I’m not sure Maggie could be any clearer about an exuberant Basenji puppy who has come to visit. Captions for her facial expression welcome!
Nothing like the roil of the holidays, a global pandemic and a country in turmoil to get a person thinking about emotions. You know, those powerful internal forces that many of us are wearing on our sleeves right now? Specifically, I’m thinking about the expressions of emotions, and how important they are. As I have written before in a variety of venues, I suspect that much of our love of dogs–our deep, profound care and attachment–is due to the fact that dogs have faces almost as expressive as ours. Each of us has had dogs whose faces were canine emojis of joy, confusion, fear or threat. Maggie has a pout like a five-year old kid, but can radiate joy like a firecracker. Cool Hand Luke had a face, used rarely but with great impact, that said “F%!* You” as clearly as if he’d said it out loud.
And yet, the ability of dog lovers to read canine emotions varies. Here’s what I wrote in For the Love of a Dog, page 34-35:
“He’s just fine with visitors, aren’t you, Buddy? He’s fine, really he is.” Buddy’s owners had asked me to their house to help them with their beloved Labrador Retriever, who had bitten their neighbor the week before. Barbara and Peter couldn’t understand it. Buddy was a loving family dog who doted on their children, was easily housetrained as a puppy, and was a star at obedience school. They couldn’t have loved him more, and the feeling seemed to be reciprocated. Members of the family could take away his food, pull toys out of his mouth, and trim his nails without eliciting the slightest protest. In their eyes, it seemed that the bite had cone out of the blue, and although they responded responsibly by calling in a behaviorist, deep down inside they didn’t think it would ever happen again.
I did. Buddy may have been “fine to them, but as I entered the house, he and I were having another, unspoken conversation. To judge by his expression, Buddy’s side went something like this: “I don’t know who you are, and I’m nervous about that. For all I know, you might be dangerous. If you stay there and don’t move forward, I’ll stay here, but if you move fast or reach your hand toward me, I’ll be forced to protect myself. I am uncomfortable, on guard, and perfectly willing to bite you.”
Of course, all that is just a bunch of words I strung together to describe my interpretation of Buddy’s emotional state and his probable behavior if I tried to pet him. I can’t possibly say exactly what was going on inside his brain, but I can make predictions about his future behavior on the basis of his expression. Rather than showing the relaxed, open mouth of a dog who loves visitors, Buddy kept his jaw closed tight, except when his tongue flicked out in an expression of anxiety. His entire body was stiff and unmoving–in sharp contrast to the loose and flexible body of a relaxed dog. Buddy’s eyes were big and round, rather than the squinty eyes of a dog who loves company. As if that weren’t enough, Buddy was staring dead straight into my eyes,and his own eyes were cold as ice.
Peter and Barbara thought Buddy was “fine,” because he was barking or growling at me, but to me, Buddy had a neon sign over his head that said I AM GOING TO BITE YOU IF YOU GET ANY CLOSER. Good dog trainers and behaviorists learn to read these signals in their most subtle form, because if we don’t, we get bitten. We hate it when that happens, so we learn fast.
Here’s my intention in bringing this up now: Because of Covid, there are a lot of people who have dogs for the first time, or who haven’t had them in a long time, perhaps never as an adult. Some of them have begun reading this blog. (Welcome to our village! Say hi in the comment section, but remember it’s monitored so it won’t show up until I approve it.) These newcomers, not to mention all the rest of us, would love to hear your stories of reading, or not reading, an emotional expression that kept you out of trouble, got you into trouble, or just plain perplexed you. Tell us your stories, we’ll all love to hear them. I’ll anticipate your stories as if Netflex just released the best new series ever.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Now it feels like winter! We got about 4 inches on Friday night–soft, wet snow that stuck to everything and turned the landscape into a Hallmark card.
The sheep are undeterred by the snow. Here they are wondering if I’m going to send one of the dogs at my feet and ruin their peaceful morning. (I did not, the dogs and I were on our morning walk.)
Maggie posed nicely for me on the same walk, trying to convince me to work the sheep instead of continuing on a walk.
The barn photo below was taking last week, before the guys (Derek and Guy from Finks, our new best friends) built forms and poured a new cement wall. Today they are starting work on the next section of the wall, snow be damned.
The next photos are from a few weeks ago, taken by Steve Dahlgren of DogGrin Photography. He’s getting lots of experience taking shots of working sheepdogs, and he is getting GOOD! (And I love the focus and intensity on Skip’s face.)
Mr. Skip looking noble. (Except for the tongue thing . . . he really needs to work on that. He was watching another dog work sheep, make of that what you will.)
Do you have a story wrapped around an emotional expression on the face of a dog? How it saved your butt, or not? Like the time a wolf-dog’s eyes went flat and cold as I picked up one of his toys and tossed him chicken instead. I withdrew when I saw his face, but he bit me anyway, hard and deep on the palm of my hand. I’ve always interpreted that as “Don’t you ever, ever touch my stuff again, bitch.” I did not.
