Sunday, September 20, 2015

Face It (Canine Body Language part 3)

As promised, I am continuing my efforts to tell you as much as I can while I still have your interest with part three of Canine Body Language.
Today, we talk about dog faces... actually their heads and faces in general. Now, I will preface this with saying that we as dog trainers and we as people tend to anthropomorphize dogs without thinking about it, when in reality we don't know what they are thinking. The best we can do is examine body language in a given context and what happened before and after. Based on the outcome of a given situation, we try to figure out what happened. That's all I'm trying to do here- show you certain characteristics that consistently pop up in dogs in certain situations and what happened before and after. That's pretty much the best we can do until we develop a way to read their minds, or dogs learn to talk like us. So, when I use terms like 'happy', 'mad', 'scared' or 'frustrated'; it's based on a situation and the outcome. Sometimes these things can be measured scientifically, but I can't run EKG's, ECG's or measure cortisol levels on all (or any) or my clients. I'll try to use neutral terms like 'relaxed' and 'tense' as much as possible, since I don't actually know their emotions.

We all (hopefully) know the difference between a dog that is relaxed and happy and a dog who is tense and upset, but here's a little quiz just in case:

Which dog would you rather pet?

Random Internet Dog, lets call him Fluffy

Did you pick the grey and white cattle dog mix here? 
Good  job! You get to keep your appendages... for now. 
Th reason you want to pet the cattle dog mix, Oscar is because he has what we call a 'soft' face. His facial features are relaxed, there is no tension in his lips, except that little bit required for a smile. His ears are facing outwards, not flattened against his head. There is no tension on his forehead and even the rest of his body is pretty relaxed. He's looking at his mom, who is holding either a treat or a squeaky toy- both are the best thing in the world to him. Oscar is a super sweet boy who lives in a house with other dogs, cats, and frequent visits from children. You'd be well-advised to pet him and he would be eternally grateful.
The other dog I found when I did a Google search for 'growling dog'. I decided that he looks like a "Fluffy", so for argument's sake that's this pup's name. Fluffy is displaying some pretty threatening behaviors. Hopefully if you see a dog like this, you choose not to approach and pet them- for your sake and theirs. I'll get into that in a minute, but first I want to talk about Fluffy's face. The most noticeable thing is those pearly white teeth. Baring teeth like that, and to that extent (more than just a few front teeth) shows that Fluffy is giving a warning "See these teeth?! I will use them!". I'm willing to bet that he means it, too. It looks like this little guy has dilated pupils, but we have no way of knowing the lighting in the picture since it's on a white background (odds are, the pupils are dilated because of stress and not just light, though). Pupil dilation is important because when an animal senses fear, the pupils dilate as part of the fight/flight response controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. His ears are back an down ever so slightly- he wants to hear everything in case the attack he perceives is on more than one front. There's more with his tail and body stance that tells us he's uneasy, but that is for another post.
Odds are that Fluffy is really, really uncomfortable with the situation. The situation can just be a camera that looks creepy, or a person who seems scary. Fluffy's comfort level is all up to him, we have to respect that and work with it so that he can gain some confidence. 

Ok, that was pretty easy. Let's make it a little more challenging. 
What do you see with these two dogs, and which one would you rather pet?

Jake, the yellow labrabor, right?  Now lets talk about why.
Look at his head, there is no tension there- you can even see a little wrinkle if you look closely. His tongue is out because this picture was taken in August during a birthday party so he had been playing with his human siblings. You can't see his eyes well because if the lighting, but they are just like Oscar's in the previous picture. His face doesn't look as 'soft' as Oscar's, but that's only because he's panting. His ears are relaxed and down.
The black pit mix here is named Joie. She is a sweet, loveable girl who is overrun with anxiety. She is in a down stay, off leash but is still nervous. Her pupils are dilated even though it's fairly bright outside and she is doing a tongue flick. The tongue flick is an indicator of a stressor or something the dog is unsure about. It is partially directed at me because cameras are like big, scary eyes which make noises unpredictably. If you look at the top of her head, it looks like her skin is stretched tightly over her skull. At the sides of her mouth, you can see where her lips are sucked in tightly and tense. If you look at her ears, they are almost pinned back to her head as well. She has had a rough life with a few traumatic events in the family and subsequently reacts to all kinds of noises. Had I reached out to pet her instead of take her picture here, she would have smiled, licked me, and wagged her tail happily. If she were a dog I didn't know though, I would not reach out so brazenly. Instead I would let her come to me with the temptation of treats or a toy instead of push her past her comfort zone.
Good job! You are getting really good at this!

Next, which dog would you pet?


Did you choose the pit mix, Roxie? She's a wonderful dog, and I may be a little biased because she's my very own brat-dog. She's laying down on one side, which is our first indicator that she is pretty comfortable in her environment, but there's more. Look at her eyes compared to Pollo's. Yup- not dilated and you can't see the whites of her eyes. What Pollo is demonstrating perfectly here is what we call a 'whale eye'. There is something bothering him to his left, so he is looking away but doesn't want to look away completely. As I recall, there is a frisbee nearby that he wants, but his buddy Darwin owns it. He had a questionable start to life, so he is learning to accept people and new stimuli in his forever home.
Just to be clear, here is a photo of Roxie looking at something to her left. You can see some of the whites, but this is not a 'whale eye'. Her ears and forehead are relaxed (you can even see wrinkles on her forehead) and her eyes don't have that peeled-open look like Pollo's above. There's more about the rest of her body that tells us she is more curious than worried, but that's another post!

 While we are on the subject of eyes, I want to talk about the 'hard stare'. In this picture, Roxie is staring at me because I am taking her picture and annoying her by asking her to stay when there is a toddler running around the deck with a pitcher of water (water is her Kryptonite). The look on her face isn't quite a 'hard stare', but if I didn't know her I would move slowly.

"If he comes over here with that water, I'm gone... for good this time!"
Ok, last one for today. Who here is stressed out, who is excited and who is just hot?


So, this one is a bit more tricky and that's because we are looking at their tongues- this is a bit more subtle. 

Ryder is the stressed dog here, and aside from the dilated pupils, tight skin on his head and pinned back ears, he has what is called a 'spatulate tongue'. It looks like his tongue is stretched out at the edges as far as it can go. To his credit, it was also a warm evening, but there were lots of people around at a birthday party and he gets excitedly stressed with lots of people. He's a super sweet boy who probably wouldn't hurt a fly unless it threatened his human brother and sisters. If I saw this in class, I would have him get some distance, go for a lap outside the classroom or get him busy with a trick, game or cue. If he can't take treats or listen when he looks like this, he really needs a break. 

That leaves one excited dog and one hot dog. (This should be pretty easy with Jake figured out). 
You got it. Violet is excited and Jake is hot. 
Jake is still at a birthday party, having lots of fun running around with kids but it's August on the eastern shore so it's pretty warm. His tongue is out but the edges are more rounded than flat and his face is a little more relaxed than Ryder's. 
Violet has her tongue out in anticipation of a toy, and because she's happy that Matt is petting her. She loves attention from people. Her tongue is out, but not flattened at all, so she's not terribly warm and she's not stressed at all. 

Good Job! You made it through with all of your digits intact (hopefully). Look closely when you are with your dog this week and see what you learn! 

Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff.

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