundland.")
I love meeting and inspiring citizen scientists in dog parks (for more discussion of the importance of citizen science in dog research please see "Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research"). I also love hearing what other people think about the dogs we observe together. I learn a lot from the questions people ask and the observations they make. And I feel strongly that science in general, and the ethology of dogs in particular, will only be improved and grow through the efforts of citizen scientists. Duke University dog expert, Dr. Brian Hare, notes, "In the future, citizen scientists will generate useful datasets that test hypotheses and answer questions as a complement to conventional laboratory techniques used to study dog psychology."
It's also wonderful to see trainers at dog parks, just hanging out and watching dogs in various contexts outside of those in which they are dealing with clients, canine and human, with specific needs.
Ultimately, our common goal is to use what we know to make the lives of dogs, with whom we share our homes and hearts, the best they can possibly be. I'm also sure that while we're watching dogs, they're carefully watching us and learning about our behavior. They, too, need to learn about the behavior of their and other humans so they can better adapt to our world.
In "Learning to Speak Dog, Part 4" we read: "Studying a dog’s behavior and observing them interacting with the world can be a fascinating spectacle, especially if you know what to look for. And it can be extremely helpful to learn to read your dog’s body language, to understand your dog and get a sense of what he is feeling, what his mood is and what he is trying to say; it will help you avoid potential problems and diffuse existing ones. It will help you get to know each other better. You’ll find yourself learning a new language."
I couldn't agree more. By following some of the material provided in this crash course on dog behavior and by becoming fluent in dog, or dog literate, you can play a vital role in helping the dog or dogs with whom you live to enjoy life to its fullest. Also, this information can be used to improve your relationships with your dog and others — a win-win.
Please stand by for more discussions of the fascinating social, cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of dogs. There's a lot of research being conducted around the world, and almost weekly we're learning more about how our canine companions behave and why they do certain things, what they know and what they feel, how their senses and brains work (please also see "Secrets of the Snout: A Dog's Nose Is a Work of Art," "What It's Like to Be a Dog," "How Dogs View the World: Brain Scans Tell Us What They See," and "Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They're Similar to Us"), and how they negotiate their social worlds, including their interactions with other dogs and humans.
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Stewart, Laughlin et al. Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research. PLoS One, 2015.
Learning to Speak Dog Part 4: Reading a Dog’s Body.
iSpeakDog: For an interview with its founder, dog trainer and journalist Tracy Krulik, please see "iSpeakDog: A Website Devoted to Becoming Dog Literate"
Fox, Michael W. Behaviour of Wolves Dogs and Related Canids. Dogwise Publishing, 1971.