Learning to Speak Dog Part 4: Reading a Dog’s Body
from the Photo Lab
The topic of whether dogs have feelings has been a hot one for years. To some (like myself) it is a no-brainer, of course they do! There is a great selection of books and videos that explore this fascinating topic. I’ll make sure and list some references at the end of the post.
“…it’s time to stop apologizing for the belief that animals, like our dogs, have emotions. Of course, our dogs can experience emotions like fear, anger, happiness and jealousy. And yes, as far as we can tell, their experience of those emotions is comparable in many ways to ours. People who argue otherwise might as well argue that the earth is flat.”
~Patricia McConnell in For the Love of a Dog
A dog, above all else, is an individual. Therefore take what your read here and everywhere else as a guideline, not a law. Just like we humans can misread each other, so can dogs. Always remember to err on the side of caution. A photograph, an illustration, maybe even a video can aid a lot in recognizing a dog’s body language, but if you want the best experience possible, observe your dogs. Observe dogs at a dog park. Behavior is fluid and constantly (and rapidly) changing.
Studying a dog’s behavior and observing them interacting with the world can be a fascinating spectacle, especially if you know what to look for. And it can be extremely helpful to learn to read your dog’s body language, to understand your dog and get a sense of what he is feeling, what his mood is and what he is trying to say; it will help you avoid potential problems and diffuse existing ones. It will help you get to know each other better. You’ll find yourself learning a new language, and reading your dog from head to tail like a book; because if you haven’t realized it by now, they often speak loud and clear with their eyes, ears, tail and posture.
Some factors can get in the way of a dog’s communication ability. A dog’s physiognomy is as varied today as paint color swatches at the hardware store. Different ear shapes and lengths, coat textures and lengths, tail-docking and ear-cropping for breed-specific “aesthetics”(unnecessary and cruel if you ask me) as well as the great variety in breeds and looks (floppy ears vs pricked or long tails vs fluffy curled up tails) greatly affects their ability to express themselves the way a more wolf-like dog (such as a German Shepherd or a Husky) would.
In some dogs, their body language is very obvious and easily discernible, but in others it is a little more subtle. And sometimes, a dog’s behavior and genetic pre-disposition can play a big role in their body language; dogs that were originally bred to guard or fight have one heck of a poker-face to say the least, and they often move at lightning speed, with little to no warning. The good news is, once you know what to look for, with lots of practice, the basics are fairly easy to spot, regardless of what the dog looks like.
Human Communication vs Canine Communication
People, especially in our culture, tend to communicate in a linear way. We approach someone directly, we extend a hand to shake the other, we hug, we engage in direct eye contact and we move in a straightforward manner. All these things are considered positive in our culture, a sign of respect or giving someone your undivided attention.
Canines on the other hand have a non-linear form of communication. They often move around in a circle or arch. Eye contact is indirect and you can often get a good idea of a dog’s personality and confidence level through her body language; confident dogs move swiftly and more directly while less confident ones are less direct, and move slower in a more calculated way.
Any form of communication can be complicated. In the book Dog Tips from Dog Town: A Relationship Manual for You and Your Dog, canine communication is described as “complicated as the multitude of variables that go into any form of communication. Just as the maning of words said aloud can vary depending on tone, vocal stress, body language context, and other factors collectively known as prosody—you can say “Love” and mean a variety of things—dogs communicate with signals that have multiple meanings, change rapidly and be specific to the situation.”
First Impressions and Greetings
The number one mistake we all make upon meeting a dog is to approach them the way we would a person: directly (in a straight line), cooing “ooooh puppy!!” and reaching our hand out to pet them on the head while gazing lovingly into those big eyes… well, there are three main mistakes here: 1) direct approach, 2) reaching over the dog’s head and 3) direct eye contact.
Most dogs dislike being patted on the head; didn’t you hate your aunt pinching your cheeks as a kid? Same thing, so don’t do it. And unless you know the dog well and know he is comfortable with it, do not grab the dog’s face and kiss it! It is an invasion of space (and one I am guilty of with my own dogs, but I’ve raised them and have a relationship with them, they are ok with me doing it, but not a total stranger).