You? Don’t restrict your comments to dogs either, whoever said that cats aren’t expressive never had one. (And horses? Oh yeah…)
M. Lopshire says
I have four coonhounds and am currently fostering a fifth. She is a failed hunting dog that has a lot of energy and anxiety, and has trouble focusing. Add in that she was never properly socialized with other dogs, so she doesn’t always get the cues other dogs give and can be very quick to start a fight. Understanding the subtle shift in the eyes is critical. Is she looking relaxed with “happy eyes” or am I getting the side eye that says “why are you giving THEM attention and not me?” I’m always on the look out for “I’m super anxious and energetic right now so give me one excuse to start a fight and it’s on!” I’ve learned that I have a short window of time to calm her down and refocus her before her energy and anxiety starts impacting the others and possibly leading to a fight (and thus me getting bit while breaking up the fight). And yes, we are not the right place / home for her, but we’re the only ones in our group able to handle her issues. It is nice to know that she is improving on so many levels since we first took her in and we are looking for that special owner that can handle and is wiling to take on a project.
Annie Humphrey says
In agility class, I gave my two year old BC, Dillon, the wrong cue. He looked at me with an expression that said,”whaat?!?!, are you crazy, that can’t be what you want”, then he did the behavior I intended to cue. This all occurred while moving 100 miles an hour.
The story that comes first to mind is a cat failure to read the dog’s emotions and invitation. Finna was feeling happy and playful and really wanted to play a game of tug with her feline buddy The Great Catsby. She’d grabbed one of her longer tug ropes and as she’d picked it up it dragged across the floor and Catsby pounced it. Finna assumed he’d get it when she swung the rope toward him. He just wondered why she suddenly clocked him in the face with a rope. She couldn’t understand why he didn’t grab it and play tug. You could see her thinking he must have missed it so she swung it toward Catsby and smacked him in the face again. Poor Finna was so confused and The Great Catsby was so offended. We laughed so hard at this interspecies miscommunication. Usually they were really good at understanding each other which made it all the funnier.
Your snow photo is gorgeous. I don’t think it has even dipped below freezing here yet. I’ll enjoy the mild temperatures as long as we have them.
Caption for the Maggie photo would be “I didn’t sign up for this.”
I am one of those first time dog owners, and my new dog kept following me around and yawning loudly, kind of making a whining noise. I thought she must be tired even though it was an odd time for that, but my boyfriend, who has had dogs before, told me they often do that when they want something and are frustrated. After paying attention to it, I think he is right. She frequently does the loud yawning when it is time to go for a her walk and I’m not getting ready fast enough for her. I would have never guessed that’s what it meant!
Well, this one is hard for me, because I can’t see my dog’s facial expressions, but, generally, I can intuit how they’re feeling by other body language, and context of course. With Marlin, context mattered a lot. Just because he licked his lips might not have meant he was hungry. It could’ve meant he’s concerned because I tripped over a large crack in the sidewalk, or we just had a dog harassing us from behind a fence. He could be stress wagging his tail because he’s at the vet, or, in the case of Seamus, he could actually adore going to the vet and be very, very thrilled to be there… weirdo. Anyway, this is how I can tell what my dogs might be feeling. The one story I have, in which I had no idea what was going on between those fuzzy ears was whenever Seamus would track, and attempt to eat a fly. He’d do the usual thing, waiting until the fly got close enough to him so he could snap at it, but then when it flew away, he’d move around the living room, laying down in different spots and whimpering. I just sat and watched him. I couldn’t tell if he was anxious, excited or what? Finally, we killed the fly and he was back to his normal self, but I have no idea why the fly made him react like that. Thoughts?
Donna in VA says
Wow, so many ideas. The Buddy story absolutely illustrates why it is important to go slowly. Forcing a snap judgement rarely is going to work to your advantage.
My previous sheltie gave me wonderful prolonged eye contact from the first day I adopted him at age 4 (previously belonged to a family). So many gorgeous photos of him looking full-face into the camera. My current sheltie was kennel-raised and after a year began to grant me SOME eye contact but rarely prolonged. And pretty much none to anyone else. He is quite attached to me otherwise, snuggles at every opportunity. There is such a marked difference and I’m wondering if you have any observations on that.
I always worry about interpreting a dog’s facial expression because I’m so guarded about anthropomorphizing. I will think my dog is looking at me like I’m crazy but maybe that’s just what a human looks like when they are confused. How do I know it’s the same for dogs? For instance, people always say a dog is smiling when they are open mouth panting, but aren’t they just relaxed? Or hot? Some dogs actually turn up the ends of the mouths as if into the shape of a smile…but is it? I guess I’m scarred by all those you tube videos of dogs “looking guilty” when really they are just scared to death.
Some emotions are universal I suppose, intensity (is that an emotion?). Or sometimes the emotion seems to be more of an absence of something like “that dog does not look happy”. Anyway, I’m sure I’m overthinking but I don’t want to take anything for granted.
leila sesmero says
Yes, whining is tricky for me to read emotions with a two year old beagle I care for. When I walk him in the street (suburban environment) he first whines before barking loudly in a deep tone, then lunging at other dogs passing by. First I thought he wanted to check the dogs out but felt insecure, however his agressive turn to them perhaps echoes the idea that he whines from a feeling of fear or perhaps frustrations? Should I then be able to predict his whining as a precursor to lunging at other dogs? Should I be able to read fear in his whining?
