Sometimes, knowing what your dog needs or wants is as simple as watching their behavior. Repeated patterns in dog behavior are excellent indicators of what they need from us, provided you know what to look for.
Dogs have been a part of human community for thousands of years. They watch our body language for informational cues on what we want from them, and will often emulate our behavior in an attempt at understanding and communication. More than anything else, they want to work with us. If we pay attention to what they are saying, the rewards can be tremendous, and your canine will thank you for your perceptiveness in ways you never thought possible.
Let's talk about a few common behavioral cues our canines use to communicate information.
1. The stare.
This one is hard to miss unless you're really deeply engrossed in something other than your dog. Most dog owners are familiar with the 'stare' from their dog. Whether it be an empty water dish, a blocked thoroughfare, or something out of place, your dog will attempt to make eye contact with you while standing near to the object or thing they're trying to bring your attention to. You may also see a foot stomp, shifting weight from foot to food, and it is often done silently. Sometimes your dog will even lie down next to what they want. The most common one we see here with our dogs Indy and Gus is attention brought to the water bowl. And yet, the way each dog brings our attention to the bowl is different. Indy will stare and pace at the low or empty water bowl until one of us fills it. Gus, on the other hand, will sit nearby the bowl while he stares, and then lie down next to it.
Their gratefulness each time we catch this behavioral indicator and give them what they are asking for is as clear as day. Leaping to their feet, wagging their tails (or nubs in Indy's case), and smiling are all great signs that your dog is very happy to have communicated effectively and well with you in a way that you understand.
2. The point.
The point is an extremely interesting canine behavior. Used to bring our attention to something with a sense of urgency, the point is one of the most clever way a dog has of saying, "Hey, look at this!" While it is rarely done in terms of needing something (in this case, dogs will often use the 'stare'), the point should never be ignored. If your dog is finding something interesting enough to point at it with nose, foot, and a forward lean, it is probably worth your attention.
3. Potty time language.
There are numerous cues our dogs give us to let us know they've got to use the bathroom. Owners are generally hypervigilant about looking for these indicators. No one wants their dog or puppy to go the bathroom inside the house, yet time and time again, potty training eludes even the most experienced owners. Here are some cues to look for, from the very obvious to the not-so-clear, that indicate your dog needing to use the bathroom.
First, and most commonly, the nose to the ground. This one indicates a dog looking for the best place to use the bathroom. How a dog chooses this is the subject for much debate, but there's no denying it - a dog with his or her nose to the ground consistently, with a scuttling movement of the body, is a sure beacon of the bodily functions to come.
Second, the back door stand. This is an easy one to spot if you're paying attention, and most pet owners are extremely grateful for such a clear cue that their dog needs to go outside. For those of us that live in high-rise apartments where a backyard is not readily available, this cue is often elusive. Read along for other cues you may not have realized indicate your dog's need to use the bathroom.
Third, the ear scratch. We hadn't seen this one before in relation to needing to use the bathroom until we got our Cocker Spaniel, Gus. He will scratch his ears in a playful sort of way, repeatedly, until we get up and head for the backyard. We're lucky, once we figured out that this is what Gus meant when he began the ear scratch in a particular way (sitting in front of us, looking at us directly, and always scratching the right ear) we know right away when he needs to go. Nice work Gus!
Finally, impetuous pacing and whining are good signs that your dog needs to go. It never hurts, in the presence of these behaviors, to take your dog outside and to be sure that he or she does, or doesn't, need to use the bathroom.
4. The muzzle grab.
I find the muzzle grab to be one of the most interesting, informative pieces of canine behavior available. The muzzle grab involves complex issues like pack placement, behavior control, and submission in dogs and puppies. Adult dogs will muzzle grab their puppies to control a bite that is too hard, behavior that is too rambunctious, and to reinforce a puppy's place in the hierarchy of the pack in general. In adult dogs, the muzzle grab has the same function but with more serious and complex implications. A dog that is unsure of his or her placement in the pack will 'offer up' their muzzle to a dog that they believe has seniority. This senior dog will then place his or her mouth around the muzzle of the uncertain one. Following this, the lower-ranking canine will immediately lick the mouth of the senior dog and then slide into a slumping sit, often rolling over onto their backs as though to say, "Gotcha. Whatever you say, boss." What's more, the muzzle grab is extremely useful for humans as a way of letting your dog know his or her place in hierarchy of the family pack. If you have a dog that likes to inappropriately mouth, wrestle, or lick your hand in an attempt to garner your attention, a gentle hand around the snoot lets that dog know that you're in control of the situation.
5. Attention seeking.
As a final point, I'd like to talk about the ways our dogs try to get our attention. Often misconstrued as misbehavior, a dog that is feeling neglected or simply in need of some affection will often look to articles of clothing and other valuables their human wears or uses frequently. Their association with those items most often has to do with smell - the stronger the items smell of you, the human dog-parent, the more likely the dog will choose those items to get our attention. This is why socks and underwear are such a favorite item for dogs to hold in their mouths. Not only do they smell like us, but nine times out of ten, we will get up, remove the item from the dog's mouth or paws, and scold the dog for the trouble. What's missed is what your dog is trying to communicate to you with this behavior. "Please, please pay attention to me." Remember, even negative attention is still attention, and your dog will do whatever it takes to get it. Like us, they are social creatures, and need our interaction on a regular basis.
Any time I see my Cocker Spaniel Gus with a sock of mine, I go to him, gently remove the item and spend at least five minutes scratching his ear, his belly, and telling him what a good boy he is. During these times, most often Gus gets sick of me before I him, and will wander off to find a cool spot on the floor to lay down and pass out. I'm grateful that he tells me when he needs my attention, and I am sure to give it to him. As a result, we have a fulfilling, loving, and fun relationship. I trust Gus to tell me what he needs, and he trusts me to listen.
Thousands of years of community, learning our behaviors and physical/verbal cues in order to co-habitate with us have made our dogs experts in predicting what we want and expect. Let's repay the favor and do the same for them.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.