Odd Dog Behaviors: Instinctive or Learned?

by DFS-Pet-Blog on February 26, 2010

**Guest post from Ellen B.**

Considering that wild canines have been around for millions of years,  domestication of dogs is relatively new. Their long history of living in the wild produced some natural instinctive behaviors that often revolved around interaction with other dogs and survival. Some dog behavior that we find a bit odd or humorous today can be attributed to instinctive dog behavior.

Let me share some research that I did on why dogs do some of  their “interesting” behaviors – some of which are either humorous or frustrating, depending on how you look at it:

Why Do Dogs Sniff – A LOT?

My dog, Kobe, sniffing out the neighborhood.

My dog, Kobe, sniffing out the neighborhood.

“A dog’s scent organ (inside his nose) is about four times larger than a human’s, and a dog’s sense of smell is about 50-100 times more powerful than ours.” (Source: How Good is a Dog’s Sense of Smell?) Certainly wild canines used their incredible sense of smell to detect predators and determine territorial “ownership”.

Their exaggerated sense of smell can explain why my dog LOVES to sniff. It’s not so bad when he sniffs around the yard at his leisure, but it can be annoying during our walks. To avoid frustration, I’ve trained him so he knows he gets the first 2 blocks to “read his newspaper”, and then we get down to business…walking for exercise. At the end of the route, he gets to finish up his newspaper.

Why Do Dogs Eat Grass?

If your dog has ever eaten grass, you probably know it can make them vomit. Although it’s unclear as to whether they eat grass to vomit, or vomit because they ate grass, dogs do tend to eat grass when they have an upset stomach. Some dogs just like to eat grass, sort of like our salad bar.

My source, Why Dogs Eat Grass, also offers a more instinctive reason dating back to wild canines eating all of a hunted meal, including the grass-filled intestines. It also states that “grass eating is basically a normal behavior, and is not of concern unless your dog does it excessively.”

Why Do Dogs Dig?


Dig! Dig! Dig!
If a dog is bored, he might just dig for something to do. An unspayed or unneutered dog may dig to escape in order to mate with another dog. Since deeper layers of soil tend to be cooler, dogs dig to find relief from the heat. Sometimes dogs dig so they can bury a bone or other treats, saving it ‘for a rainy day’ when they may need them. My dog does this even inside. I find bones in corners, in furniture cushions, under pillows, etc.

Source: Digging is an Instinctive Behavior in Dogs (This article offers other reasons for digging, along with some suggested solutions.)

Why Do Dogs Roll in Smelly Things?

This would qualify as one of those frustrating behaviors! However, this may also qualify as an instinctive behavior. A PetEducation.com dog behavior article states that “dogs may choose to roll in foul-smelling things to mask their scent, just as wolves do.” Smelling like a decomposing animal may help disguise themselves so they can better sneak up on prey.

PetEducation also suggests that “Some behaviorists feel dogs may roll in smelly things to ‘advertise’ what they have found to other dogs.” Whatever the reason, pet owners generally find little humor in this behavior!

Quiz: Are these dogs demonstrating learned or instinctive behavior?
Dog-Behavior learned-dog-behavior Dog-Behavior-Learned

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February 28, 2010 at 8:43 pm

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Janet March 12, 2010 at 9:58 am

Ok, here’s an oddity! My dog sniffs in circle upon circle upon circle to find just the right place to “go”. It’s funny to watch all that prep work! If it’s a learned behavior, I sure don’t know where he learned it from.

Terri McCarthy April 18, 2010 at 5:51 pm

My 4 dogs, all various mixed and purebreds, all live by their noses. I love to watch them explore and find new things using them. I had a dog once, that we were playing fetch at dusk and it finally got so dark that I couldn’t see the stick anymore. I threw it one last time and I’ll be darned if she didn’t sniff out that one stick out all the dozens of other ones and bring it to me. They are truly incredible creatures.

Chris Myers January 4, 2012 at 11:27 pm

Why does a dog turn round and round before lying down ?

Ellen B. January 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Chris, good question! I asked Dr. Holly Nash, one of our staff veterinarians. She took a look at a couple of her behavior references and here’s her reply:

There are several theories why dogs may turn around 2-3 times before they lie down. It may be instinctive behavior to either:
Check that the area they are going to lie down in is safe, e.g., no snakes or dangerous insects.
Make the area more comfortable by trampling any snow or grass that could be there.
We’ll probably never know for sure!

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