One of the funniest expressions I have seen on one of our own dogs was our dog Sprout’s. She was at that time an elderly “only dog,” and she was on steroids for what turned out to (probably) be degenerative myelopathy. She was starving ALL the time and we would very sparingly give her little bits of what we were eating, if it was okay for dogs. So, of course, starving and in the habit of getting treats, she was begging one day as I ate some delicious grapefruit a friend had sent us from Florida. Sprout sat next to me, IMPLORING me to PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE give her some, oh PLEASE. I told her, “you won’t like it, I promise.” Still, she begged, so finally I took half a section and gave it to her. She snarfed it up, then spat it out IMMEDIATELY, and looked up at me with this scandalized expression: “You put THAT in your MOUTH???”
If she is not getting enough of what it is she wants at the time, Olive will sit with her back to you and tilt her head back as far as she can and look at you over her shoulder. This makes her eyes big and her ears flap back and her expression says: “I’m a cute coquette, and I know you can’t resist me.” If that doesn’t work, she puts her head down into her chest and looks up with the saddest eyes and droopiest face. If neither of those work, she’ll go lie down with a loud groan. As a terrier, she’s dedicated to the task.
Someone once said Olive was giving them the whale eye, but it didn’t look like that to me. It looked like she was trying to check them out without being too obvious, a sneaky up and down from a side angle. I’ll never know which it was, and they both meant Olive was uncomfortable, which she was, but it reminds me that knowing the dog helps a lot in interpreting the body language.
For example, when Olive is snuggling in for the night, she gets very close and gives a big yawn. I don’t think she’s uncomfortable, I’m not sure she’s that sleepy or oxygen deprived, I think she’s cueing me that she’s ready for her pillow-hogging sleep position. I take the cue and move over 😉
Red Dog can readily detect critters concealed in brambly undergrowth on the far side of a field. I don’t know how she does it – could be sight, hearing, or both – but there is no doubt that she knows when critters are around. And critters are intensely interesting to her.
I have learned that her critter-detecting ability is far better than mine. Consequently, reading her body language is far more productive than trying to spot the critters myself. When her head snaps up or she suddenly freezes, eyes and ears locked onto something, I immediately call her over and reward her with a treat.
Where no danger to dog or critter exists (squirrel in the woods, for instance), I may take advantage of the situation to practice distracted recalls. Or sometimes I just let Red Dog chase a squirrel up a tree.
Because dogs need joy in their lives, too.
sherry warshauer says
Sad time. We lost our 12 year old Lab a month ago, and now it is just about that time for our 13 year old Lab.
How does one say good-bye to beings who have become buddies, children, family?
How does one wake up or go to sleep without seeing those faces looking up at you?
It’s those eyes – that unconditional love. Love IS a wet nose.
Maggie caption: “I could use one of your directional whistles right about now.”
Regina Allen says
Maggie says,” Oh good grief, WHY did you let this thing in the house, Mom!”
“It isn’t staying, is it Mom?”
(I do like Kat’s “I didn’t sign up for this.”)
The most horrible mistake in reading a dog’s face I have ever made (and am still really ashamed of) was with my first dog, a German Shepherd at the age of 16 months which I had just adopted a few weeks ago.
I was trying to remove a rather tiny tick from just above her nose leather when she flashed her teeth at me (without growling).
I told her off and tried again (which would have been a stupid thing to do if she really had tried to warn me). Again: all teeth were shown.
This time I scolded her rather angrily (because “I am the boss and you will behave” – stupidest thing I ever “learned” in dog training 30 years ago and was hard to unlearn for some years).
With the third try I ignored the teeth, was lucky and got the tick out fast. I praised my dog and scratched the place where the tick had been with my fingernails.
And she flashed her teeth again.
It was then when dawned on me. She hadn’t tried to warn me or shown her teeth in a threatening way at all. This was just a grimace like the one humans make when our nose is itching.
It had taken me four times and retries to recognise what my dog was doing here. And I had scolded her for a reflex she could not even supress.
Endlessly ashamed I tried not to cry too much, stuffed my lovely gentle dog with treats and promised her to learn from my mistake.
Whenever I’m going to do something stupid around my dogs (I try my best but it still happens sometimes) I stop and think. And remember my lovely first dog who had to put up with so many things I didn’t know then but should know now. Then I wave at the sky and tell her I heard her and learned my lesson.
Makes happier dogs and happier me 😉
Laura Anne Welch says
My dog, Winston, walked through the kitchen, on the other side of the counter from me, with what could only be described as a look of stoic resignation on his face, which face was pulled tight on the side closest to me. I leaned over the counter to see that our 10 week-old puppy had gripped his cheek on the other side of his head and was hanging from it as Winston walked across the kitchen.
Made a note to myself to keep closer watch on the puppy and avoid trouble for older dog and danger for the puppy. BTW, the “puppy license” expired according to Winston when the puppy turned 4 months old.
