Butts and Noses: Secrets, Lessons, and Surprises from Dog Parks

05/19/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

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."

Most people realize that "dogs are in" and countless scientific and popular essays 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 Johnson 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 (for more on this topic and the fact that dominance is not a myth please see this essay and and and references therein).

Why do dogs mount and hump?

Here are some of the statements I hear about dog mounting and humping: "Oh my God, my dog was fixed to stop this stuff." "Oh, that's easy, it's always to dominate the other dog." "Domination." "Dogs are hyper-sexual because of domestication." There are many reasons why dogs hump and there's not a single answer (please see this essay and references therein).

Do Dogs feel shame and guilt?

While I hear numerous stories about shame and guilt, the simple and most correct answer is that we really don't know. While we're not all that good at reading guilt this does not mean that they do not feel guilt (please see this essay and references therein).

Do dogs get jealous?

Yes they do and a study published in 2014 showed this to be the case (please see this essay and references therein). I often hear very compelling stories about jealousy in dogs.

How often does social play escalate into serious aggressive encounters?

Although my students and I haven't kept detailed records on this aspect of play for dogs, we all agree that play didn't turn into serious fighting in more than around 2% of the 1000s of play bouts we've observed. Current observations at dog parks around Boulder, Colorado support our conclusion. And, for the approximately 1000 play bouts that my students and I observed in wild coyotes, mainly youngsters, on only about five occasions did we see play fighting escalate into serious fighting. Along these lines, Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) discovered that fewer than 0.5% of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. In this case our intuitions were right on the mark.

Why do dogs roll and writhe on their back?

It could be to impart an odor. A wild canid known as the raccoon dog who lives in South America has a scent gland on its back. Dogs might also roll on their back to mask their own odor. And, of course, it might feel really good so why not do it? I love watching dogs writhe on their back and they look like they're in doggie heaven.

Do dogs have a sense of time? The "two minute warning"

We really don't know much at all about the dog's sense of time. Yet, people often use what I call the "two minute warning" and ask their dog if it's okay if they leave in 2 minutes, or people tell their dog something like, "You have 5 minutes more to play with your friends before we go to the store." They also ask their dog, "What the hell took you so long, I've been calling you for minutes?" or "Where were you when I called you?" I can well imagine the dog thinking something like, "Huh?"

Why do dogs try to pee and nothing comes out?

This is called "dry marking" and we know that lifting a leg as if the dog is peeing serves as a visual signal to tell others he is. Often a dog will "dry mark" and then pee a few seconds later, so it's clear their bladder isn't empty. A study I did years ago with some students showed that dogs do this more often when there are other dogs around who can see them and then pee a bucket.

Poop central: Why do people talk so much about dog poop at dog parks?

People also talk about poop a lot as if they're freer to do so with their dog. Matthew Gilbert notes, "poop was more of a thing at the park than I had expected." (p. 66) He also talks about a "stray bowel movement" as a "voluminous and frozen still life" (p, 67). Dog poop is a ripe area for future research.

Why do dogs stick their noses into butts, groins, and ears?

It's a way of greeting and social investigation, but there haven't been any studies of which I'm aware that provide any details about why they do this, even to their dog friends or humans. It's been suggested that some animals might pick up information on the food others have eaten.

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 ...

More questions for a future essay

The list of questions can go on and on, and some questions I'll consider in the future include: Why do dogs chase their tail? Why do dogs bark and what sort of barks are there? Why do dogs bark and howl at sirens? Why does my dog hoard tennis balls? Are dogs territorial as are wolves? Why do dogs pee/scent mark so much? Why do dogs sniff pee so much even when it's their friends' pee? Why do males sometimes squat when they pee and why do females sometimes lift their leg? Do dogs have a sense of self? Studies of "yellow snow" suggest they do. Are they conscious? (Of course they are, and scientists agree.) Why do dogs sniff and eat frozen turds? Why do dogs eat gooey feces? Why do dogs dig holes and then lie in them? Why do dogs scrape their butt on the ground? Why do people openly disparage their dog and then tell them they love them? (I often hear something like, "Oh, he's really retarded, but I love him" or "You are so fat!" or "My goodness, your breath stinks!). Do dogs pick up on these mixed signals?" ​Do dogs have a "little dog" complex? Do dogs make and use tools? (They do.) Why do dogs drink filthy water? How do dogs pick their mates? Do dogs dream? Do dogs get heartburn? Do dogs sweat? Do dogs understand baby talk? (People are well known to talk to dogs as if they're infant humans.) What does "feral" mean? How did wolves become dogs? What's the difference between a socialized animal and a domesticated animal? (A wolf who likes humans is a socialized wolf. A domesticated wolf is a dog.) Do dogs really live in the moment? (No, their past clearly influences their behavior -- just ask anyone who's rescued an abused dog -- and they think about the future -- just watch a dog waiting for a frisbee or a ball to be thrown and watch them track the trajectory, although tracking might not be conscious, even in humans.

Where to from here? There are many holes in the database and dog parks are gold mines of information

It's important to stress that there here are many holes in the database, and people find this very surprising because of many popular dog books that purport to "tell it like it is," as if there are facts about this or that question. Dog parks are wonderful places for studies in dog-dog ethology and anthrozoology, the study of human-animal interactions, and I hope this essay will stimulate people to conduct formal studies and encourage citizen scientists to share their stories that can be used to generate further more systematic studies.

Studies in dog parks, that some may call "too uncontrolled," may also shed light on questions that are being debated among different groups of researchers, for example, whether dogs follow human gazing or pointing and how well they perform these activities, or if dogs have a theory of mind. And, let's face it, some laboratory studies also are rather uncontrolled, mainly because dogs are such a mixed bag of participants as might be the researchers themselves. Watching animals in their "natural habitats," and dog parks might qualify as such, has shed much light on various aspects of behavior that are difficult to study in captivity or in other more controlled environs. Although many lab studies of dogs are likely more controlled than those conducted on free-running dogs, many people have seen behavior patterns that warrant reinvestigation in more ecologically relevant situations.

I continue to learn a lot about dog and human behavior when I visit dog parks. People often feel free to offer advice even when they knew who I am and what I do for a living. But, on a number of occasions, I chose to keep some distance to determine if their comments and explanations to other people (and often to the dogs) differ from when they know I'm around. For the most part, they did not. For example, I've been told that "familiar dogs definitely play differently from unfamiliar dogs," that "humping is always about dominance," that "dogs know what other dogs are thinking and feeling and they also know the same about people," and that "know-it-all researchers ought to get off their butts and out of the ivory tower and watch dogs in the field." On a few occasions some people made it clear that I had a lot to learn about dogs and they could teach me some valuable lessons. When I agreed, they were very surprised, and over the years I've had many interesting discussions that have made me re-evaluate what we know and don't know about dog behavior and dog-human interactions. Concerning two of the areas above, we actually don't know if familiar dogs play differently from unfamiliar dogs (I've got a student studying this) and, as I mentioned above, there's not just one explanation for humping.

There are numerous research projects just waiting to be done as we watch dogs romp here and there and have fun, meet old friends and strangers, and negotiate social relationships with other dogs and humans. I'm aware that I may have missed some studies so I hope readers will send me the details and share them in the comments section for this essay.

Dog behavior, in all of its kaleidoscopic forms, is an incredibly exciting field of research, and I look forward to seeing further studies of the above and other questions.

A longer version of this essay with more questions and references can be found here.