Understanding the mind of your dog! Part 2

Watching TV, dreaming, different types of barks and wags…

Let’s first tackle the television question. As a dog owner, I see my dog stop and watch tv the second she sees animals on the screen. She’ll sit with her head cocked and look back at me wondering if I can see the animals on the tv too?! Most dogs show little interest in a television set that is not HD though.

In its simplest form, Stav Diminropoulos writes, a motion seen on the TV screen is just a changing pattern of light across the retina in our eye. The average person cannot see any flickering above 55 cycles per second (55 Hz). But beagles see flicker rates up to 75 Hz—about 50 percent faster than human rates—suggesting dogs perceive motion better than people do.

Television images flicker at about 60 Hz. Since that is above a human’s flicker resolution ability of 55 Hz, the image appears continuous to us and blends smoothly together.

Since dogs can resolve flickers at 75 Hz, images on a TV screen probably appears less real and less worthy of attention. However, since high-resolution digital screens are refreshed at a much higher rate, reports are increasingly surfacing of pooches who become very interested in newer technology HDTVs when a nature show contains images of animals moving.

Do Dogs Dream?

Many people believe that dogs have dreams. Most dog owners have noticed that at various times during sleep, some dogs may quiver, twitch a leg, even growl or snap at a sleep-created phantom, giving the impression that they are dreaming about something. At the structural level, the brains of dogs are similar to those of humans. In addition, during sleep the brain-wave patterns of dogs are similar to people’s, and they exhibit the same stages of electrical activity that are observed in humans—all of which is consistent with the idea that dogs are dreaming.

Actually, it would be surprising if dogs didn’t dream since recent evidence suggests that animals simpler and less intelligent than dogs seem to do so. Neuroscientists Matthew Wilson and Kenway Louie of MIT have evidence that the brains of sleeping rats function in a way that unavoidably suggests dreaming. Much of the dreaming you do at night is associated with the activities you engaged in that day. The same seems to be the case in rats. Hence, a rat that ran a maze during the day might be expected to dream about it at night.

From studies of electrical recordings of the rat hippocampus (an area of the brain associated with memory formation and storage), made while the rats were awake and learning a maze, Wilson and Louie found that some electrical patterns were quite specific and identifiable, depending on what the rat was doing. Later, when the rats were asleep and their brain waves indicated that they had entered the stage in which humans normally dream, these same electrical patterns appeared. The patterns were so clear and specific that the researchers were able to tell where in the maze the rat would be if it were awake, and whether it would be moving or standing still.

Since a dog’s brain is more complex than a rat’s and shows the same electrical sequences, it is reasonable to assume that dogs dream as well. There is also evidence that they dream about common dog activities. For example, a dreaming pointer may immediately start searching for game, a sleeping springer spaniel may flush an imaginary bird, and a dreaming Doberman pinscher may pick a fight with a dream burglar.

It is an odd fact that small dogs have more dreams than big dogs do. A dog as small as a toy poodle may dream once every 10 minutes, while a large dog like a mastiff or a Great Dane may have about an hour between dreams. On the other hand, the big dog’s dreams last longer.

Now lets unravel the debates over barks and wags...

Perhaps the most common misinterpretation of dog behavior is based on the myth that a dog wagging her tail is happy and friendly. Although some tail wags are associated with happiness, others can signal fear or even the warning that you are about to be bitten.

The tail’s position, specifically the height at which it is held, serves as an emotional meter. If the tail is held at a middle height, the dog is relaxed. As the tail position moves up, it is a sign that the dog is becoming more threatening, with a vertical tail being a clearly dominant signal meaning, “I’m boss around here.” My dog tucks her tail under her back legs when she approaches other dogs. I’ve been told it’s because she was the ‘runt’ of the litter, that it’s a sign of submission and wanting to be loved.

Types of Wags

Salutation  A slight tail wag, each swing small, is usually seen during greetings and can be interpreted as a tentative “Hello there” or a hopeful “I’m here.”

Satisfaction  A broad tail wag is a friendly “I’m not challenging or threatening you.” In many contexts it may also mean “I’m pleased,” and it is the closest thing to the popular conception of the “happiness” wag, especially if the tail seems to drag the dog’s hips.

Confusion  A slow wag with tail at “half mast” is less social than most of the other tail signals. Slow wags with the tail in neither a particularly dominant (high) nor submissive (low) position signal insecurity or uncertainty about what to do next.

Fight or flight  Small, high-speed tail movements that give the impression of vibrating are a sign that the dog is about to take action (run or fight, usually). If the tail is held high and vibrating, it signals what is most likely an active threat.


Similarly, barks say a lot about what your dog is thinking. Low-pitched sounds (growls) make the animal seem large and dangerous; they usually indicate anger and the possibility of aggression. High-pitched sounds mean the opposite, a request to be allowed to come closer or a signal from a large dog saying, “It’s safe to approach.”

Sound the alarm  A rapid string of two to four barks with pauses between is the most common form of barking. It means, roughly, “There’s something going on that should be checked out.” Continuous barking at a lower pitch and slower suggests the dog senses an imminent problem. It means “Danger is very close. Get ready to defend yourself!”

Hey there  One or two sharp, short barks of high or midrange pitch is the most typical greeting sound, and it usually replaces alarm barks when a visitor is recognized as friendly. Many people are greeted in this way when they walk through the door. The message is “Hello!”

Let’s hang out  A long string of solitary barks with a deliberate pause after each one is a sign of a lonely dog asking for companionship.

Time for a tussle  A stutter bark, which sounds something like “harr-ruff” is usually given with front legs flat on the ground and the rear held high. It means, simply, “Let’s play!”

There’s so much to learn about our furry companions, it just takes a little observation and patience to see what your dog is feeling, thinking, and needing.