Years ago we adopted Jonah, an unwanted pot-bellied pig, into our houseful of seven rescue dogs. Most of the dogs kept their distance since he was the strangest, grumpiest ‘dog’ they had ever encountered. With one exception, the dogs all avoided eye contact with Jonah, and took great care not to get into his personal space. Only Chiara, the friendliest Pitbull on the planet, was determined to make this cantankerous creature her buddy. Chiara ran through the entire repertoire of canine ‘play with me’ body language. She bowed, she spun, she darted in to lick his face, and she bounced around that pig until he had enough and upended her with a snout to the belly. (Fortunately, we kept Jonah’s tusks filed down with a vet visit every few months.) He was trying to disembowel my clueless sweet girl, but of course she interpreted this action as a doglike push meaning Jonah did want to play! Watching the expressions on their faces was priceless. The pig was infuriated. Chiara was ecstatic. Absolute miscommunication between species!
Deborah Mason says
I was a follow-up census worker. One house has a dog curled up in front of the door. I watched for signs as I approached. Absolutely NO visible reaction. None! Until I crossed the invisible line. Then it exploded at me, following me the length of the entry walkway & to the middle of the street. One of 2 truly scary dog encounters in my life. At least I was watching for signs. That day I learned no sign is a BIG sign. At that point it had been years since our childhood dog had passed away (when I was in early high school) & I had not yet had a dog in my life as an adult.
Simply Cheryl says
I currently have a 3 year old havanese. If he were a human, his preschool teacher would have called me on the first day of school to have him tested for ADHD. He is not motivated by food or by any toy. He craves people. This covid thing has deeply impacted him. Without people coming to visit him, he now goes absoluately CRAZY if anyone comes over. If he knows them he is so hyper that he cannot calm himself. If a stranger walks by, they are now about to break into our house and he must guard us. I never thought about how the covid restricitons would affect him until they did. I believe we are going to have to start all over in training and socialization when the restrictions are lifted.
Lynn Ungar says
This one is as much a vocal expression as a facial one, but for some time it puzzled me. While we’re out walking in the neighborhood, every down and again Tesla will let out a single bark, then pause, then bark again. Sometimes with more repetitions. The other day I finally figured it out when he barked, and a heard another dog bark in the distance, and Tesla looked up at me with what I can only describe as a grin of triumph. It’s a game! He is playing Barko Polo, barking into the world to see if anyone will bark back.
Sally Wallach says
Driving my newly adopted six-monthish-old Rottweiller Sophie home from animal services, I was concerned when I noticed she was looking at me with that flat-eyed intensity that signals danger. Soph had been confiscated from a dog fighting camp, and the animal services person could not bear to euthanize her if an experienced person could be found to rehabilitate her. I agreed to give it a try. When I noticed Sophie’s signal, we were almost at my farm, so I kept driving. We pulled into the drive and around to the barn. She didn’t move when I turned off the ignition, so we both sat on the bench seat, me talking to her slowly and softly. Then for some reason I began to sing a lullaby that my nana had always sung to me, and I felt Soph gradually relax. We were happily together for thirteen happy years.
Caption for Maggie: MUUUUM, TAKE IT AWAY! (and yes, I mean to shout…)
Lisa S. says
I learned the hard way with my now 2-year-old beagle mix rescue who I brought into my household with my senior pit mix a year and a half ago. As she got comfortable in her new home, that’s when the guarding and attacks began on my senior dog. With help from a trainer, we are now able to recognize her signs – stiff body, staring eyes, and only sometimes a growl. It’s taken a long time but we now know her triggers are guarding of food, high-value treats (which we no longer give her, like bully sticks), and the couch! We can usually divert her tell-tale signs with a simple call of her name and a warning, but still have to be watchful around food when both dogs are around. Now if I can only get the crazy lunging, barking, and leash aggression under control when we encounter others dogs out on neighborhood walks! She will be a work in progress for a long time (and I welcome any tips for this problem area)!
I once visited a friend’s home with my young adult male whippet. He spotted her eldest bitch and started to trot up confidently to her, exuding masculine charm. She turned and gave him a beady stare- he froze dead in his tracks and immediately decided that he had pressing business elsewhere.
Barb Stanek says
My boy Sawyer is the most expressionless dog that I’ve had or that I know. He is ten now, and does show me how much he loves to work with me, do nose work, play ball, or go for a walk. But in general, his expression is that of a British butler of old, seeing all and not responding. His personality is that of a dignified gentleman.
Interestingly, he will not be pushed beyond a certain point with dogs outside of his household. He is tolerant and engages at an appropriate level. Until the other dog suggests that Sawyer is a push-over. Then, he pulls out all of the dog cues to let the other dog know that he’s nobody’s fool, and if the other dog wants to start it, Sawyer will happily finish it.
Sawyer and his sparingly used expressions have been a source of constant curiosity for me. I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing what’s going on in his mind. But other people, including experienced dog people, often misread him. Facinating.
M.H. Deal says
What was Buddy’s outcome? Was his situation hopeless?
My dog story was from when I was a teenage dog sitter. I went to my neighbors house to walk the dog while they were out of town. He didn’t come to the door. He sat on the couch across the room from the door and stared and growled. He did not look scared. I did not walk up to him. Instead I went to the kitchen and fed the cat, making lots of food noise and asking if he wanted to come eat. He didn’t come. Finally when I picked up the leash and said go for a walk he came running with a happy tail. He was ok when I attached the leash. When I straightened up he attacked
I had very quick reflexes and used the leash to hold him off, and I did not get bit. I was about 100 lbs and He was a 45ish lb Springer spaniel.He calmed down and we went for a walk and he was ” fine” but I took no liberties.
