Dogs will be dogs

Dogs behave as they are wont to do, and therein lies the rub


There is nothing like a puppy.

About six million puppies are born each year, and the vast majority find their way into a home. Each puppy is a new beginning for a family or an individual owner, a joy to behold and love and teach.

A puppy is a genetic package loaded with behavior traits that took thousands of years to refine. Like a human baby, he learns his limits and his powers as he grows; unlike a human baby, he explores his environment and learns his lessons at a more primitive level – with tooth and paw – that he cannot outgrow. A puppy can become a well-mannered dog, but he can never learn to say please and thank you, to clean up his room, or to build a tower of blocks. A puppy is limited by his canine heritage, but his limitations can be channeled through training and accommodated by owners who understand why he does what he does.

Social interaction

Dogs are social animals. They need the company of other beings in order to develop to their full potential. Man brought dogs into his family circle, and dogs have come to need the company of man to survive.

Dog behavior is governed by hunting style, digestive system, and reproductive needs and is geared towards participation in a social group. Some dog fanciers describe this behavior in terms used by biologists to explain wolf interactions – they toss around terms such as “pack dynamics” and “dominance hierarchy” to explain how dogs see the world.

Some pet owners describe dog behavior in terms of human conduct and emotions. They say that Fluffy acts out of love or concern, that Rascal soiled the rug out of spite, that Ranger barks at the mailman because he hates the mailman, or that Mickey cringes because he is afraid of being smacked.

It doesn’t matter if owners consider their dogs as wolf cousins or furry children if the relationship is smooth and the adaptations made as a matter of course, but if Fido’s natural tendencies are unacceptable in any way, remedies depend on understanding how and why the behavior exists so that it can be modified.

[More on socializing puppies]


Dogs are better at adapting than owners are. Within limits, they can modify their behavior for good or ill to cope with human idiosyncrasies while still meeting their own need for social acceptance. Doggy adaptations that result in inappropriate expression of natural behavior can block or tear the human-animal bond if owners view those adaptations in human terms. For example, dogs naturally explore with their mouths and chew to satisfy a biological need, but chewing on family body parts and possessions is unacceptable. Acknowledging that a pup is following the genetic behavior blueprint common to all dogs is more conducive to developing a solution than falling into the all-too-human trap of labeling her as spiteful, angry, mean, or stupid.

Dogs are predators. They have the eyes, teeth, digestive systems, feet, ears, and structure of predators. Even though pet dogs no longer hunt their dinner, they are still capable of predatory behavior towards wild critters, other pets, and even babies and small children. Owners who understand that predation is natural for dogs can prevent problems by supervising dogs with other pets and children, at least until they understand the attitudes and behavior of each particular dog in each circumstance.

Dogs are basically clean animals, although they do enjoy a romp or roll in some pretty disgusting dead stuff or a swim in a fetid pond on occasion. Most dogs are relatively easy to housetrain because they learn quickly not to soil their living space. Dogs that have trouble with housetraining may have already adapted to living in dirt because they have nowhere else to urinate or defecate except their crates or cages.

Dogs like to be busy. Although they sleep most of the day, dogs enjoy activity with their families. Long walks, games, tricks, and training for competition in agility, obedience, tracking, herding, lure coursing, go-to-ground and other events keep a dog’s mind and body in good shape. Dogs that don’t get this stimulation will make up their own games and events such as “ha,ha, you can’t catch me,” “I can leap the fence in a single bound,” “the back yard looks much better with all these holes,” or “wanna bet I can’t reach the chicken you’re thawing for dinner?”

Dogs dig. They dig to find moles and mice and rabbits that tunnel or nest underground. They dig to make a nice cool sleeping spot in summer, to escape from the yard for a neighborhood foray, or to mimic owners who work in the garden. Some owners give dogs their own digging places so the family pooch can indulge his bent for excavation without uprooting the entire yard or garden.

Dogs are territorial. We like this adaptation when Fido barks to warn us of approaching strangers, but really hate it when he goes overboard with a frenzy of noise. (The neighbors hate it too!) Unfortunately, with people living close together in cities and suburbs, this adaptation is often difficult to correct. No-bark collars (both electronic and herbal) work in many cases, but the instinct is strong and the dogs may need frequent reinforcement of the lesson. (Some breeds of dogs – including Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, some terriers, and Norwegian Elkhounds, for example – tend to bark more than others, so potential buyers should take this characteristic into consideration when looking for a pet.)

Family connections

Dogs have a social hierarchy that is easily transferred from the litter or pack to the human family when owners understand the dynamics of canine communication and community interaction.

Dogs communicate with body language and vocalization. A barking dog with hackles up, body erect, ears forward, and tail wagging stiffly at half-mast is telling interlopers to keep their distance. A whining dog with ears pinned back, tail down and slightly wagging, and body cowering sends a different message. Although both are saying “don’t tread on my space,” the former dog is doing so with authority and the latter with a plea to be left alone.

Dog owners who learn to read and understand the body postures and vocalizations of their pets can adapt their own actions and training methods accordingly.

Words such as “dominant” and “submissive” can be helpful in reading and understanding dog behavior, but they can be overused, in part because circumstances can dictate whether a particular dog will act in a dominant fashion or react in a submissive mode. This dichotomy in behavior is often seen when a dog bullies or ignores one or more family members and is calm, cool, and collected with others.

Dominant behaviors can include food and toy guarding, leg-humping, pawing for attention, blocking doorways, ignoring commands, growling, pushing, staring, biting, and other challenges.

Submissive behaviors can include cringing, leaning, pawing for attention, licking, growling, biting, running away, urinating, and other attempts to avoid challenges or to respond defensively to perceived challenges.

Some dogs of either type are aloof with strangers and new situations; they may take time to scope things out before their personality type asserts itself. Socialization – a combination of obedience training for good manners, trick training and game-playing for fun, and opportunities to meet people and experience new situations – is critical with these dogs so they don’t overreact when faced with change or challenges.


Like human children, puppies are still experimenting with various personas and learning their boundaries; those who integrate puppy needs with guidance (chew this toy, not that chair; pee outside, not on the rug) will have a head start towards forging a strong bond.

The best beginning for a puppy of any breed or mix is enrollment in a good puppy kindergarten or conformation class as soon as he is fully protected by vaccinations. Shy puppies can learn to accept new situations, bold puppies can enjoy the interactions, and owners can brag about puppy accomplishments, commiserate about training problems, and ask questions about basic care and behavior.

[More on many of these topics can be found in our behavior articles in the canine behavior section]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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