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Shea Cox
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Deciphering (Ab)Normal Dog Behaviors
Chasing their tails, eating grass and rolling in garbage—should you worry?

From humping to “targeted” sniffing, our pups have a plethora of odd habits—at least to those of us who walk on two legs instead of four. While no one knows for certain the exact “why” behind these behaviors, we do have some theories. And until dogs learn to speak human, divulging their best-kept secrets, we’ll just have to continue to make educated guesses about this weird-but-true realm of doggy deeds. The key is recognizing if a behavior signals poor health.

Tail-chasing

When puppies chase their tails, it’s like babies grabbing their toes—and this is a normal way for them to explore their bodies. But like anything in life, moderation is key, and problems can arise if this behavior becomes compulsive. So, how do you determine if your pooch has a case of Canine Compulsive Disorder? It comes down to whether you can distract them from this behavior. If your dog would rather chase her tail than go for a walk, she may have a compulsive disorder and veterinary assessment may be needed.

Scooting

It can be common for dogs to drag their bottoms across the ground after doing their business, particularly if their stool is loose. But if this behavior is noted frequently throughout the day, this may be a sign of impacted anal glands, a condition that can have serious complications if left untreated.

Humping

Watching your dog get personal with his stuffed toy can make you want to look away, but it’s not abnormal. Many dogs discover that humping feels good, it can relieve stress or serve as an outlet for excessive feelings of exuberance and excitement. Both males and females are known to partake in this behavior, though males do it more often.

Eating grass

People often think that dogs eat grass when their stomachs are upset or they are ill. However, a good ol’ lawn actually serves as a gourmet snack to many dogs. As omnivores, they like to eat their meat and veggies, too. Eating grass in moderation is a normal part of a dog diet, and a walk in the park for my dogs always includes a stop at the grass buffet. That said, if all of a sudden you see your dog frantically binging on grass, this could be the sign of distress, and a call to your veterinarian is in order.

Crotch-sniffing

It is general custom for Spot to greet Rover with a sniff of the behind, but why share this custom with us? Bad manners? Well, not according to the canine code of conduct, as this is a perfectly acceptable way of collecting personal information about one another, including humans. So the next time you are surprised by a nosey nudge, just know that you are being greeted and assessed (and don’t worry, dogs generally won’t be offended if you just give them a pat on the head in turn).

[Recently, Bark columnist Julie Hecht, MS, took a light-hearted look at the phenomenon.]

Eating excrement

Gross, right!? I’m asked about this all of the time and all I can do is give an empathetic cringe of the nose and a shrug of the shoulders. (I know the score: My dog Mickey used to raid the cat’s litter box, proudly returning with “kitty cigars.”) As stomach-turning as this is, eating excrement is a surprisingly normal behavior for dogs. In the early stages of domestication, dogs performed a hygienic function of cleaning up their own feces. Additionally, their digestive system is very efficient and they can actually get some quality nutrients out of it—although I can think of much better sources.

Rolling in garbage

When we see a decaying animal or a pile of garbage, our first inclination is to step around it … waaaaay around it. But, keeping true to our dog’s oddities, it is their greatest desire to jump right in, getting a good coating of ick with a strategic roll. The more foul the smell, the stronger the lure, and the more joy that is experienced by our now perfumed pups. One theory is that dogs like to cover their own scent with horrible odors to make it easier to surprise prey. You probably can’t curb your dog of this desire, so your best hope is to spot smelly things first and steer your pal in a different direction.

I hope this has shed some light on a few odd dog behaviors. Funny, as I sit here, I find myself looking over to my own dog, Bauer, wondering if he is looking back at me thinking, “Wow, there she goes again, sitting in front of that computer when she could be outside playing with her ball. Now, that’s just weird.”

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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Submitted by Tom Cushing | February 1 2012 |

Great pic -- it's knothole month at The Bark.

Very interesting article, too -- I wonder (he speculated, in some fear of pinning the Weird Meter), what a similar article would look like, if one of my companion canines pawed a blog on how dogs could interpret various odd customs and behaviors of their homo sapiens hosts! :-)

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | February 3 2012 |

Hysterical! And so funny you should mention... shortly after I wrote that blog, I caught my dog in the act of attempting his version of a follow up piece (he thinks I'm full of all sorts of oddities).

To his dismay, the spell check on my hijacked computer had difficulty deciphering "s;admoasdjfaslekm;aoima/lsekj;" slightly frustrated, he returned to his ball.

Submitted by Holly | February 1 2012 |

Any thoughts on why they eat dirt? I've got 2 dogs that love to do this and they're fed a high quality grain-free diet.