To MH, who asked about Buddy, the dog in For the Love of a Dog. Happy ending! He needed 3 months of counter classical conditioning and responded to strangers with affection. I did caution the owners to always manage and be extra careful.They were great owners, and did so as long as I heard.
Barb: I too am fascinated at the dogs who I have met who were inscrutable.I do find some breeds harder to read than others. (As Randy Lockwood told me once, after his work at HSUS, boxers –the human kind–aren’t trying to express themselves; they are just looking for an opening. Thus, some dogs are not trying to communicate, they are trying not to.) I find some dogs that, for whatever reason, haven’t read the breed books, but in general, the most affiliative dogs seems to be the most expressive.
Laughed out loud Lorraine, love this. One of my girlfriends, a stunningly beautiful redhead (I’m talking to you Deidre) could so the same when approached by some random guy.
Keep up the good work Lisa S, tiring though it is. I had to do the same with Misty and Lassie, both BCs. Misty would go all hard eyed and I’d, quietly, tell her to back up and lie down. She was super compliant, so it was manageable. But tiresome. (And re the lunging…. have you read and worked through Fiesty Fido yet? Or checked out other related books on Dogwise?
Ha! I think you nailed it Sue.
Sally, I love LOVE this story! Good on you, and lucky Sophie.
Lynn: Barko Polo will live on in my brain as one of the greats. Barko Polo. I keep saying it, and imagining Tesla’s face. Can I use that in a story sometime?
Argh, good luck Simply. (And a note… dogs CAN suffer from ADD. I had a few clients whose dogs were almost impossible until they were medicated. A good thing to talk to a Vet’y Beh’ist about when things settle down. Good luck!
Deborah: “No sign is a BIG sign.” Words to live by.
The late Mr.Miles had a poofy poodle head, so I didn’t always get the full benefit of his facial expressions, but his body language was always perfectly clear to me.
He was always reserved with new people, stoicly accepting just enough attention to be polite. It left many people with the impression that he was an amazingly calm dog, when in reality, he was just not comfortable with strangers.
Once, I had paused our walk to chat with a couple of neighbors. Their 7 year old daughters loved Miles, so I talked them through a polite greeting before turning to their parents for some neighborhood gossip. My mistake.
I looked down a minute later to see my angel of a dog frozen, with the arms of two young girls wrapped around his neck, and their faces buried in his top knot. Poor guy wanted to melt into the ground and nobody else seemed see it. Of course I got him out of there immediately, praised his wonderful tolerance, and was careful to never put him in that situation again.
When not suffering at the hands of loving children, he was a goof. I just wish more people had seen his enthusiasm when tearing through the woods. Often, after some act of athleticism, he would whip around, pause, and look at me as if to laugh and say “You saw that, right?!” before galloping off to the next log or tree. Nobody could mistake that look for anything but pure joy.
Carole, with your pig story. If you had videos you’d be world famous by now!
I want to answer every single comment, they are so good. Can’t finish today, getting dark and time to feed the dogs and walk them before I need a flashlight, but keep ’em coming. I am loving these stories!
Pat Morlan says
“Mom, why is this pup here? you aren’t going to keep it are you?”
Trisha, another great post. Maggie’s expression is very similar to my basenji puppy’s (he turned 7 years old today) expression when my friend’s cat sniffed and patted him with a paw the first time they met, “MOM, he’s touching me!”
Such a coincidence, I am reading “For the Love of a Dog” for the second time and just read the part about Buddy this morning!
I am a dog trainer and volunteer at local humane society shelter in south central Texas. Most of the dogs we take in are very sweet – some even have a bit of training – who escaped yards or homes & owner didn’t look for or chose not to pay fee for return, or got to be too much dog from lack of rules, training, supervision, or just a mismatch, but I digress…
Two recent incidences: 1) I took a 3YO Husky (I think had been an outdoor dog) for a leash walk; lots of bouncing, leash grabbing, frustration whining the whole walk. When I brought him back to his kennel I waited while he got a drink of water. Just as I removed the sliplead he did a head whip and looked right at my face with his bright blue eyes and I felt the hair go up on the back of my neck. No teeth, no growl, but definitely a warning I heeded. He only did it the one time. 2) I had taken a very athletic (most muscular hind quarters I’ve seen on a dog) mixed-breed (another outdoor dog that I think chased cars along a fence) for a walk & she walked through a mud puddle. From previous handling I knew she was sensitive about having her feet handled unless she instigated the contact. I was able to clean her feet with a warm towel. She stood up, rubbed her side along my leg where the towel was. Then she started jumping up on me and mouthing my hands and arms. I told her “off” a couple of times and blocked her with my arms but that made her behavior worse. One of the kennel techs heard me and came to the door. I looked at the dog’s face and her eyes just seemed unfocused and I quietly asked the kennel tech to let me out and I slid out sideways, not taking my eyes off the dog. I am doing more research on canine facial expressions and body language. As you’ve said in your books, a lot can happen in a very short time, and sometimes all you get is a fraction of a second to avoid a conflict.
