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Animal Behaviour Explained: What Your Dog Is Trying To Tell You

Also, what your cat *really* thinks of you.

30/06/2017 7:25 AM AEST | Updated 30/06/2017 7:30 AM AEST

Ever wondered if your dog was trying to tell you something? Or if your cat's sudden desire to wee all over the house was a clue to something else that's going on?

Chances are, you're right. There are a number of animal behaviours which we can interpret in order to find out more about our pets and what goes on in their lives, both when we're present and away from them.

In fact, according to applied animal behaviourist Dr Kate Mornement, our pets are trying to communicate with us all time... we just don't always speak their language.

Here are some of her most common FAQ's when it comes to pet behaviours and what they could mean.

Dogs

Why does my dog bark when I'm not home?

"Excessive barking could be sign of separation anxiety or boredom," Mornement tells HuffPost Australia.

"When dogs bark excessively, they're not actually trying to be naughty on purpose, it's usually because a need of theirs is not being met."

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Coooooome hoooooooome.

One theory is the dog is going through separation anxiety while you're at work (let's take a moment while our hearts collectively break).

"Barking can be a sign of separation anxiety because it stimulates other dogs in neighbourhood to bark too," Mornement says.

"Or it could be a way to let off that anxious energy. Sometimes they are accidentally rewarded by neighbours for barking, such as if they are given attention or a treat."

Why does my dog chew everything?

Anyone who has ever come home to find their shoes chewed to pieces will be familiar with the challenges of a dog who likes to get his paws (or mouth) dirty.

"Most puppies are destructive as they go through teething phase, and they chew to help relieve pain in their gums," Mornement says. "Puppies explore world with their mouth, so they naturally chew things to discover them."

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Butter wouldn't melt.

However if we're talking about a grown dog rather than a little pupper, chewing or destructive behaviour could be a sign of separation anxiety or boredom.

"It really ranges in terms of severity," Mornement says. It could be mild destructive behaviour, like chewing a shoe, to something way more full-on, like destroying whole couches or chewing a hole in the wall.

"The level of destruction is a good indication of the severity of the issue. Severe levels of separation anxiety can go into panic, and if a dog is not dealing with the emotion, they can look for ways to channel that energy."

Does a wagging tail mean my dog is happy?

Surprisingly, not necessarily.

"That's a common misconception, that if a dog wags its tail it means it's happy," Mornement says. "It's half right.

"If you are looking at the wag, a slow loping wag is indicative of happy dog. But if it's a stiff, fast wag, it's actually an indication of a bit of stress or uncertainty.

"We actually call it arousal -- though definitely not in sexual way -- but for example, if your dog meets another dog it's not sure about. This can sometimes escalate into aggression if it turns out they don't get along."

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Hello, human.

Why does my dog lick me?

"Licking is actually a very common sign of anxiety," Mornement says. "If they are licking their lips in conjunction with doing a range of other things, this tells us they are anxious.

"But yes, a dog will lick you to say hi or lick your hand if smells good or has something tasty on it. It's more excessive licking that's a common sign of anxiety."

Why does my dog jump up on people?

"This is a really common one -- dogs jumping up on people -- and it's something most people don't like, especially if they're big," Mornement says.

"What we don't realise is we actually reward it with attention or a pat, or even just pushing them away.

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Gimme a smooch.

"It's a really easy problem to stop, it just involves completely ignoring the dog when they jump up. No eye contact or pushing them away. Even telling them off or yelling or pushing is, to them, better than nothing.

"Then, make sure you give them attention as soon as they stop jumping. If you are really consistent in doing that, the dog will soon realise they don't get anything when they jump up and everything they're after once they stop."

Why does my dog sit on my head?

Believe it or not, this is a thing.

"My guess is little dogs like to be up high as a way of feeling safe and secure," Mornement says. "So they'll like to hang out on the back of the couch or sit on your shoulders [or head]."

What they aren't doing is trying to be top dog.

"That's a huge misconception that still continues, that dogs try to be the boss of us or the pack leader or the dominant one," Mornement continues. "All that stuff is based on research done on captive wolves 20 years ago. In that captive environment with limited resources, they formed a rigid hierarchy.

