We humans love our dogs, and they’ve been our companions for thousands of years. But despite that age-old relationship, there are still things dogs do that make us scratch our heads and say, “Hmm.” Let’s take a look at some of those behaviors to discover the secrets that lie behind them.
▪ Why do dogs eat grass?
We get this one a lot. There are lots of theories about this behavior. One is that dogs who eat it are trying to overcome stomach upset by making themselves vomit. Another is that grass contains nutrients that perhaps are lacking in the dog’s diet. We happen to think that dogs eat grass because they like it. Haven’t you ever chewed on a blade of grass on a hot summer day? For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with dogs eating grass. Two possible drawbacks are that they ingest parasite eggs with their “salad,” or that they come inside and vomit it up on your favorite carpet.
▪ Why do dogs lick so much? Dogs love to lick us and themselves. Sometimes they lick fabrics such as carpet or upholstery. Our salty skin tastes delicious, and our aroma, especially if we’re sweaty, is a delight to a dog’s nose. Dogs get attention when they lick us, whether it’s a giggle or a “Yuck” as they swipe a tongue across our face. Dogs don’t care. They just like that we’re talking to them. Licking also brings dogs a physiological reward: the pituitary gland in the brain releases hormones called endorphins that relieve pain and generate good feelings. Licking can also be a sign of a health problem. Dogs who lick themselves excessively may be suffering from allergies that cause them to itch. When dogs lick their bowls frantically or turn their tongues to carpet or upholstery, it’s a good idea to take them to the veterinarian for a checkup. Studies have found that dogs who perform these behaviors may be diagnosed with some form of gastrointestinal disease.
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▪ Why do dogs wag their tails? The tail wag is a classic canine greeting, but it can have many other meanings, depending on the tail’s position, speed and even the direction in which it wags. Here are just a few of the many possible interpretations of a wagging tail: A confident dog has his tail up. A dog who feels threatened typically holds his tail up but rigid, moving it rapidly back and forth. When the tail is relaxed and moving in a gentle sweeping motion, the dog is relaxed and welcoming. A dog with tail down is stressed or cautious. A fearful dog has his tail tucked. When dogs see their owners, as opposed to strangers or unfamiliar dogs, their tail wags most strongly toward the right.
▪ Why do dogs smile at us? A dog’s smile can have several meanings. A common one is what’s known as a submissive grin -- that expression a dog has when he wants to let you or another dog know that he’s not a threat. A submissive grin can sometimes resemble a more aggressive “smile,” indicating that the dog may bite if approached. A subtle clue is that with an aggressive smile, the lips may be pulled back instead of up. Always assess the rest of the dog’s body language -- especially that expressive tail -- before deciding whether it’s safe to move toward this dog. Our favorite canine smile is when the mouth is open and relaxed. That’s what you see when your dog is calm and happy. We love that dogs show so openly that they are glad to see us.
Neat fact: Dogs and humans use the same muscles to form a smile.
Q: My Lab tore his toenail at agility class. What’s the best thing to do for it? I’ve heard lots of different advice.
A: Oww! If you’ve ever had a hangnail or cut your nails too short and got to sensitive skin, you know just how your dog feels when he breaks or cracks a nail. Labs and other active dogs are prone to torn, split or broken toenails. It’s not unusual for these dogs to get toe injuries from jumping and landing wrong, banging the toenail against a hard surface or getting it caught in something. A cracked or broken nail can be super painful. Interestingly, a toenail that’s cracked or split is often more painful than a nail that’s torn all the way off. Dogs have a much richer blood supply to their paws than humans do to their feet, and every blood vessel is accompanied by a nerve. With each step, the broken edge pushes into sensitive tissue. If the nail is completely torn off, there’s little bleeding, although the paw is still painful.
Depending on your comfort level with the procedure, you can clip off the remaining bit of torn or split toenail. If the thought of that makes you queasy, take a quick trip to the veterinarian so a vet tech or the vet can perform the procedure. With time, the toenail’s tissue will become less sensitive, and eventually the nail will grow back. Wash it with warm water and mild soap, keep it clean and watch for signs of infection, such as redness. You can also bandage it for protection during the healing period. Your dog’s paw may be sore for a week or two afterward. It’s a good idea to avoid walking him over rough surfaces while the nail heals. Talk to your veterinarian about prescribing a pain reliever.
Dr. Mary Becker
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com.