The direct approach and eye contact translate into a challenge, it involves the taking of space and can cause potential problems if you are not careful, or make the dog uncomfortable and weary of you. The right way to greet a dog in most cases is to let the dog approach you. If you are the one coming into their territory (visiting a friend’s house for example), I like to avoid eye contact with the dog, and face away from her (showing her the side of my body, NOT my back). If the dog seems comfortable and friendly and is little or calm, I like to crouch to their level still facing away so they can check me out without jumping up. I don’t like to make any fast movements regardless of the dog and while avoiding eye contact, I am always checking out their body for signals. In the simplest of forms, the more wiggly dog with softer, more fluid motions, indicates a friendly dog, up for human contact. On the contrary, a tense, stiff or frozen body and tail, indicates a not so friendly dog and one that would rather I keep my distance.
The Big Picture
Observing the “whole dog” at a distance can give you a quick and general idea of the dog’s mood. How does she hold her body? Is she wiggly, moving loosely? Or is she standing tall, stiff and still with her mouth shut tight? A dog with a loose, soft and wiggly body is one that is comfortable. Any stiffness, freezing on the other hand will tell you the dog is anxious, uncomfortable or on guard. Rolling over can very well mean “gimme belly rubs” but be careful to check for a relaxed mouth and tail. If the mouth is shut tight and the tail is curled up in between the dog’s legs, she is trying to diffuse a stressful encounter and could actually be saying “I don’t want trouble”. People often mistake the rollover for an automatic belly rub request, will get too close only to find that the dog snaps or submissively urinates in response. See video and illustrations below for some general things to look for on the whole.
Once you have a general idea after observing the dog as a whole, you can zoom in on individual body parts that will often give you key clues on the dog’s emotional state.
Ears along with a tail can communicate a great deal. Ironically, these two vary greatly from dog to dog, making communication a breeze or a nightmare. For a detailed description of each of the most common ear shapes recognized in various breeds, check out this article by Stanley Coren.
Just like in a person, a dog’s eyes can be very expressive. A dog’s eyes can reveal subtle changes in mood with the shape of the eye, the pupils and the canine equivalent of a human eyebrow, the skin above the eye. In our human world (and culture), eye contact is a sign of attention, respect, love… you name it, it tends to be a positive thing. Not so much in the canine world. Dog’s will look at each other’s eyes, but often look away to defuse any sing of a threat, and dogs that know and like each other will have no problem with eye contact between them. Direct and extended eye contact can translate into a threat/challenge. Unless your dog is familiar with your loving gazes, and especially if it is a dog you’ve never met before, avoid staring.
One of the most complicated yet revealing parts of a dog, the mouth gives us a wealth of information. I often think of a dog’s mouth as comparable to our hands; we use them to experience the world, and just like a dog presenting “*displacement behaviors”, we fidget and play with our hands when uncomfortable, nervous or don’t know what to do as a way to try and calm ourselves.
Piloerection or “raised hackles” in a dog is a sign of heightened arousal (get your mind out of the gutter, it just means an enhanced state of alertness), and it comes in many shapes, from fear to plain happy/excited. Raised hackles are most often associated with aggression, but that is not always the case and in many ways, it will not always be voluntary like what a puffer fish does. Think of when you get goosebumps; you don’t only get them when you are cold, do you? Piloerection can be challenging to spot on a dog with a very fluffy coat, in which case, reading the other body parts will be a better bet.
Contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail is not always a sign of a friendly dog; depending on the situation, how fast the tail is wagging and how high or how low it is in relation to the dog’s body, it can mean anywhere from excitement to anxiety.
Put all these body parts together and you’ll soon start seeing little clues here and there of a dog’s mood. In this video, recommended to us by our fellow Canine Behavior Academy graduate Lauren Flato of Sit, Stay,Wag Dog Training, you’ll see great photo examples of body language and calming signals.
I love this poster by Lili Chin and have used it to teach kids (and adults) how to read basic body language in a fun way they are likely to remember.
*What is a displacement behavior?
