Lessons from a dog in body language

August 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm Leave a comment

ArchBashMany years ago I thought I knew a lot about dogs. But now, the more time I spend with dogs and the more I work with them and write about them, the less I seem to know. Funny, huh? Or maybe it’s just that  I’m more open to letting the dogs teach me.

Archer, our youngest dog, is still in the throes of adolescence. He’s not being too obnoxious with my husband and me,  just an occasional, “Sit? I’ve never heard that word before!” But Archer is pushing Bashir, our 5-year-old, who is the big dog on campus.

This morning when I let the dogs outside, Archer made a rush for Bashir. No aggression but more “mobbing” as if to push Bashir around a little.  Bashir handled it very well, and I’m so happy I saw it. As Archer charged towards him, Bashir got very tall and very still. Bashir’s mouth got tight and I saw just the least little flicker of a lip lifting over a canine tooth.

Archer immediately slowed and lowered himself, still moving towards Bashir.  But instead of mobbing him, he began licking Bashir’s muzzle. After a few seconds, Bashir began to relax and Archer took off in another direction.

The body language of both dogs was so wonderful; their messages were conveyed so easily and so simply. The incident was over, with no growling, snarling or muttering afterwards. It was over. Wow! If only people could handle things so easily.

Our oldest dog, Riker, is ten. Although he gladly allowed Bashir to step into the leadership role among our three dogs, Riker likes to pretend he’s still in charge. He won’t show any outward signs of giving way to Bashir –  no muzzle licking from him!  –  but he does show it in other ways. He will never ever try to take a toy or chewie away from Bashir, although he will take one away from the puppy. He always allows Bashir to go in or out doors first and will never try to push past him. In response, Bashir is a kind, benevolent leader.

I admit, I try to copy Bashir when I can in situations where it’s warranted. When handling difficult dogs in training situations, I try to be calm and still so as not to create a more difficult situation. Although it’s tough to lift a lip over a canine tooth (snicker…) I found that some canine body language can be duplicated.

One of my favorite books on canine body language is by Brenda Aloff, “Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide” (Dogwise; 2005). The photos show dogs in a variety of situtions demonstrating a wide variety of emotions. Aloff also provides a discription of what is being shown in each of the photos. Although I don’t agree with all of her assessments, I wasn’t there when the photos were taken eithor and so many canine emotions — like ours — often can’t be accurately portrayed in one still photo. But overall, her book is wonderful, and it’s required reading for all of my trainers at Kindred Spirits.

Image: The puppy, Archer, is doing a submissive muzzle lick even as he tries to continue to steal a toy as the older dog, in this case Riker, shows some teeth.



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