Using punishment isn't only bad for the dog's welfare, but nowhere near as effective as positive reinforcement. Dr Kate Mornement

"However, research done subsequently on wild wolves showed they were much more of a family unit.

"It's really important that we don't try to interpret the behaviour of our pet dogs to not try and interpret as if they are wolves because they are not. Dogs repeat behaviours which have some kind of benefit for them.

"It would be awesome to try and debunk that pack leader myth, because I know people are taught punishment techniques to try and fix the situation. In actual fact the latest research tells us using punishment isn't only bad for the dog's welfare but nowhere near as effective as positive reinforcement."

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Mates.

Cats and dogs

Why does my dog (or cat) show me their belly?

This is actually something both cats and dogs do, though they may be asking different things of you.

"With dogs, when they roll over and expose their belly -- and this is same with cats -- it's an indication they don't pose a threat," Mornement says. "They are trying to say 'I'm friendly, you don't need to be worried about me'.

"It's a really vulnerable position for them to be in."

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Snuggle time.

When dogs do this, it can be associated with asking for a belly rub. However, cats aren't nearly as inviting.

"It's a common misconception. When cats expose their belly, it's not an invitation to scratch it.

"When people do that, they often get bitten. So people get confused sometimes. What they are saying is 'I'm friendly, I'm relaxed in your presence, but this is not an invitation to go in and pat my belly'. Whereas a dog is definitely asking for you do to that!"

Cats

What does my cat's tail mean?

"This is actually quite complicated," Morement says. "There are a whole lot of positions a cat will hold their tail in to indicate their mood.

"One very common one is when they hold up it straight with a little bend at tip. This signals they are in an inquisitive mood and a friendly mood.

nicopiotto
Hello, cutie.

"Often they will carry their tail in that position when their owner comes home. It can be interpreted as a welcoming.

"A swishy tail, however, if they are flicking the end of it from side to side this indicates they are in a little bit more of a grumpy mood."

Why does my cat pee everywhere?

"Probably the biggest thing I see with cats is inappropriate toileting," Morement says. "And I see it a lot in multi-cat households.

"This is actually a sign of territorial behaviour. If you have two or three cats in a home -- and often cats are confined to house for safety or council reasons -- they can become highly territorial and stressed because they have to share resources with other cats.

Jodie Griggs
No piece of carpet is safe.

"As such, they'll start spraying around the house to try and mark their territory. This creates a vicious cycle because cats are trying to establish their territory and spraying everywhere.

"It's really, really important to provide them with their own high-value resources. For cats that's litter trays -- each cat should have their own, as well as having an additional tray. It's also scratching posts, their own food bowls... basically you're trying to eliminate the competition for access to resources."

Why does my cat meow in the night?

"This is a really common one, especially in the early hours of the morning," Morement says. "In actual fact, a lot of people inadvertently teach cats to meow excessively, because they are rewarded by being let out or fed breakfast.

"There is always a reason for every behaviour and trying to figure out what's motivating it can be really tricky, but the first thing to do is stop rewarding it.

"It can be really hard for people. It depends on the cat, but it should only take a couple of days at the most, by completely ignoring the meowing behaviour, to get it to stop."

Why does my cat eat my hair?

Yet another strange behaviour that's actually a thing.

"We call that behaviour pica, and it's where an animal eats things that aren't food," Morement says. "We don't exactly know why they do it, but it can be related to stress.

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Sucking your hair might mean your cat wasn't weaned properly as a kitten.

"It can also be related to kittens not being properly weaned and so they continue 'wool sucking', potentially into adulthood, where they suck on blankets or wool.

"Other people hypothesise it signifies missing nutrients in their diet."

Why does my cat hate other cats?

"Lots of cats have fear and aggression issues toward other cats or strangers," Morement says. "A lot of these cats were rescued when little and didn't have a lot of socialisation as a kitten.

"It's actually really important for kittens to be really well socialised early on with the things they are expected to live with, including other pets or guests."

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