A displacement behavior is an otherwise normal activity performed at a time that seems out of place. For example, a dog yawning when sleepy is of course normal, but if the dog yawns when he is not tired, it may be a sign that he is uncomfortable. Dogs often use displacement behaviors to calm themselves in situations that make them nervous or anxious. Similar to a displacement behavior, a Calming Signal is a behavior or activity that a dog performs to communicate and “calm” or diffuse a potentially stressful situation with other dogs (or people).
Lili Chincomes to the rescue yet again with this great pictionary of calming signals in dogs. It has come in VERY handy in my work with dogs in general, but especially with Willow, our fearful foster pup.
Calming Signals at the Park
Our foster pup Willow has beautiful body language, her body is so easy to read (in part because of her enormous bat ears and long tail haha) that I wanted to get her on video specifically for this blog post. Here, we are at one of our favorite parks for a play session. Willow is in her awkward adolescent phase in which all dogs test their boundaries to see where they fit in. She LOVES other dogs, but can be a rambunctious puppy for some more refined adult dogs. Notice just how many messages can happen in a manner of seconds here:
**For Pet Photographers: What does a camera lens remind you of when you are in front of it? It is a giant, unblinking eye. This is why so many dogs shy away from it and why proper precautions should be taken before you shove a lens in a dog’s face.
Desensitizing and classical or counter-conditioning (associating scary things with good things) can work wonders in camera-shy dogs, as well as avoiding putting the camera in front of your face and instead shooting from a lower level. Use that back-autofocus button and keep the dog’s attention on you. I have included a video below showing you how I did this with Willow, our fearful foster pup.
When you are doing this, remember to please take your time and go at the dog’s pace, NOT your own. Forget your bottom line or your “allotted shooting time”; when working with animals, especially ones with special needs, this is a moot point. Get as much information from the dog’s person prior to your photo session, or if it’s a shelter dog, talk to the people who know him best, read the behavior assessment. DO NOT just go in there thinking you’ll win them over with your “dog magnetism” and yummy treats. Every dog is an individual, respect him as such.
In the video you’ll see my short session with Willow, a fearful 6 month old Shepherd/Kelpie mix we have been fostering for some time now. We had two prior sessions before this video was taken, so I am moving a little faster, because she is a bit more comfortable. We are working in an environment she feels happy and comfortable in (our bedroom) and you’ll notice the room is very quiet and I am barely whispering anything other than “good girl”; reason being I know Willow can get overwhelmed with too much noise, it is not just the camera itself but the sound of the shutter I want to get her comfortable with, and I want to make sure our training session is short, sweet and above all else, positive. The photograph at the top of this post is from this session :).
I am using high value treats (Natural Balance which she just loves) and before I ever shoot an actual photo I introduce her to the camera and pair it with treats, get her acquainted with its smell, look and sound. You’ll notice Willow will happily take treats which is good, it means she is comfortable enough to eat, her ears are upright and forward in “attention”, she’s choosing to lay down on the bed, (I never ask her to do anything other than to hop on), but she is showing me some calming signals like looking away, she’s alert to every sound and movement in the room and while her mouth is mostly relaxed, it does remain closed; so I am careful to not push her past what she’s comfortable with and if I do, I take a step back. Today, Willow is fully desensitized to the camera and gets excited upon seeing it, because it always means “yummies!” I am now using this same technique to get her comfortable with the sound of velcro (from her Thundershirt), which she’s quite afraid of.
Being a good photographer involves a great deal of multi-tasking. While you are composing your shot, you are calculating your exposure, thinking of where the light is, where your subject is, what you’d like your subject to do, how much time you have, making your clients happy etc. Photographing animals involves yet another thing to worry about, reading their body language to try and predict how they will react and therefore how that will affect your work. We know you have enough to worry about without all this information being thrown at you, which is why I recommend always having an extra pair of eyes if you don’t feel comfortable doing it all yourself. You focus on your work, and let the other person focus on the dog’s (or insert animal here) body language and comfort level. This is why Bill and I work so well together. We switch cameras back and forth, and one of us is always focused on getting the shot, while the other works with handling and observing the dog for any signals.