Donna Baker says
Lots of fascinating stories here! I will share two of mine. First is from many years ago. My neighbor at the time had adopted a young Cocker Spaniel with an abuse history who had lots of body handling issues as well as overall distrust of new people. I was one of the few people other than my neighbor with whom she had at least a semi-positive relationship. This was mainly because I helped walk her on many occasions as my neighbor had foot issues and often wasn’t able to take Sasha out herself. (We had a great arrangement … I helped walk Sasha as needed and got homemade biscotti and soup in return!) At one point, my neighbor had surgery on her foot and was completely confined to the upstairs of her condominium. I came over to walk Sasha one evening during a rainstorm. Sue (my neighbor) called down instructions to me as to how best to dry Sasha’s paws when we came back in, recommending that I put a towel down on the floor for her to simply walk on. Big-shot me, I decided it would be more effective to dry off Sasha’s paws directly with the towel. I narrated for Sue how we were progressing, telling her how proud I was that Sasha was letting me handle her paws without complaint. My mistake was in looking up the stairs towards Sue’s bedroom as I talked, rather than at Sasha’s face. Sue and I laughed for years over the abrupt end of my narration (“… yep, still going well ….oops, maybe NOT”), as I turned to see Sasha’s eyes hard, lip curled, and teeth bared, just before she hurled herself at me ferociously in protest — I dodged her attack and learned my lesson!
My second story dates to the first week I brought home my current boy Charlie as a foster dog. He too was abused in the past and can be very distrustful of new people. He took well to me from the beginning, but one incident that first week reinforced for me the need to go slowly and not overestimate his initial comfort level. I had come home from work, put on his harness, and taken him for a walk. Upon returning home, I removed his leash but before I could unclip his harness, he ran over to where he had previously been working on a cheese-stuffed kong and started licking it. At the time, I had recently left a job working with service dogs in training, who were typically well-socialized and comfortable with many different people handling them. Consequently, I wasn’t thinking when I went over to Charlie to unbuckle his harness. In hindsight, I made two big mistakes with a dog I’d yet to really establish a relationship with — 1) I leaned over him to reach down for the harness and 2) I got too close to what was for him a very high-value treat (cheese). For anyone who has never experienced a dog’s “freeze,” trust me, it’s unmistakable. Charlie froze (became stock still) and gave a low growl and honestly, he could not have been more clear than if he’d said in English, “Lady, I don’t really know you yet and I am super uncomfortable with what you are doing right now.” Message communicated and received! I backed off, waited till he was done with the kong, then went over and undid the harness without leaning over him. In earlier years, I might have been upset with his behavior, but at that time in my life I simply felt grateful that he so clearly let me know in HIS language how he felt. P.S. After almost three years together, Charlie has zero problem with me leaning over him for any reason. I still respect his need for space with high-value treats, however!
Sophy, my papillon, talks to humans in Big, Slow, Language to make it easy to understand. She flirts with ears and tail and eye lashes, screams if she is in pain (or thinks she might be when you are about to touch the sore part), ,makes just enough noise to get my attention and then uses eye glances to indicate what problem needs my attention, and generally makes her feelings felt. But the moment of communication that stays in my memory was when we were both desperately trying to keep her puppy alive.
I had worked with a well known breeder as mentor and adviser, done all the testing and followed all the protocols, but it went disastrously wrong. Sophy went into labour at just over 7 weeks, and produced a dead puppy. An emergency caesarian found another dead puppy, and one still alive. For two weeks we struggled, the puppy barely able to nurse and getting hand fed every few hours, but still not thriving. It cried and cried, and Sophy looked up, held my eyes, and so obviously communicated “Do something – make it better” that I nearly wept. Sometimes nothing helps, and this was one of those times. Sophy bounced back after a few days of grieving; I took a little longer, but that moment of absolute clarity stays with me. And I will never breed a dog again – too much heart break.
Ah, Frances, what a story. Breaks my heart, and yet, such a testament to our connection to our dogs, yes?
Love the story Donna B–reminds me of the time I reached to take a dead bird away from a visiting dog. I’d heard about “hard eye” and kept looking for it, not sure I had just missed it time and time again. Nope, once you see it you can’t miss it, because your body translates for you! The phrase “my blood ran cold” turns out to have a physical reality behind it, right?
Jennifer Dyck says
I was training my standard poodle, Chili, on nosework and introduced a blank search for the first time. I got him to search the room three times before he just came and sat in front of me and the expression on his face was priceless. It was a “WTF mom, you’re completely confused, it’s not here.” What a good boy!
Karol Butcher says
I fostered a reactive dog last year. Bernie came from a chaotic situation and had majority anxiety as a result. My goal was to allow him to learn a different way of responding to triggers.
One afternoon he was sitting in the yard with my super mellow perma-dog, Charley. There was a clatter from next door. Bernie jumped to his feet and barked, “Halt! or I’ll come after you!” Then he looked at Charley who was lying in the grass with a completely relaxed body. For a few seconds I could read Bernie’s face as he was deciding which way to respond to the startling noise, “React some more, or follow Charley’s lead?” He decided on the latter response and sat down next to Charley. The whole episode lasted 8 seconds (I filmed it) yet it was a very powerful lesson.
I LOVE this story Karol, here’s to dogs like Charley who role model stability. My Cool Hand Luke was like that, and I think Skip is going to turn into one of those dogs. Maggie is much more comfortable seeing unfamiliar dogs on walks now that she’s beside Skip, who is not quite bomb proof, but close to it.
