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Learn to think like your dog

Fred Bercovitch has good advice for anyone who wants to learn to observe animal behavior and figure out what it means. He's head of the behavioral-biology division at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park.

"The first lesson is to pretend to be that animal," Mr. Bercovitch says. "Try to understand what that animal is thinking - not just as a pet, but as an individual. Pretend you are your cat or your dog for an hour, and follow it around the house to see what it is doing.

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"Then ask yourself: What's going through my cat's mind or my dog's mind?" It's not just walking around; it's thinking about doing something - but not in English or Chinese. It's thinking dog thoughts or cat thoughts.

"The second thing is to be patient," Bercovitch says. When observing any animal, wild or tame, "you have to sit still quietly and observe ... because you don't want to disturb what it's doing."

Keep asking "Why?" Why does a dog smell grass and trees? (A dog depends on its sense of smell a lot. Dogs "read" what has been there by sniffing.) If you put out your hand to a friend's dog, why does he sniff it, and maybe lick it? (Perhaps that means he accepts you?)

Many animals are social - they live in groups. Dogs are social. When two dogs meet, they may growl. If they see each other across the street, they may signal by barking. They may raise a ridge of fur called a hackle - that's a signal, too. One may even seem to "bow" to the other.

Wolves are social and scent-oriented, too. They live in groups called "packs." Before a hunt, they seem to romp with one another like puppies, play-biting and pouncing. Scientists say this "play" is team-building. It's a way to get "pumped up" for the hunt. Apes and monkeys are known to do this, too.

Stop, look, and listen to the world around you, Bercovitch says. Notice which senses an animal uses the most. "With a cat, sit outside at night. Let your eyes adjust.... That's the cat's world, and they can see more than you can."

But remember, every animal is an individual. Your cat likes having its belly rubbed, but your friend's cat scratches if you try that. Every dog is different. So is every whale, every monkey. And when you start to notice what's the same and what's different about animals, you're learning about animal behavior.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor