What’s Happening Here? Here is the Answer!

On Friday I asked you what you thought was going on here, at least as best one could tell from a still photograph. I’m the first to agree it’s hard to say much from one brief moment in time, but it’s a great exercise nonetheless. It helps us all focus our attention and generate hypothesis about what might happen next. It would be perfectly reasonable to suggest several different scenarios…

Here’s the story in this case: These two dogs are great friends and play together often. The yellow dog is a 4 yr old GR/Husky cross, Tucker, who has a tendency to nip faces when he plays. The white dog in the red coat is Lily, a 2.5 yr old spayed female Dogo Argentino, owned by Katie MartzĀ  here at McC Publishing.

Lily was responding to what appeared to be an inappropriate play action from Tucker (getting into her face in a way both Katie and I would call “rude.”). Katie’s interpretation of the event is that Lily, the Dogo, was irritated by the yellow dog’s behavior and was correcting him.

Immediately after this photo was taken both dogs paused, sniffed the ground and then resumed chasing and playing after a break. I take this as yet more evidence of the importance of pauses in healthy dog play… a chance to take break, take a breath, and decrease arousal levels.

Many of you were absolutely right on in your guess, good for you! (And to one commenter who bravely made a guess even though she was afraid she’d feel foolish if she was wrong… I love that you said out loud what many of us often feel. Good girl!) This is indeed play, as most of you guessed and Lily is, at least in my and Katie’s opinion, telling Tucker to back off. I think the most important visual signals here are the wrinkling over Lily’s nose and exposed front teeth, forward motion toward Tucker along with ears forward. Thus, I’d say she’s on offense and her wrinkled nose suggests some arousal and potential irritation. Tucker’s head is back and lateral, and his ears are back. He thus looks on defense to me, but note his high tail and hips leaning toward Lily… no shrinking violet here. I agree with some of you that he looks a tad surprised, (I want to say goofy but I suspect that’s not a technical term). It’s interesting that most of the responses on FB said the dogs were playing, but some said Tucker was on offense and some said Lily was. Given that the dogs are both pretty equally matched and that Tucker’s tail was high and he could have been hip slamming her at the time, not a bad guess!

Let me know if you think this is a fun exercise to do every once in a while. We could expand it to video… And I’d like to do some case studies here too. Like the idea?


  1. Mary says

    This was a fascinating exercise! I love the idea of expanding this to video!

    That said, the fact that the two dogs were side-by-side facing the same direction was my clue that there was just play at stake here. They probably would have been facing each other or one on top had it been a real attack. And the fact that Tucker’s teeth were sheathed instead of bared told me that he was perhaps defensive instead of attacking. Lily’s bared teeth and wrinkled muzzle was certainly a warning. Neither dog had that “body forward, ears forward, hard-eye’d” look of bare-knuckle attack so my guess was that they were escalating in play instead of full-blown attack.

  2. spitphyre says

    I’ve been out of practice with real dogs (that aren’t mine) so exercises like this are incredibly helpful!

  3. says

    Even though I got it wrong (well, I did say they were playing, I guess that part was right), I do like guessing!

  4. Rose Tropeano-Digilio says

    I love this type of exercise – with pictures and videos if you can get them (I know that is difficult and you are busy). Thanks for sharing and explaining the response.

  5. Mireille says

    Feel just a tiny bit proud about predicting the fact that a disengagement would follow, although both dogs started sniffing the ground instead of shake – play again sequence. Guess watching two adolescents a lot to help prevent escalations might help in that. i have a lot more difficulty in reading chance interactions while walking with strange dogs, but the problem there is I often see my dog from the rear instead of the front.

    I hope I am not being to forward, but I do have some video’s to share if you would be interested from my two dogs in play and about possesions and toys and also some motordrive pictures. In the latter I sudden.y noticed tongue flicking, something you can barely see while the play is going on. Since photography is a hobby I do not spend enough time on, I would be more than happy to supply material.
    Fi there this short film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOdaA2WUu74&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    Greetings, Mireille

  6. Beth with the Corgis says

    I do enjoy these exercises; they help me focus on what the dogs are doing and it helps me with my own. I was able to prevent an altercation between one of my leashed dog’s and a neighbor’s terrier (the terrier does not always like same-sex dogs, as is typical of many terriers, and my dog is a bit socially clueless). We had stopped to chat, my male Corgi had greeted the terrier just fine, and then Maddie started wandering into the terrier’s space. I saw the terrier’s tail stiffen and raise and instantly asked my husband to take Maddie the other way, which prevented a charge and possible scuffle.

    I must say that I sometimes have trouble with judging the actions of large dog-aggressive dogs who are aggressive out of predation response rather than being annoyed; it can be tough (for me) to tell the difference between a dog who is excited because he wants to play and a dog who is excited because he wants to hunt. The body language is very similar.

  7. Mary says

    @Mireille – what a great youtube video. These two high energy dogs are a great example of doggy behavior. There was a definite challenge and the other dog knew it was coming – he sat down right before the challenge. All of this behavior was about a ball… I’ll never understand the appeal of the ball!

  8. says

    Love the idea! It’s always good to “check” your body language skills. The case studies would be great, too. I especially like the idea if we could occasionally submit one to you for discussion.

  9. Mary Beth Hall says

    Wonderful exercise! A fellow Dog Warden just posted a short video on Facebook of her two dogs posturing over a plate of people food. I thought her video was an excellent example of how dogs use their commissures.
    By the way, those two dogs also get along well, no food was stolen, their owner had a good breakfast and there was no dog fight.

    Learning to read those brief moments in time that mean so very much to the dogs involved has been the one thing that has helped my career immeasurably….both to reduce stress for dogs and have happier endings and to prevent bites and injuries to myself!!

  10. Joanna says

    I would love to do this exercise regularly.

    I was not able to tell Lily’s “correction face” from a “play face”. I work at a dog daycare and I have seen a number of dogs (though still a minority) who make VERY fierce play faces, exposing all their teeth and wrinkling their muzzles, looking just like Lily.

  11. Angel says

    I love the idea of more exercises like this. Pictures, videos, case studies…whatever you want to throw at us! Lol! The more practice we get, the better we are at reading, ie communicating, with dogs.

    Off topic: I remember reading a study concerning how well people interpreted different barks of dogs. I think it might have been here. I thought you might be interested in a similar study done on cats. This isn’t a link to the actual study but an article by Dr. Sophia Yin. http://crystalcanine.com/Seminars___Courses.html

  12. Beth with the Corgis says

    Joanna, my parents’ Chessie has a typical “Chessie smile” which is a wrinkle-nosed grimace, sometimes accompanied by teeth clapping, used as an excited greeting. It is, as far as I know, more or less unique to Chessies and looks exactly like a warning snarl in other breeds. It is important to warn visitors of this tendency, because she looks for all the world like she might bite.

    Here’s a random Google image of a Chessie smile. Sure doesn’t LOOK happy, but that dog is:


  13. Alexandra says

    I vote for more of these – very fun! I didn’t have time to participate this do around, but I have enjoyed reading your summary of the results.

  14. Alexandra says

    *go around, not do. Typo :)

    I also found this interesting because I see the exact same expression as Lily’s on my 5-yr old lab Copper’s face on a somewhat regular basis when he is playing with my 10-month old border collie Jagger. The boys are great friends, but I can tell sometimes Copper is telling off Jagger for being a rude young punk.

  15. Marcia in NorCal says

    I’ll just add my bit to the chorus of “YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES” … give us more. Very interesting, very useful. Excellent idea for an educational video. My husband and I are part of a volunteer group supporting a local dog park; we have “docents” that welcome and educate, and something like this would be FABULOUS to share with them, because the more they know about what the dogs are doing out there, the more effective they can be in keeping things calm when an uneducated owner gets hysterical about “that aggressive dog out there” … and the dog looks just like Lily! We’re going to get the docents together soon to share with them the Turid Ruggas DVD about calming signals; what you’re suggesting would be just as useful or even more so. Not to mention that people running doggie daycare could educate their customers … trainers running puppy socialization classes could use this … shelters could use it in their community education programs … etc. etc. etc. I think you’re on to something Tricia! (Thanks, in advance.)

  16. Mireille says

    Oh my, that Chesie smile is impressive and I would stop still in my tracks if a dog approached me like that. Reminds me of the time I went around to my next door neighbours and they had their son’s Bouvier staying. I did not know that, so all of a sudden there was this big black growling dog in front ofme. Turns out she growls with pleasure at visitors, inviting them to pet her. I must say I had a totally different impression.

    Are there other differences in communication between dog breeds, other than the obvious ones like the upright tails in the samojeed?in our puppy class we did have some examples of different play styles between dogs – and the pups were matched accordingly for the 2-3 min playtime sessions we had in a couple of the lessons. I ask this because I know face to face greeting is considered rude, yet I see a lot of sibes doing it when meeting other dogs, they go for the muzzle snif first, than theback end. I just wonder if that is because the dogs I Know are oftenom leash while seeing other dogs, so maybe thatlays a role but mine also do it when off leash.

    Greetings, Mireille

  17. Beth with the Corgis says

    Mireille, some dogs have a “submissive grin” that on its face looks similar to the Chessie smile. However, since so many Chessies give this “smile” in greeting, and so many Chessies are actually pretty dominant and not many are very submissive, I have to think it’s something slightly different.

    My male Corgi has a “grumble” that he uses when he is complaining that sounds like a throaty growl. But he has a very similar grumble he uses when he’s pleased. He grumbled when I did my TDI test with him and I was terrified he’d fail for “growling” but luckily the evaluator was dog-savvy enough to know the difference. And my Corgis routinely greet muzzles before backsides, on leash or off.

  18. says

    This is a GREAT exercise!!I was thrilled when I saw you posted the answer! It really helps our practice skills in reading body language, in that it makes us stop and think about what we are seeing. And its fun too… :) Thank you so much and please do more if the opportunity arises!

  19. Nicola says

    Hello from Yorkshire in the UK!

    Patricia, your website and blog are just fabulous. I’d love more of these exercises as I have decided to undertake some formal study in dog behaviour and training. I adopted a rescue dog a couple of years ago with a few issues and was completely bamboozled by all the behavioural advice in the mass media and on the web. I only wish I had discovered you two years ago!

    Personally it’s been wonderful to discover scientists such as yourself who can articulate what we really need to be doing for the benefit of our pets – which is empirically based but delivered with genuine compassion.

    Have you read Professor John Bradshaw’s ‘In Defence of the Dog – why dog’s need our understanding’?

    With very best wishes, Nicola

  20. em says

    Yes, please–more photo or video studies! I love these exercises! It’s almost (but not quite) as interesting to me to hear what people are seeing when they interpret dog interactions as it is to analyze the interactions themselves. As a casual dog owner with very socially active dogs, most of my readings come from a ‘gut feeling’, supported by experience. It’s really a fantastic exercise, for me, to try to articulate what exactly it is that I am picking up on and reacting to when I form my interpretations of dog behavior. Especially since I know from experience that not all dog owners see the same things that I do when they watch dogs interact.

    Im looking forward to the videos particularly, because dog noises are just as interesting, and can be even harder to interpret than a photo in some ways, since they do (to me) seem to vary more between individuals. Deep-voiced Otis is among those who has an impressive array of pleasure grumbles, groans, and rumbles used in play or to express appreciation for physical comfort or pleasure, many of which I can see being misinterpreted by those who don’t know him, but which are unmistakably distinct from his real growls to the few of us who have heard the real thing.

    Sandy is even more vocal- she’s a virtuosa at the Rottie “purr” and the noises she makes while playing sound more like a tasmanian devil or a wolverine than a dog having fun, but I assure you, that is just what she is. Not only does she alarm the occasional new parkgoer, but sometimes even the dogs are taken aback by it briefly. Fortunately her physical signals are generally quite clear- relaxed open mouth, bright eyes, wiggling body, waving tail- so she has never intimidated anyone for longer than a moment or two. When my husband gets her going with the ‘purr’, she sounds like she is going to tear him apart, but one glance at her wiggling and rootling her nose under his hands and arms to prompt him when he slows down gives the game away.

    As a side note, I would say based on my observation of mostly very friendly off-leash dogs- many, many dogs approach face first, sort of. The generally normal greeting of one dog approaching another is to move toward one another, then both semi-circle to the side slightly. Most dogs sniff the head/shoulder region first, if only briefly, but seldom stand nose to nose unless there is a big difference in the size of the dogs. Butt-sniffing usually takes place after the initial greeting, and like all protracted and close-contact sniffing, is more likely to take place in an extensive way when a new dog joins an established group, with the new dog on the recieving end. Dogs who are simply passing one another often don’t actually touch or butt-sniff at all, they half-circle a bit and sniff the air as they pass close to one another. While butt-sniffing and tolerance of butt-sniffing is an important social skill for dogs, it would be my impression that a dog who goes straight for the butt without greeting first (at least briefly) is the rude one.

    Approaching the face can be rude, if the approacher is making direct eye contact, fails to step to the side, or zooms in too quickly, but politely greeting face first is pretty normal, as far as I’ve observed. Very small dogs often stand nose-to-nose with my very large dog, probably purely out of logistic concerns–since they’re only as long as his head, they can’t effectively stand with their noses at his shoulder as would typically be polite, and because they’re so low to the ground, their eye contact is not challenging (even when they try to make it so), so this too, is treated as a polite greeting.

  21. Sara says

    I would love to see more pictures like this, and videos would be great as well! Analyzing photos and videos definitely helps me spot a potential “situation” before it gets out of hand :)

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