Saturday, January 30, 2016

Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks

Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks
Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Dog parks are gold mines of information about the behavior of dogs and humans
I love going to dog parks. So, too, do dogs and their people. Dog parks are a fascinating recent and growing cultural phenomenon. Indeed, I go rather often to what I call my field sites, for that's what they are, to study play behavior and other aspects of dog behavior including urination and marking patterns, greeting patterns, social interactions including how and why dogs enter, become part of, and leave short-term and long-term groups, and social relationships. I also study human-dog interactions and when I study how humans and dogs interact I also learn a lot about the humans. For example, I often hear how happy people are that their dogs are free to run here and there or free to be dogs when they're at the dog park. Often, they say this while they're constantly calling them back to them even when the dog is simply sniffing here or there or looking for a friend. They also call them to break up play when they think it's gotten out of hand. You call this free?
Two works to which I often go when thinking about social dynamics at dog parks are Matthew Gilbert's book titled Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park and Sonoma State University's Patrick Jackson’s essay called "Situated Activities in a Dog Park: Identity and Conflict in Human-Animal Space ." Linda Case writes about Dr. Jackson's study and she is not a fan of dog parks because she feels they're not safe and because "Dog park people frequently behave badly by not being responsible dog owners and by being inconsiderate and uncaring towards other people and their dogs." We really need empirical studies on the safety issue. After having spent countless hours at dog parks I've never entertained drawing this conclusion, but there aren't any detailed data on this topic of which I'm aware. However, on occasion, but hardly regularly, I've marveled at just how inconsiderate a very few people can be. But, as part of the gossip network among the other people, I often hear that a given person behaves like this even in non-dog park situations. On a few occasions I've had a rather inconsiderate person ask me why their dog has bad manners and rather than get involved I call attention to some interesting dog-dog interactions. 
Most people realize that "dogs are in" and countless scientific and popular essays  (see also New Directions in Canine Behavior, Julie Hecht's "Dog Spies," and essays written for Psychology Today by writers including Mark Derr, Stanley Coren, Jessica Pierce, and yours truly) and books have been published in the past decade or so about these fascinating mammals. The bottom line is that a plethora of detailed data - and the database is rapidly increasing - clearly show that dogs are thinking, clever, and feeling sentient beings, and viewing them as sort of robotic machines is incredibly misleading and academically corrupt. This does not mean that they are "doggy Einsteins," however, ample data from numerous different research groups around the world clearly show that dogs are rather complex and incredibly interesting mammals who deserve a good deal of further study. Perhaps even René Descartes would consider changing his views on nonhuman animals (animals) as unfeeling machines given the enormous amount of empirical evidence on sentience in animals.
Why do dogs do this and that? Canine confidential
“Why do dogs do this and that?” The purpose of this short essay, that can be conceived as a field guide to the extremely interesting and largely unknown world of the fascinating dogs with whom we share our lives, is to provide some lessons in dog behavior from observations and questions arising from visits to various dog parks, especially around Boulder, Colorado where I live. I see myself as “a naturalist in a dog park” and aim to show here, via a series of questions, what we know and don’t know about many different aspects of dog behavior. Dogs are often called social catalysts – icebreakers or lubricants -- for social interactions with other dogs and they often open the door for pretty frank and wide-ranging conversations among familiar and unfamiliar humans. It always amazes me how dogs free up humans to talk about things they might be more reluctant to share in other venues including what they really think about their human “BFF’s -- best friends forever” -- and the infamous “3 p’s,” namely, pee, poop, and puke. Often when I get home and look at my notes I view them as “canine confidential.” So, what follows is a sampler of many "why" questions, including why dogs hump, why they sniff butts, genitals, and ears, why they play, and why they organize themselves the ways they do. There are also many "what" questions such as "What do they know?", "What are they thinking?", and "What are they feeling?" in different contexts. The list of questions is endless and I'm sure those that follow can easily mutate in many, many more. 
People who are lucky enough to share their world with a dog often think they know it all. And, while they do know a good deal about what their canine buddy is thinking and feeling and what they want and need, there really are large gaps in the scientific database. As I mentioned above, there are numerous anecdotes about why dogs do this or that, and, taken together, they form their own pool of data. However, while the claim that  “the plural of anecdote is data” applies in some cases, many mysteries still loom in what we actually know about the world of dogs.
Furthermore, often there is no single “right” answer to a question -- even some of the most commonly asked queries -- and that’s just fine. Dogs compose a highly variable group of mammals -- I often say "the dog" doesn't really exist -- so it’s not surprising that just when we think we have a solid handle on what they're thinking and feeling and why they do what they’re doing an exception or three arises. Surely, the early experience of individual dogs influences their later behavior. So, while we know a lot, people are often amazed by how little we know and that hard and fast answers can't be given to some common questions. 
Visiting dog parks can be wonderful educational experiences. Visits, some lasting hours on end each and every day, can be myth breakers and icebreakers, and also provide information about why dogs are doing this or that. People are always asking questions about why their dog is doing something and really want to know what we know. They also freely offer advice to other people about why their dog is doing something and how they can treat various problems such as shyness, aggressiveness, and why dogs ignore what their human is asking them to do. And, as I wrote above, dogs also are icebreakers – "social catalysts" the academics call them -- and get people to talk with one another and to talk about things
The questions below range from interests about basic dog behavior such as why do dogs stick their noses where they do, and why they play, bark, pee, eat turds, and roll on their back, to more lofty questions about whether dogs have a theory of mind and whether they know what they look like and if they know who they are. A good number of questions deal with dogs' butts and noses, hence the title of this brief essay (motivated, of course, by the famous rock group, Guns N' Roses). Butts and noses -- including other “private parts” – figure into a number of the questions below. We all know dogs put their noses in places where we couldn’t imagine there would be anything of interest, and also place their active snouts, often on their first introduction, to other dogs and humans, in places that make us rather uneasy. We don’t greet friends or strangers by immediately licking their mouth or with a genital sniff or slurp. There also are many general questions that don’t center on anatomical features that figure largely in the world of the dog. I’ll answer each question briefly with what we know from various types of research, with some stories where they’re available, and note where we really need more information. It's entirely possible that I have missed a given study (or studies) and I apologize for the oversights and look forward to hearing from readers.
While we know a lot about dogs, there are holes in the database, so the future is chock full of exciting research. Readers will discover that what we often take to be the gospel about dog behavior frequently isn’t all that well supported by published empirical research or even detailed observations. While good stories are interesting and can serve to stimulate more "controlled" research, in and of themselves they don't constitute "data" as do detailed and more focused studies (I'll suggest below that studies in dog parks may be more "ecologically relevant" than studies in laboratories and help to settle on-going debates among different research groups). In some ways, then, this essay is sort of a myth-buster and a fun way not only to learn about dogs but also to stimulate further research about dogs and dogs and humans. So, here we go.
Are dogs really our best friends and are we really their best friends?
I’m asked these questions a lot and I always say it’s simply not so that dogs are “unconditional lovers.” They discriminate among humans just like we discriminate among dogs. And, while dogs might love “too much,” they’re very careful about to whom they open up. So, sometimes -- perhaps very often -- dogs are our best friends and we are their best friends but we all know of picky dogs and the horrific abuse to which dogs are subjected.
Are dogs really free at a dog park?
I often hear something like, “Oh I love coming to the dog park because my dog is so free” – and then she's/he’s called back constantly when he plays too roughly or strays too far. People surely differ in how much control they exert, but some just don't give their dog the opportunity to play, sniff, and hump. Control freaks often abound and they don’t realize it. Patrick Jackson, in the essay to which I referred above, writes about how "caretakers become 'control managers' who must negotiate problems related to a variety of dog behaviors, especially mounting, aggression, and waste management." He's right on the mark, but there are also those who get upset when play gets a bit rough, even when the dogs obviously are enjoying themselves.
Do dogs display dominance?
Yes, they do, just like many other animals. There is major confusion and mistakes among many “dog people” about what dominance really means, and dogs, like numerous other animals, do indeed use various forms of dominance in their social interactions. However, this does not mean that dominance is equated with overt aggression and physical harm nor that we need to dominate them in order to live in harmony with them.
Dogs and humans: Why do people open up at dog parks?
Dogs can easily serve as icebreakers and social catalysts. People often open up at dog parks and talk to friends about things they likely don’t talk about in other arenas. They seem to feel safe among kinfolks. Some people began talking to me about pretty personal stuff within a minute of meeting them such as a woman who decided that she didn’t like her BFF because of how she treated a dog she just rescued, and a woman who, after meeting someone for around 10 seconds, decided that the woman wasn’t a good dog owner because she was suffering from bipolar disorder but didn’t know it! Some people – men and women, alike – have told me that dogs are social magnets and make it easy to meet other people who also are out with their canine BFF. These discussions often have very interesting “conclusions.” Enough on that for now …
The full original article and all links are at Marc Bekoff’s blog @ Butts & Noses. He asks and answers many other interesting questions and we recommend checking it out. 

