We often see human traits in our furry best friends, seeing a ‘smile’ cross their canine chops, but dogs are physiologically very different to humans. Some of their systems work in entirely different ways, and can seem completely mystifying to us humans! The more we can understand some of their most obvious traits, the better we can come to know man’s best friend.
We’ll explore some of the most common traits we see every day in our dogs, and explain why they do it.
Why do dogs pant?
Panting can seem very foreign to us. The closest we might come to panting is the heavy breathing we submit to after a run on a hot day.
Dogs pant for several reasons, but the primary one is just this, to lose excess heat. Whilst humans sweat to control our core temperature, dogs have a different system. With their furry coats, they are well insulated – but that means that running about in the sun is the equivalent of going for a jog in a heavy coat on a warm July day for a human!
Once a dog gets hot, they want to cool down. Dogs do sweat from their paw pads, but this is the equivalent of sweaty palms – not a great way to regulate extreme heat. Instead, they pant. This cools the fluid on their tongues, and circulates cooled air around their bodies.
Normal v Abnormal – being hot, being scared or being unwell
Panting is a completely normal response from your dog, when facing heat.
However, if your dog is panting and it isn’t hot, you should take note – this could be a potential warning sign.
If your dog is completely still in the heat, but still panting heavily, they may be overheating and heading for heatstroke. Get your dog somewhere cool immediately – whether inside, or into some cool water. Always make sure to provide enough water to keep your doggy hydrated too.
Dogs also pant in the face of fear. If a thunderstorm goes overhead, your dog may begin to pant – dogs don’t naturally like the flashing lights and loud bangs of thunder and lightning. Dogs often look to their human companions to gauge the situation, so make sure to act normal in a thunderstorm – but if your dog is still frightened, allow them their space and safety until they come out willingly, considering the worst of the danger to be passed. This panting isn’t dangerous to them, but is a warning sign that your dog is feeling anxious, and might need your attentions and sympathies more than usual.
Similarly, if it isn’t hot or there is no obvious reason for your dog to pant, panting could be a danger sign of poisoning, of illness, or of an allergic reaction. If your dog is also lethargic, lazing around the house, and vomiting, panting could be a clue that your dog’s ability to breathe could be compromised.
A sudden burst of panting implies a raised heart rate, and panting to catch breath could be a warning sign that your pooch has a problem with his or her heart. Pneumonia, or Cushing’s syndrome, are other illnesses that can prompt excessive panting.
There are a long list of illnesses that could prompt a dose of heavy panting, including attacks on the respiratory, cardiovascular, hormonal and neurological systems. Panting can also signify that they are in pain.
Know your dog
Knowing your dog and his or her natural breathing patterns will tell you when a pant is absolutely normal, or seems a little off. Keep your eyes peeled and you will recognise any abnormalities in your furry friend’s panting quickly.
Why do dogs wag their tails?
Another action our furry friends are famous for is wagging their little tails! We always assume they are wagging their tails in joy, excitement or anticipation – but are there other causes for a wagging tail?
Unlike what many believe, dogs are not always indicating happiness by wagging their tails. A dog’s tail is like an emotion conductor for your dog, and they use their tails to signify all sorts of different feelings. If your friend’s dog comes out wagging her tail, but her pupils are dilated, ears pinned back and muscles stiffened, for example, she may be nervous or anxious – at which point, her wagging tail certainly does not signify that she wants a stroke!
Of course, your dog’s breed will control where the ‘natural’, relaxed position of your dog’s tail is located – a greyhound’s is slightly curled in, for example, whilst a pug’s tail curls upward. Consider their ‘natural’ position before considering what ‘raised’ or ‘lowered’ means for your pooch!
Evolution and tail wagging
The tail wag has not always been an indicator of emotion – a dog’s tail was initially used for balancing when swimming, climbing or leaping. Dogs learnt to communicate with their tails later on. Similarly, dogs are not born wagging their tails even now – they learn to wag a month or two after birth, when they want to begin communicating with their siblings, or mum. Tail wagging as tiny pups can signal a “white flag” if their siblings are being too boisterous, and can act as an indicator that they are begging for food from their adult relations.
Left or right? High or low?
Some studies suggest that dogs wag their tails to the right when happy, and to the left when stressed or frightened! This is to do with what frontal cortex is processing emotion – the left hemisphere is related to positive emotions, resulting in a wag on their right, and the right hemisphere of the brain is associated with negative, avoidance emotions, resulting in a wag to the dog’s left.
It’s worth monitoring your dog to gain these little hints – these can be really valuable for helping children, or friends without dogs themselves, to understand when your dog is friendly and ready to play and when they’re feeling stressed out and need their space.
If the tail is perkily upright, wagging back and forth, this can be a great indicator of happiness and comfort in the situation. If your furry friend’s tail is wagging low, between his or her legs, this can contrastingly intimate that they are feeling anxious and frightened. They are trying to communicate with you (dogs do not wag their tails when they are alone) – so try to use all of their efforts to read their emotions.
Dogs also release their scent by wagging their tails high and proud. A dominant dog will wag their tail high, releasing their own unique scent from their anal glands, as a ‘marking my territory’ sort of action. A scared dog will try not to release any scent – another key reason for your dog to keep his or her tail curled tightly between their legs.
Just two of the most common traits of your furry friend can tell us so much about how they are feeling, and thinking! Studying what is normal for your pooch, and then how that changes, will result in you having a much closer and more understanding relationship.