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | February 3 2012 |

Hi Holly! This is a common question, I see! Can you refer to JC and Sam's question above... I asked JC to answer a few questions before I comment. If you'd like, you can do the same, which will give an interesting perspective for two people to compare to each other with regards to their dogs' dirt delicacies :). It is interesting that both of your dogs do this... what is the brand of the grain-free diet and the purpose that you are feeding this (allergies? other?).

I'll bring some answers back around when I have more information. Thanks for the interactive questions!

Submitted by Lisa Potter | February 1 2012 |

I've always imagined my dogs wondering, "Why does she carry my poop around in a plastic bag in her pocket?"...

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | February 3 2012 |

Ha!! Exactly!! :)

Submitted by JC and Sam | February 2 2012 |

Thank you for the article. It provided great information. Any input concerning an entree of dirt? On occasion Sam prefers this to his expensive dog chow.
Thanks!

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | February 3 2012 |

Hi JC and Sam (btw, I love that you included Sam on your name! :)

There are a couple things with eating dirt... but before I answer on, could you give me a little more history to help you with this answer? This would include: Sam's age, is he otherwise "healthy", any weight gains associated with the development of this behavior, does he do it often (try to define how often, how much), is this "snacking" increasing in amounts and frequency, any other general issues with him?

I may come back with a huge epiphany of an answer: "because he's a dog" :) but there are a few medical things to consider first.

I'll keep checking back for your reply and thanks for the feedback!

Submitted by Jenny | February 14 2012 |

My dog is a CONSTANT licker -- our skin, sometimes even the couch or blankets on the bed. He is 3 years old and has been doing this since we got him at 5 months. What might this mean?

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | February 16 2012 |

Hi Jenny! Dogs, like humans, can suffer from obessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In dogs specifically, OCD can be characterised by excessive licking of themselves as well as us and all other nearby objects. It can also just be an idiosyncratic "personal behavior," like a person who likes to bite their nails. One of my associates (and close friend) has a Pit Bull mix that constantly licks everything, too (the walls, floor, couch, legs... in fact, now she barks loudly at any wall outlet because she has electrocuted herself from sticking her tongue into the outlet too many times!).

If your pet is otherwise healthy, we often just lump this behavior into the category of "we don't really know" and offer a few of the best guesses that make sense for the situation. Behavior modification can be attempted. Medications can be tried, but, I tend to stay away from that tactic if the licking isn't overall self destructive to your pet and home.

If I were granted 3 wishes, one would be to be fluent in dog :)

Submitted by Anonymous | February 14 2012 |

My two dogs, ages 13 and 11, eat dirt. Good health, they eat lamb-based food (Wellness)...we joke about them having pica. For years they only wanted to eat the dirt from one specific area in a friend's yard, which has a lot of clay. Past couple of years they've started eating the nice dark loam in our front yard. Although the holes are a hazard, I'm generally jst glad when snacks don't involve poop!

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | February 16 2012 |

Hi "A"... boy, there are a lot of dirt eaters out there! :)

We sometimes see dirt ingestion this with anemia (low red blood cell counts) but it sounds like you have ruled that out with your comment that they are in "good health." Mineral deficiencies are another common source of pica (specifically towards dirt), but this also sounds like it would not be the cause since they are on a well-balanced commercial diet. It is unusual that *both* of your dogs are trying to eat dirt, and not just one, so there may be a deficiency somewhere... You could talk to your vet about including a vitamin/mineral supplement into their daily routine.

Submitted by Anonymous | June 17 2012 |

My schip is 22mo old..we have had him for 6 mo. About 3 mo ago he started holding objects...soft toys or edge of his bed pillow.

It does not seem he is sucking. He even has jumped off my lap to suck it. He does drop it foe short time..mins...if alternative activity provided. He drags his bed illow around the house and yard.
We got him from a breeder who hand raises all her pups. There is no history of this behaviiour in any of her dogs.
new as never in another home, we are retired and home most of the time, gets 2 walks daily , has plenty of chew bones etc.

Is there anything to do about this.....it seems so sad.
Thank you.

Submitted by desiree | September 14 2012 |

I have a 12 week old cockapoo/lab mix pup nd she has been showing some odd behavior lately. My 1 1/2 year old son goes without a diaper now nd thn nd my puppy will sniff his genitals nd start humping the air nd if he tries to get away from her she chases him all the while humping away. Now I have had many puppies over the years nd have never seen this behavior. Im wondering if she may have some kind of mental issue or if anybody else has seen this behavior before by chance?

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