Listen to your Gut
When something just doesn’t feel right, the little hairs on the back of your neck stand on end or you get even the slightest feeling of uneasiness from a dog you are working with; please, please listen to it.
I believe your own body gives slight signals that allow dogs to “smell fear”. It is always better to be smart than to be sorry. Case and point of fellow pet photographer Theresa Swain’s experience. Theresa has over ten years of experience photographing rescued dogs, and in those 10 years, this is the only case that gave her the heebe jeebies. Thankfully, Theresa was in good company that day; someone who knew the dog she was photographing very well was present at the photo session and did everything she could to keep Theresa safe and the dog at ease and under control. Somehow though, Theresa mentioned she didn’t feel comfortable. She noticed the dog averting her eyes, licking her lips and holding her mouth closed and did not hesitate to lunge at Theresa if she moved too quick or too close.
Theresa writes:“When I arrived at the owner’s home, she had the dog in a bedroom and escorted me out to the yard – there was no barking. I was armed with treats and so was she. She went in to get the dog and explained to me that the dog would bark at me at first, but would calm down as long as I didn’t stare etc… The dog charged up to me upon seeing me, but took some treats from my open hand, but if I moved too quickly (IE raised my camera or arms) she would balk and bark at me. The owner had cue words and her safe pillow in the yard and used both to calm the dog any time she got aroused. After a few minutes of trying to warm her up to me, I decided it was best if I was a bit further away, so the owner tossed a toy around for the dog and also got her to sit, lay down etc a good distance from me. Again, if I tried to change position while shooting she would bark or lunge like in the photo. I usually kneel or lie down to take photos but not this time!! I didn’t really want to be in a vulnerable position with this dog who was in a highly aroused state. I got a few photos and got outta there!”
I am so grateful to Theresa for not only sharing this experience for others to learn from, but also for letting me share the images she took of the dog in question. Theresa was smart in keeping her distance, listening to the owner’s instructions, getting out of there quickly and not making herself vulnerable by kneeling or laying down as she usually does to photograph dogs. The dog never bit her, because she listened to her gut and had a second pair of eyes/hands looking after her. Had she kept on going or disregarded the various warning signs from the dog or the owner’s instructions, I fear a bite would have been very likely.
Notice all the words I bolded in Theresa’s story. These are all signs of a dog that is uncomfortable, worried and possibly a case of a fear-aggressive dog with an active defense reflex (“I will make you go away scary thing!”). There is a very thin line between fear and aggression and two ways a dog can act based on that emotion: offense or defense, fight or flight.
In other words, a dog can do what it can to make scary things go away (bark, growl, lunge etc.), or try to run away and hide from them (hiding, crouching, shutting down). This dog seemed to have a very short fuse, since slight movements pushed her to her limit and triggered her to lunge at Theresa. If this happens once, the dog has been pushed past her threshold and it will be unlikely for her to calm down soon thereafter (it can take as long as 48 hours for cortisol, the stress hormone, to leave the system; so the dog will remain in an aroused state for a long time after an incident), so forget “giving her a break and trying again”, stop the shoot and try to end it on a positive note. The only thing I would have done differently from Theresa would have been to use a telephoto lens and shoot from afar (since the dog seemed more at ease if Theresa kept her distance) or ending the session after the first lunge entirely and trying again another day with a different approach tailored to this specific situation.
Analyze Theresa’s images below:
I don’t think this was a bad or mean dog. Personally I think this dog can tend to be fear-aggressive or very protective of her territory and therefore requires a good deal more space from newcomers. She doesn’t seem to have a very high threshold of tolerance and in cases like these, proper precautions should always be taken and always err on the side of caution. Theresa mentioned the dog’s owners are working with certified behaviorists to try and modify some of these behaviors and that just tells me this dog is loved and well-cared for by responsible people. If only all dogs were so lucky. Thanks again to Theresa Swain’s for sharing this experience and her photographs!
**IMPORTANT: The choice to photograph a potentially dangerous or aggressive dog should be made VERY carefully. Unless you have extensive experience in photographing different types of dogs in different circumstances, have a good understanding of canine behavior and body language, AND you are using a telephoto, AND you keep the dog leashed at all times, then you probably should err on the side of caution and avoid the whole thing. Good intentions do not make up for a lack of experience or skill in working with reactive animals.
