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…)