It’s been well established that no matter how we wish it were different, dogs communicate in different ways than we humans do. Dogs sniff each other’s bums in greeting, arcing their bodies around and avoiding eye contact, whereas we look each other in the eye and shake hands. We, as humans, tend to mistrust anyone who won’t look us in the eye, but most dogs find sustained eye contact very threatening.
We also like to put our arms around each other for comfort and encouragement. Dogs put their “arms” on each other to signify dominance and to stop, slow or “pause” play.
It’s true that there are some similarities in the way we communicate with our bodies, but in general, our primate language is very different from canid language. It’s no wonder that we often have trouble understanding what our dogs are telling us. It’s also no wonder that we inadvertently offend our dogs or are less than effective in changing their behavior and feelings towards us. We’re simply not speaking the same language.
With this in mind, how can we bridge that gap? How can we translate the communication and be on the same page as our canine friends? Thankfully a lot of the hard work has already been done for us. So much of social canid body language is the same across species, and plenty of observational research has been done with wolves as well as dogs on this subject. While context is of ultimate importance when reading canine body language, there are some behaviors that we can assess with good certainty the majority of the time. Here are a few solid ones, courtesy of “Tails from the Lab”.
One of the earliest recordings and interpretations of canine body language was published by Charles Darwin in 1872 in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”. In it, Darwin presented a selection of drawings of humans, primates, cats and dogs (among other animals), along with their descriptions. Here are a few, presented in the same order as in the book. It’s well worth looking at a copy of the book to read more.
Much after Darwin, the ethologist Roger Abrantes published “Hundesprog” in 1986 in Scandinavia, later translated into English as “Dog Language”. A pivotal book in the understanding of social canid behavior, “Hundesprog” built on the work of Konrad Lorenz, who is widely regarded as the father of ethology. In it, Abrantes uses illustrations to show different expressions, as well as combinations of expressions by dogs. Here is one such set of illustrations entitled “Illustration showing the possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines.”:
Look familiar? Chances are, if you’ve spent any time around dogs, you have seen one or more of these behaviors.
More recently, Patricia McConnell’s book “At the Other End Of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” contains many examples of the differences between canine and human body language. A book I almost universally recommend to anyone wanting to learn how to better their relationship with dogs, “At the Other End Of the Leash” is easily understood and engaging, with stories of McConnell’s experiences throughout.
There are some newer illustration sets and blog posts that are popular now to describe dog behavior, but I find that they generally try to to distill a lot of what is complex into something overly simple. Still, if you keep context in mind, they can be generally helpful. Lili Chin’s illustrations of her Boston Terrier’s behavior is one such example.
However in depth you choose to get in your quest to learn more about dog body language, observing your dog more frequently is the quickest way to begin to understand his or her individual expressions. What do they look like when it’s dinner time? Time to play or work? What about when they are afraid of someone or something? No matter what a book or illustration set says, your dog will always tell you the truth and it will always be in context. After all, observation is the tool our dogs use to learn so much about us humans and why they have lived so well with us for so long despite the fact that we continue to “talk” to them so much as if they were primates.