The real reason dogs tilt their heads and other canine facts

The whole "dog" thing is pretty crazy if you think about it. Somehow, humans managed to trick an entire line of dogs into believing that humans were just the best things ever. And they're still buying it, thousands of years later. The bonds many of us have with our canine companions are unlike any other friendships or relationships we have. Some of us love our dogs like children, and it's no wonder. There's an unconditional friendship there that makes everything better, and doesn't it seem like they love us back, too? Knowing what's happening inside those precious, perfect little heads can only make us understand them better. 

Ready? Then holler out Poppy's name in that authoritative voice and then in that goofy voice you do for some reason, pat yourself or any nearby piece of furniture, give her a good ol' head-scratch or belly-rub, and keep a chew toy to hand while you learn about what's going on in the space between her flop-ears.

Why do dogs always act hungry?

Even if you just fed them five minutes ago, your dog will probably give you those eyes when you're trying to eat your lunch. If their behavior is to be believed, they're one stagger away from collapsing from sheer starvation.

So what's the deal, Pup? It's normal, and it's thought that this behavior is a holdover from when we first started inviting wild dogs to share our campfires and our table scraps. No one knew when the next meal was coming. It was better to chow down on food when it was there, and it's likely that the focus on food is biologically hardwired into our dogs today.

For some dogs, there's always the possibility that they've experienced a life of real starvation. Even after being rescued and re-homed, they can remember what an empty belly is like. Vets will often differentiate between begging dogs that act hungry and dogs whose behavior suddenly changes to become more demanding of food, so it's also important to keep an eye on puppy in case he goes from begging to ravenous.

Why do some dogs eat poop?

Cat poop, horse poop, unidentified poop, sometimes their own poop. Oof. Poop-eating has a name: coprophagia. There are plenty of reasons a dog might be doing it, and sometimes it's a problem. Other times it's just a disgusting habit. Most puppies grow out of it, but they sample poop at some point because, well, puppies are dumb. Nursing mothers will often eat the poop of their puppies to clean up after them, and some puppies will see Mom doing it and think it's a lesson. Puppy see, puppy do.

Some poops (like cat poops) are just interesting snacks. In some cases, it might be a sign of a behavioral issue brewing. Do they spend too much time alone? Are they doing it just to get your attention? It's entirely possible.

If adult dogs suddenly start wolfing down poopsicles, there might be a problem. They may be trying to add nutrients to their diet if they're on low-quality food or if they're developing some underlying condition like diabetes. Dogs are smart, but dogs can also be kinda gross.

Why do dogs look so sad?

Dogs are emotionally manipulative creatures. How do dogs manage to nail that heartbreaking, sad expression and con you out of the last nibbles of your dinner? According to the experts at VetStreet, one reason is simply we've gravitated toward those sad eyes for generations of puppers, and we've bred dogs with features that accent the sad look we find so charming. And also, dogs aren't dumb. They probably know if they lie down with their heads on their paws and look up at you, you're going to pay attention. They're not sad — they're manipulating and you love it.

Your pupper might actually be sad, though. According to one pet expert, your dog could be struggling with the changing roles of dogs. Herding and hunting dogs now have different lifestyles, and we suddenly don't need all the traits we've bred into them for generations. Canine sadness can manifest as a lack of appetite, sleeping all day, and a disinterest in playing or walks. Be a good friend. Give your dog meaning.

Why do dogs roll in the worst-smelling stuff on the planet?

Any dog owner will recognize the shoulder lean, the butt in the air — Pupper's just found something fun to roll in. It's making your eyes water already, so how can dogs, with their superior sense of smell, even stand it?

Dog behaviorist Stanley Coren notes the things dogs choose to roll in are usually organic things, whether it's the remains of a dead animal or poop. One of Coren's ideas is it's an evolutionary throwback to the days when they were living in packs and hunting. Rolling in something stinky could mask their scent and might allow hunting packs of dogs to get closer to prey before being detected.

His other idea? For dogs, smell is their most powerful sensory input. The stronger a pleasing smell, the happier they are. So basically, your worst fears are true: Pupper really might be rolling in dead things just because he likes being stinky.

Why do dogs chase their tails?

Perhaps nothing amuses humans more than when a dog chases her tail. It's a hilarious behavior, and it's even funnier if she manages to catch it. But what's going on here?

A few things might be happening, and all dogs are different. Some dogs might simply be doing it because they're bored at that moment, and it seems like a fun way to fill the time. For some regular tail-chasers, it might be a sign of a condition called canine CD — OCD for dogs. These dogs might show other kinds of compulsive behaviors, too, from licking to random barking. For some dogs it can be a problem, but it's harmless for others.