Communication is a Two-Way Street
Taking your own body language into account is hugely important. This does not mean mimicking dog behavior, we are not dogs and dogs are not human. The trick is to handle ourselves in a mindful manner that will make it possible for the dog to interpret what we are trying to communicate. Moving at a fast pace, slamming doors and cabinets like you do when you are running late for work can be scary for a dog that is a little more fearful. Or if you are animated in conversation, squealing and flailing your arms all over the place in jerky movements could seem a little threatening to a dog. Be mindful. It won’t just be good for the dogs you encounter, it is good for you too. To seem less threatening to a dog, take account of your energy and your pace. Act naturally and calmly, and turn your body sideways (instead of straightforward) to let the dog know you mean no harm. Be aware of the dog at all times but don’t stare, or the dog will feel challenged.
The 3 Second Rule
One of the greatest lessons I learned in Trish King’s Canine Behavior Academy and working as a volunteer for both the Sonoma and Marin Humane Societies is the 3 Second Rule, which Trish learned about at Wolf Park, a renowned wolf sanctuary, and later recommended shelter volunteers to put it in practice while working with shelter dogs. Upon meeting a new dog, don’t reach for the dog or try to pet him right away, it is better if the dog approaches you and wait him out. Until the dog feels comfortable (and you feel comfortable doing it), gently stroke the dog on the side for no more than three seconds (1 stroke, 2 stroke, 3 stroke…remove hand). If the dog leans against you or nudges you for more pets, then resume petting, if they don’t that’s ok, just be respectful of their space.
Asking a dog’s person first if it’s ok to say hello is ALWAYS a good idea. It is respectful to the person and kind to the dog. However, I like to add that the same question should be asked in some form to the dog himself! Mom might say it’s ok to pet him but who asked the dog if HE wanted to be petted by this individual? And if I haven’t drilled this point enough, please remember dogs are individuals. Just because your own dog LOVES a hefty scratch at the base of his tail or a deep and lengthy ear massage, DOES NOT mean EVERY other dog will enjoy that.
Lost in Translation
Canine body language interpretation is not an exact science, and just like any form of communication, misunderstandings can happen. While it is important to be as objective as possible, it is hard to not want to throw our own emotional subjectivity in there.
If you’ve ever been bitten, try and think about what was going on before the bite, where were you, what were you doing, how many people/animals were there, did you see any warning signs in the dog’s body language (some dogs, like Rotties will give you only a brief signal beforehand) etc. Analyzing this will give you an idea of what went wrong and what can be done to prevent a situation like this in the future.
Proper management and setting the dog up for success is key here. It is my personal belief that a dog will not bite without provocation (regardless of how slight and whether we know we are the ones provoking them) and 9 out of 10 times it can be the person’s fault due to ignorance, fast movements, moving without thinking, carelessness, not knowing the dog, not having enough time to read the body before the bite or not paying attention etc. It could happen to any of us. Some of the best and most knowledgeable behaviorists and trainers have a collection of stories of bites they’ve received. We are human, we can make mistakes. If we figure out what we could have done differently to avoid that bite, we do so in the future being careful not to generalize what happened with that individual dog that bit us; you learn and you move on.
If you want to learn more about recognizing body language in dogs I urge you to do your research and go to the source! Observe dogs at a dog park, volunteer at a shelter, read and watch everything you can get your hands on regarding canine body language, there is no shortage of material out there! Below are some of my favorite books and DVDs on this subject:
Our next post will include a brief portion in understanding a dog’s voice, the meanings behind growls, whines and barks. But I am thrilled to announce a guest post by our fellow pet photographer Nicole Begley, who spent 13 years in her first career as a zoological animal trainer, working with every species from aardvarks to free-flight birds, and seals to primates. Nicole is also the brilliant creator of the popular Hair of the Dog, a blog dedicated to business and marketing tips for veteran and aspiring pet photographers.
Until next time, keep those eyes open!