Good work Chili! Thanks for the story Jennifer!
We’ve gotten pretty good at reading dog faces over the last eight years with our pit/mastiff mix. We were lucky enough to have some amazing knowledgeable people around us who taught us a ton, which has come in very handy with our girl, as she gives many many subtle cues that she’s uncomfortable with a situation before she makes any noise. The downside to this is going to public dog friendly events, where I’m watching SO many dogs telling the people around them that they are uncomfortable and nobody is listening to them!!
My last dog was a young 2 year old male when I took him for obedience lessons as a local club recommended by a co-worker. The co-worker had a lot of experience with dogs (unlike me), and her current youngster was very bold young female, which was displayed with controlled manipulation. (I didn’t know that at the time). The two dogs met and there was wonderful interest and play interaction. Then all of a sudden her female turned away from my somewhat shy male (didn’t know the terms of shy and bold at the time) and gave a “I am going to ignore you look”. That in itself was powerfully easy to read even for a novice like me. But the look on my male’s face was even more pronounced. It reeked of total rejection and perhaps humiliation….to the point where my co-worker actually looked at me and said “I’m sorry”! I often cannot read or interpret my dogs’ expressions even now with more years of experience – but that one stood out. Good luck all you new dog owners. Read up and study. I sometimes think we are always new dog owners!
I have been reading up and trying to study dog body language a bit obsessivly for the last year Prior to that I thought I was pretty good but…My confidence in reading dogs body language (and in my dog) was totally wrecked last year by someone else’s different interpretation (and possible over reaction) to a situation. I have a dog who is probably a mastiff x (large 60kg brindle guy) who I was training for treibball (something I started doing for my rather neurotic heading dog / BC, but the big guy actually kind of loved it more). During an off leash group training session, he decided to run over and check out another dog (yes, I know this is a big no no for dog training groups), no fight happened, no contact was made. I didn’t think the body language was particularly tense. However, a third person in the training session decided that it was an attack (her small dog had apparently been attacked a few weeks earlier) and screamed blue murder. My dog was actually spooked by the shouty lady and we got him out of there real quick never to return. For the last year I have been replaying every bit of that incident trying to work out what shouty lady saw that I didn’t (if anything, because she might not have interpreted things right either). I have been too afraid to let my dog interact with dogs outside my own household in case the incident was somehow an attack that I missed, In fact I don’t even let him off leash outside my yard any more out of fear (I have a large back yard so he and the heading dog get lots of rollicking games of bitey face and chase). I have developed a huge amount of anxiety (possibly paranoia) trying to interpret every bit of his body language. My big guy was never perfect, like most dogs he had the odd person or other dog or situation he did not like and had a bit of a growl / grumble at, but now I see potential aggression in every move (especially around smaller dogs). I suspect my dog has developed a degree of leash frustration / anxiety to other dogs as a result of not being let off to interact and has possibly lost a degree of socialisation with other dogs. I am working with a trainer to try and re-establish my confidence with reading dogs (we are also doing rally-o training for fun to keep my big guys mind active). I am just so afraid of getting it wrong and I just don’t know if it was shouty lady or me who got the right interpretation of that one incident.
I conducted a study in college, looking at dog behavior in pairs of dogs during a first introduction and a subsequent interaction. We videotaped all of the interactions and had three human “judges” (all CPDTs) review the tapes to quantify the behaviors we saw. We were shocked at how often we saw new things when we replayed the tapes in slow motion. Even if we were 100% certain we had “read” the situation accurately at full speed, we sometimes reviewed things in slow motion and concluded that we had been dead wrong. It was fascinating, and also a little frustrating to realize how much the human eye misses when dogs interact together!
Dana and real time video versus slow motion. Yes yes yes yes. It’s no less than astounding to watch slow mo and see how much more you see, or revise what you thought you saw. I encourage everyone to do it with their own dogs, you can use most phones to slow down a video, which is truly wonderful. I used to do it often with clients dogs, but Dana you’ve inspired me to do it with my own dogs soon. Thanks!
Kim Laird says
So many stories…. but one of my favorites was watching my female spaniel who is absolutely good natured but not shy about telling other dogs off if she needs to. Very confident, but also very happy.
Flat coated retriever male, about 14-18 months old had greeted her very happily and was sitting nearby and started flipping her ear. Repeatedly. Her teeth started to show, but her tail was wagging. Finally, she barked extremely loudly in his ear. His owner clutched him to her chest in shock and asked why MY dog behaved like that.
After I recovered from my fit of laughter, I explained it to her, that Rosy was just telling her male to knock it off. Her response was, “But he didn’t mean any harm!”
As a friend said to me about her own male dog, “He has intentions, she knows it, and she is NOT interested…. ” I did try to explain to the poor lady that this was normal dog behavior, but she didn’t find me very convincing. Oh well… Rosy thought the whole thing was funny.
Trisha, THOSE EARS. Priceless. Not much makes me laugh these days, but your image of Miss Maggie and the puppy certainly did. Thank you!
