On Reading Canine Body Language

OkaOur German Shepherd Dog, Oka, developed fear-aggression after being attacked on several occasions by other dogs. I watched him go from “Another dog! Hooray — great fun, great smells!” to “Another dog — oh no, OH NO — he’s after me — ohhelpwhatdoIdo — Pre-emptive Strike!After wrestling with 90 pounds of fit, not to mention intense, dog in full-out self-defense mode, we enrolled in a “difficult dog class.”  Several things quickly became clear to me.

One, our dog really wants to please us but much of the time, he hasn’t the foggiest notion what we want; what he notices and pays attention to is not necessarily what we humans are trying to tell him. So it’s up to us to give him cues and feedback that make sense in dog-experience.

Two, dogs learn from consequences and the shorter the time interval between action and consequence, the better. There are all kinds of other things happening at any moment in time, things the dog may associate with the behavior in question but of which we are unaware. We need to learn a new way of paying attention, but it never hurts to be in control of a consequence that has a high value for the dog. In Oka’s case, that’s bits of freeze-dried salmon. This is not “bribery.” It’s using a powerful reinforcer to let the dog know the behavior is desirable. Salmon equals good. Loose-lease walking past another dog equals salmon equals good.

Three, and most importantly, Oka is very clear in communicating what’s going on with him. A huge chunk of the fear-aggression problem was my not understanding when he tells me he’s anxious or fearful. I had to learn, for instance, that an off-leash dog bounding “playfully” on a direct path toward him (non-threatening dogs approach a strange dog calmly and on a curved path) is certain to elicit signs of distress — ears pinned forward, body tense, gaze fixed — even before the fur rises in his ruff.

After immersing myself in books on canine body language, I began seeing mistakes in my own inter-species communication as well. It’s natural for us as primates to use primate-friendly language when greeting a dog. We make eye contact and we bend over. (We also make ridiculous chirping noises, but they are no more devoid of meaning than most of what we say to dogs.)

Direct eye contact is a signal of aggression in dogs (polite dogs soften their gaze and look away to indicate their non-threatening intentions). Bending over a dog is dominance behavior, which makes many dogs uncomfortable or fearful. I’ve had occasion to practice polite dog language in greeting: look away, soft eyes, don’t bend over the dog but beside it, approach slowly, maintain distance if the dog exhibits symptoms of stress.

The situation got even more interesting during the last year, when we introduced Shakir and Gayatritwo young cats to the household. One had learned that dogs were Dangerous Cat-Eating Monsters; the other hadn’t figured them out yet and decided Oka was a sort of overgrown, illiterate big brother. Watching these two, each trying to communicate in his own body language, each puzzled by the other’s response, has been fascinating.

As a primate, I know I’m seeing only a fraction of the interaction. I notice the commonality of “predator stare” and “look away.” “I just don’t get what that ear position means” (cat) is matched by “I’m signaling submissive ‘puppy-ears’ but he isn’t getting it” (dog). This reminds me of conversations I used to have with a co-worker, he in Spanish and me in French.

Eventually Oka decided that “freeze” was a safe response and Shakir took his immobility as an invitation to come rub against him. Once the dog had discovered a successful approach to non-provoking behavior, he decided to try it out on the other cat. She was not impressed at first, but as she has relaxed, her curiosity has come forth. She is clearly interested in his smell, now that he will stand still long enough for her to feel safe.

As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I sometimes create alien races and strange, divergent human cultures. I don’t want my aliens to be actors with bumpy foreheads. That’s sloppy writing. Neither do I want to see my animals as people with fur. That’s even sloppier thinking. The lure of projecting human reactions and emotions not only leads to misunderstandings, usually at the pet’s expense, but deprives us of the opportunity to get outside our own primate limitations and see the world in a new way.

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On Reading Canine Body Language — 3 Comments

  1. What has fascinated me, this time around Dog-Ownership-wise, is how expressive our dog is. Not just about specific needs–“I want to go out and patrol the perimeter of the back yard,” for instance, or “you know there’s no fresh water in my bowl and that’s a clear violation of the Geneva Convention,” but her response to family interactions. If one of the girls gets physical with me she’ll bark protectively–“Don’t hassle the Mom!” But if Danny and I start playing around she immediately goes for her favorite tug-of-war toy and arrives, hopeful, at our knees: “Since you’re being playful, wouldn’t you rather be playing with me?”

  2. Oh yes, the “If there is fun anywhere in the world, I must be part of it” approach to life. We could all benefit from a little more participation in fun, don’t you think?