Also, oddly, dogs with high cholesterol tend to chase their tails more often. Basically, they have mood changes that go along with their cholesterol levels, which maybe has something to do with the overwhelming urge to catch that durned tail. Dogs could also be doing it to get your attention, but in most cases, it's a harmless behavior.

Do dogs have a preferred paw?

Yep, just like humans, dogs can be either right-handed or left-handed. Unlike humans, there's an equal chance of your dog being either right- or left-paw dominant, or ambidextrous. There are a few different ways you can test to see which your pup is, and it just involves paying attention to which paw is used to do things like give high-fives and steady toys.

Humans have always had a sort of bias against the left-handed — weirdly, researchers have found that the bias might be alive and well in dogs too. They found that left-pawed dogs tend to be more wary, or even aggressive, toward strangers, and even though it's a relatively slight correlation, most guide and service dogs are right-pawed or ambidextrous, as many left-pawed dogs are weeded out because of temperament.

There also seems to be a connection between how dominant your pup's paw preference is and how brave they are. Pups that are ambidextrous tended to be more anxious, while dogs with a strong preference to a dominant paw were quicker to adjust to new situations and were less easily rattled.

What does the world look like through a dog's eyes?

The idea that dogs can only see the world in black, white, and gray is a long-standing myth. Studies done at the University of California found that dogs can more accurately be described as seeing the world in shades of blues, grays, yellows, and browns. What they can't see is, weirdly, some of the most popular colors for dog toys on the market today. Things like bright orange and bright red? Those are just nice for us humans.

If they can see shades of colors, how do they process that information? We aren't entirely sure, but it seems they can learn to do just that. One study linked different boxes with different rewards. Most dogs seemed to associate a light yellow color with a better reward.

There are a few other fascinating facts about canine vision that might change the way you see your dog's world. Compared to us, dogs are also nearsighted. They tend to be around 20/75, which means things are fuzzy in the distance (which might explain your dog's reaction to things down the street). They have a huge advantage over us in the dark, though, as their eyes contain a lens called the tapetum lucidim. It reflects what light is available (and makes their eyes glow in photos), and while they're not as good in the dark as cats, they're much better than we are. They have a much wider field of vision than we do, too. While we can see about 190 degrees around us, Fido can see about 250 degrees.

Why do dogs tilt their heads?

Besides how it's absolutely adorable (like everything else about dogs), we don't know exactly why dogs tilt their heads. Here are the best scientific guesses. Part of our connection with dogs is because their emotional intelligence is off the charts. Perhaps they tilt their heads because they're reading our emotions and looking for the positive response they usually get when they do it. (That's right, maybe your dog is trying to make you smile.)

There are other theories. Depending on the shape of your dog's head, they may be able to better pinpoint a noise if they adjust the position of their ears and clear their line of sight. Dogs with longer muzzles do this more, so it's likely there's some kind of physical or sensory benefit.

Another theory suggests they're just concentrating extra hard, looking and listening for social cues. Experiments on dogs' interpretation of language found they'd tilt their heads different directions when words were spoken with and without emotion, possibly suggesting they have separate processing centers for emotion and words. They're such good, smart dogs. So good.

What's with the butt-sniffing?

As a mere human, you're probably baffled by what could possibly be so interesting about dog butts. Plus, some dogs have a sense of smell that's 100,000 times stronger than ours, and seriously, what's with the butt-sniffing? Butt-sniffing dogs are getting a whiff of each others' anal sacs. Chemicals from the sacs contain lots of information (right down to diet and current emotional state), as poorly designed as the whole thing might seem.

Wouldn't other backside smells override any sort of chemical a dog's giving off? Well, the chemical compounds are only half the communication network; dogs have a super-sensitive receptor in their noses called the Jacobson's organ. This receptor is tuned to the particular acids secreted by the anal glands and tunes out fecal smells. That's the same organ used when dogs sniff around the popular pee tree at the dog park.

Your dog just has an odd way of shaking hands. And before you get all judgmental about Pupper's funk, don't forget that humans have the same sort of glands that dogs do. Ours are mostly in our armpits and groin, which is why some dogs are dedicated crotch-sniffers.

What's with the circling?

Stanley Coren, PhD, decided to get to the bottom of this one. He tested 62 dogs on various surfaces to see what kind of behavior they demonstrated before lying down. He found that dogs who were put into an area with an uneven surface (shag carpeting) were three times as likely to spin in at least one circle before they settled down.

Coren believes that confirms at least part of one theory: they're simply trying to get comfortable. Other parts of the theory suggest that this behavior is also hardwired into them from their wild days and that the circling is partially scaring away any bugs that might bite, kicking away any sharp rocks or sticks, and simply just making the ground more suitable for snoozing.