Marianne Molleur says
I have a golden who’s face is so easy to read that when we were taking puppy classes, his first trainer pointed out to me how to tell he was about to break a stay. And over the years it’s continued to be true that any experienced dog person can pretty much tell what’s going on in that pretty head. The other day, a friend and I were walking our dogs together and we both yelled, “No!” simultaneously because he turned his head and looked at hers with an expression that clearly said, “Let’s pull the leashed out of their hands and do zoomies.”
Lynda Costello says
Our 2 year old Newfoundland likes to sleep… preferable without me walking around making noise. He’ll look at me with a “really, must you be so noisy expression.” Then gets a disgusted look and takes himself into another room.
Charlotte Kasner says
I had just had my dog put down after a short illness (he was old-ish but it was still unexpected). The following morning, I passed the final interview for the KPA Pro Dog course. I needed to get away from the city for a couple of days to process the rollercoaster of my own emotions and work out how to cope with two such momentous events.
My friend picked me up from the station, informing me that he has volunteered my services as a behaviourist to his neighbour who had imported two dogs from Spain and had no idea how to deal with them.
We detoured to the pet shop so that I could buy a clicker, bait bag and treats and I steeled myself for a session knowing that I was as far from my best as I could be. Having explained that I couldn’t provide a proper consultation or support (I live 180 miles away and had had no warning that this was expected), I said that I would help with some management and training advice and back up for re-homing the dogs as the owner admitted that she didn’t want to cope with them in the long term.
One of the dogs was an 11 year old, medium-large, broken-coated crossbreed with leishmaniasis. If it wasn’t for the illness, I might have been tempted to go home with him.
As I talked to the owner, he came and sat by me and I just clicked and treated for him targeting my hand gently with his nose. After about 4 clicks he just stopped targeting and looked deep into my eyes for several seconds.
I could come up with several anthropomorphic interpretations of that look but one thing I know; it was a deep, meaningful communication between two different species which we both understood, even if neither of us could articulate it in any other way.
I’ve seen glimpses of that expression in similar situations, but never anything quite like that. It was a moment of rare and profound privilege.
He and the other dog were given away for re-homing a few months later. He might not even be alive now, other than in my heart.
Barbara Finch says
I believe that there is research that shows that, far from humans being unique when it comes to facial expressions, all mammals share similar facial expressions to express emotional states. On top of that, dogs have quite eloquent body language. Yet, in spite of that, so many people fail to read them.
When I first adopted my dog, Echo, he was about 5 years old and terrified of most people either approaching him directly or walking behind him, so going for a walk in town was a stressful experience for him. In spite of that, a couple who often passed my house on their way up the mountain, met me and Echo in the street and the wife approached Echo with her hand outstretched to pat him. I quickly told her not to directly approach him, but to stand sideways on and wait to see if he would approach her, but she rejected that, insisting that she and her husband loved dogs and were volunteers at the local shelter so they really understood dogs. Echo was cowering, trapped against a wall and was so scared he wet himself (the only time he has ever done that). The woman finally realised her mistake, and backed off, apparently too embarrassed to apologise. Other people have often remarked that Echo has particularly expressive eyes, which he does, and they are made even more expressive by his 4-inch long eyebrows and long lashes. When he is frightened it shows so clearly on his face that it beats me how that woman couldn’t see it.
On the other hand, the look of triumph on Echo’s face was unmistakable on several occasions, when he turned round to look back and enjoy his victory after nearly knocking me over as he ran past me to run away for a few hours fun up the mountain. It was so blatant that I almost expected him to turn cartwheels. (He used to regularly run off for hours, but always came back.) The time he actually knocked me over, he stopped and lay down near to and facing me, and I’d swear the look on his face was aplogetic.
He is lucky to have a very expressive face, because he’s a dog who never learned how to communicate what he wants. He stares at me or (only the last two years) comes and puts his head on my lap to say he wants something, but doesn’t run to and from the door or his toy basket to say he wants to go out or to play with a toy. So I often need to catch involuntary eye movements, or watch his expression and tail as I run through suggestions to try to work out what he wants.
Vicki in Michigan says
Maggie says “MOM. I do not like it. Get it away from me.”
My corgi boy learned that if I called him in from the yard, I’d give him a treat for coming, but if he came in on his own, no treat.
He would sit out in the yard, staring me in the eye, with a huge grin, and would zoom in when I called. I think he felt it was the biggest joke in the world that he’d figured out how to make me give him a treat for something he was going to do anyway (eventually).
I thought it was so funny that I let him “make me” give him a treat. 🙂
Great story Vicki, no one said Corgis were dumb, did they! And if any dog has a sense of humor, it’s got to be Corgis, right?
Jennifer Woelke says
Much like the tick story, I had a dog present a behavior that I misinterpreted until I had an ‘ah ha’ moment.
Bailey was a reactive-to-everything rescue who had calmed down over years into a nice little dog. (he was my intro to training, and I did everything wrong for years. He made progress despite this. Good dog.)
I was in the bathroom, and he was at my knee getting pets. He reached over and (I thought) nipped me – no broken skin, no bruise – but definitely teeth on skin. By now my training had gotten better, but I pushed him away and said ‘no’.
He came back for pets and we continued. That little interval was enough for my AHA! He wanted me to use my ‘teeth’ – he wanted skritches instead of pets. I complied and we both were very happy.
Little interactions can be BIG moments.