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Why It's Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs

Watching dogs is important for becoming dog literate and forming strong bonds.

Dog parks and hiking trails are my field sites

“You all need to get out of the ivory tower and into the field.” (Comment to me when I was watching dogs at a local dog park)

People often ask me why I spend so much time at dog parks just watching the dogs and the humans. In addition to it being pure fun, I also learn something every single time I watch dogs interact with other dogs and with humans, and also when I watch and listen to the humans talk with one another. Dog parks are my field sites. As a field biologist, I studied various animals in their natural habitats, and a dog park is pretty much a dog's natural habitat, a place where they usually can run free and make more choices and have more control over their lives than in the confines of a home. I say "usually," because there remain a good number of humans who are sort of helicopter parents for their dog and others and try to control their lives even when they're having fun on the run, often far too often for my and other humans' liking. (See "For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.")

Becoming a dog by watching them closely and becoming fluent in dog

In a recent interview, I was asked, "Most behavior scholars are doing their studies in a laboratory. You are working in the field. Why?" I wrote some on this in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, noting that I call dog parks and other places where dogs can run free my field sites. I also studied free-ranging and some feral dogs in a mountain town west of Boulder. I'm a field biologist and have studied wild coyotes living near Blacktail Butte in the Grand Teton National Park north of Jackson, Wyoming for almost 9 years, Adélie penguins and South Polar Skuas at a rookery at Cape Crozier, Antarctica, and various birds who lived near my house in the mountains outside of Boulder, Colorado. These were my field sites during these studies and when I began studying dogs, dog parks and hiking trails became my field sites.

I've learned that it's essential to watch dogs where they can run free and interact with their canine friends, other dogs they don't know, and humans, because we can learn a lot simply by watching them when they have more freedom to be dogs. It's also a good way for the people who are watching their and other dogs to become "citizen scientists" and contribute to more formal research on dog behavior. Jessica Pierce and I write about the importance of letting dogs be dogs in our forthcoming book Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. When we let dogs be dogs we can learn a lot about different behavior patterns, what they like to do, with whom they like to do it, how they budget their time, and who they are as individuals.

"I'm here because I wanted to learn what getting a dog is all about."

"No, I don't own a dog, but I'm thinking about it and wanted just to see what dogs do and what they need from me."

"I love coming here and because of my visits I'm thinking about getting a dog and I know more about what it's going to take for me to give them a good life."

"I'm glad to be here and learn dog."

These four quotes come from conversations with people at a local dog park who were there without a dog. I was thrilled to talk with these people, and I'm also really happy when I see dog trainers at a dog park just watching dogs so they can learn about them outside of the context in which there is a problem. My view of dogs is the same as my view of many other animals, in that I try to understand the evolution of their behavior and how ecological conditions influence what they do. This is precisely what people do when they try to understand how dogs became dogs, a topic that was covered in some detail in my interview with researchers Christoph Jung and Daniela Pörtl about the factors that were important in the domestication of dogs. (See "Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and For All.")

When I watch dogs, I also learn about individual differences among them, because no two dogs are the same. I love when people tell me that they live with two dogs from the same litter and they are as different as night and day. The bottom line is that there is no "the dog." They're all unique individuals and it's good for them and for us when we come to realize that we must appreciate and understand each and every dog as the individual they are.

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A dog watching humans
Source: Damedeeso, free downloads Dreamstime

People often ask me if dogs are also watching and learning something about us. Of course, dogs are watching us as we watch them or go about our daily activities. As we learn about them, they're also learning about some of our behavior patterns and quirks. I know the dogs with whom I shared my home knew, for example, when they were going on a walk or run, when I was leaving, when it was bedtime, and when food was on the way. I know I'm not alone in knowing that in many ways the dogs knew me as well as I knew them. Perhaps, they knew me better than I knew them, and I've heard many people express the same sentiment.

In "How Well Do You Know What Dogs Do, Think, and Feel?" I offered a crash course on how to study dogs, become dog literate, and why it's important to do so. i also wonder what might dogs think about humans becoming fluent in dog. I bet most, if not all dogs, would deeply appreciate humans taking the time to learn "dog." Indeed, I included "becoming fluent in dog" as one of the items on their wish list when they're chosen to share a human home. (See "Are You Really Sure You Want to Share Your Life With a Dog?")

In this essay I also included some of my field notes that read: 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. Many people at dog parks and elsewhere spend a lot of time watching and commenting on these two behaviors and then they often expand their horizons and ask other questions in which they are interested. It's my pleasure to explain to them how to observe and record behavior.

Dogs are an ethologist’s dream, and it's not difficult to become dog literate

A good place to begin to learn what it is like to be a dog is with the realization that we have to try to 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 see-ers, 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.")

The quote with which I began this post, “You all need to get out of the ivory tower and into the field,” rings true. Too many researchers and dog trainers only observe dogs in laboratories and when dogs are at work. However, they also need to go to places where dogs are allowed to run free. Dog parks are excellent places to study dog behavior. (See "Dog Parks Can Be Fun Places To Go, But The Dog Has To Agree" and "Social Behavior of Dogs at an Off-Leash Park in Newfoundland.")

There's always something new to learn about dogs

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."

When we carefully observe dogs, what we learn is a never-ending story. There's always 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. (See "Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them.") I also advocate that shelters and breeders should require some literacy in dog behavior before a person brings a dog home with them.

Learning "dog" is a win-win

I hope that all people will take the time to watch dogs, including the one who they want to bring home, before they decide to commit to becoming that individual's guardian and lifeline. I fully realize that this might be asking too much of some people who never seem to have enough time to do what needs to be done in an average day absent a canine companion. However, if this is the case, then perhaps choosing to bring a dog or other companion home is the wrong decision for both of you. All of this also means that giving dogs (or other companion animals) as surprise gifts, something that happens a lot around this time of the year, is a bad idea, but that's another story (See "Pets As Gifts: Please Don't Surprise Me With a Life Sentence" and "Giving Puppies as Gifts: What if They're 'The Wrong Dog?'")

Doing field work of one sort or the other — watching your and other dogs when they can freely express their doginess — is an important component of getting to know one another and a fun way to develop and maintain close and meaningful bonds based on mutual respect and tolerance. The relationship that's developed between a human and a dog has to work for all parties. When it does, it's a win-win for all. So, try to take the time to learn who your dog is — their unique personality and quirks -- and enjoy doing it as you become the best of friends.


Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Also see: Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Mark Derr's An Eminent Ethologist Elucidates Dogs

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.