                              ABOUT MARC BEKOFF, Author of Butts and Noses

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is a former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. His homepage is and with Jane Goodall Twitter @MarcBekoff

                                                  A message from the authors:
             Maggie's Kitchen Tails  Dog Treat Recipes and Puppy Tales to Love

We at Maggie's Kitchen Tails Dog Treat Recipes and Puppy Tales to Love, wish to thank Marc for his generous contribution to our blog post so we can send you a new look at our precious dogs! We met Marc on line through reading his animal research papers but we knew he had a busy life in research, writing and a former Professor at the University of Boulder in Colorado and did not expect he would find time when we ask for this article. His compassion to help dogs and animals is so focused, he stepped up and provided us this piece very quickly. Thank you Marc. and we hope you will share with us again in the future.

Stop by and visit our web site and check out our Maggie as she has inspired a book with a collection of short stories and dog treat recipes. Our book supports several charities that are advocates for abused animals. You will also find many items in our on-line store for your furry friend with special offers! Thank you for supporting our mission.

Maggie’s Kitchen Tails:
Dog Treat Recipes and Puppy Tales to Love
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  1. What an incredibly informative and knowledgable blog post this is. It is refreshing to learn so much all in one essay. As I read, I found myself with questions but was pleasantly surprised that they had been contemplated and answered as I read forward. I know that many will benefit from reading this and I'll definitely share the link on facebook.

  2. Excellent post, Marc! You have given us a lot to think about! Thank you!

    I wish you could visit our dog park that is attached to our senior building here in Waikiki. All the dogs and people go out of their way to get along because they live in the same building and see each other every day. The dogs have all become very attached and the people put any differences aside so the dogs have a good family atmosphere. I don't own a dog myself (although I have a grand puppy), but I go to the dog park as an auntie and the dogs all love their many aunties and uncles. Like anything, dog parks that are smaller and more private neighborhood attached might always work best.