The Body Language and Emotion of Dogs (excerpt)

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Chapter 1 – Seeing is Not Believing

Bob Kalish had just whistled for his sheepdog, Shaggy, to terminate their romp in the park when a group of picnickers asked for directions. As Bob stood talking with the group, a gray and white blur shot out of the dense undergrowth and barreled down on them like a cannonball.

“Excuse me,” said Bob, stepping apart from the group. As the others watched in horror and then amazement, the four- legged projectile hit Bob full force and knocked him to the ground. Owner and dog rolled over and over with much laughter and licking.

“That’s some dog you have there,” observed one of the picnickers.

“Oh, he’s a lover,” agreed Bob, rubbing Shaggy’s ears fondly.

“You mean a killer,” muttered a fearful woman at the back of the group who tightly clutched the hands of two children straining to get closer to the dog. “He’d better keep that dog on a leash or I’ll report him to the park ranger!”

*        *        *

The Espositos took great pride in their devoted Doberman, Madd Max, because he defended their property so heroically. After watching Max romp with the rottweiler next door, little Joey invented a new game to play with his dog: He would hide behind the couch, wait for Max to walk by, then growl ferociously, lunge at the dog, and try to pin him to the floor. The first time Joey tried his new game, Max whipped around and lashed out at the child, who toppled backward. Screaming, Joey clutched the side of his face.

“Max is vicious; I want him destroyed,” Rose Esposito insisted when she brought Joey home from the emergency room.

“No, Mommy! It was my fault. I scared him,” sobbed Joey. “Please don’t kill my dog!”

Al Esposito looked at the fourteen stitches in his son’s swollen and bruised face. Then he looked at Max lying at Joey’s feet and staring at the boy with that familiar look of undying devotion.

*        *        *

Every time the Bennetts’ doorbell rings, their springer spaniel, Photon, performs a dancing, barking ritual that led one guest to describe her aptly as “a mindless yapping cyclone.”

“She’s so devoted to us,” the Bennetts invariably apologize to startled visitors. “We can’t seem to convince her we don’t need all this protection.”

When the local dog officer served the Bennetts with a warning citing Photon as a public nuisance and threatening court action if the behavior persisted, the family felt crushed. At least one of their neighbors, sharing their guest’s view of the yapping dog, had filed a complaint. The Bennetts ricocheted between embarrassment, guilt, remorse; and anger aimed at themselves, Photon, and their neighbors. These varied and conflicting emotions proved to be such a drain that the Bennetts sold their suburban dream home and moved to the country.

*        *        *

In this book we’re going to explore how body language and its attendant emotions affect our relationships with our dogs. A few years ago the idea of body language as an important form of nonverbal communication preoccupied many psychologists and writers, who told us how to interpret the signals lovers, spouses, and bosses were giving us with their bodies. Armed with our lists of body signals and their associated meanings, we proceeded to “read” other people, thus reducing their need for verbal expression of conscious (and unconscious) emotions. Unsuspecting women who crossed their ankles would find themselves branded brazen hussies by other women while simultaneously deflecting the unwanted attention of men responding to their silent come-hither calls. Harried businessmen who loosened their ties and ran a hand through their hair unwittingly revealed to all those privy to the vocabulary of body language that they were insensitive and too attached to their mothers. Eventually the fad died out as it became clear that interpretations of body language are so subjective that any signal sender and any receiver could attach totally different meanings to any gesture. When Shiela assumed that the way her boss sat during meetings indicated deep-seated insecurities and latent sexual problems, you can imagine her embarrassment when she learned that he sits that way because he’s recovering from a total hip replacement.

I asked a psychologist friend to help me understand the relationship between body language and emotion in people. From my own experience I knew that a physical signal such as a wink could mean one thing to one person and something entirely different to another. But weren’t there some general rules of interpretation?

“Yes-sort of,” my friend said. “However, the meaning of physical cues goes far beyond simple cause and effect. If I winked at you during a boring lecture, you’d interpret my gesture as our sharing an inside joke; but if you winked at a strange man in a cocktail lounge, he’d interpret your cue as a sexual invitation. Still, even though the meaning of the signal depends on the situation and on the relationship of the people involved, we can loosely categorize signals. For example, a person standing at the side of the road with his thumb in the air wants a ride.”

We explored this example further, discussing how the hitch- hiker’s stance could trigger a wide range of emotional responses in passing motorists. Shoulders back, eyes glaring, feet planted firmly might suggest that this person wouldn’t be a safe passenger, whereas a bright but weary smile might evoke compassion.

“It’s a two-way street,” my friend continued. “Body language may express a variety of emotions, and the interpreter of the signals adds his or her own emotions to the process. A driver who’s been mugged and robbed by a hitchhiker obviously views all hitchhikers differently than one who’s only had positive experiences picking up riders.”

“I think I’ve got it,” I said. “If the IRS audits ten percent of all taxpayers, that’s body language; if they audit me, that’s emotion. If the fourth-grade band performs with distinction in the statewide competition, that’s body language; if my son’s playing the tuba, that’s emotion.”

My friend laughed. “If a beautiful woman smiles and waves at everyone in a crowd, that’s body language. If she smiles and waves at me, that’s emotion.”

From this exchange we can see that it’s impossible to separate body language from the specific situation and the emotional condition of either the sender or the recipient of the physical cues. This also holds true in our relationships with our dogs. Shaggy’s exuberant body language expressed love to Bob Kalish and was a sign of intelligence to one picnicker; however, it triggered fright in the woman who fears unleashed dogs. Photon’s barking body language conveyed a message of misguided protection to the Bennetts, but that same frenzied barking meant nothing but a noisy nuisance to their neighbors. Madd Max? Little Joey inadvertently sent the Doberman body language messages that demanded a response far different from the one the child intended.

Setting the Stage

I’ve never forgotten something Pastor Tejan told us one day in Sunday school class when we were discussing what sort of behavior it took to get to heaven. The pastor insisted we’d have to do more than go to church every Sunday and say our prayers each night. “There’s nothing wrong with simply being good,” he concluded. “But you have to be good for something. Otherwise you’re good for nothing.”

Many years later I remembered these words when I came cross an incident related by William Campbell in his marvelous book Behavior Problems in Dogs (American Veterinary publications, 1975). When Campbell needed some photographs of dogs exhibiting aggressive biting behavior, a local guard-dog trainer let him use one of his dogs as a subject. Presenting the leashed shepherd, the trainer gave the command, “Watch it!” which he always used to order the dog into a fully aggressive attack stance: body rigid and poised to spring, ears erect, teeth bared, all accompanied by loud growls and snarls. Surprisingly, the dog remained indifferent even after Campbell deliberately tried to provoke it. While handler and would-be photographer wrestled with the problem, the dog lifted his leg on a nearby bush, then turned and growled menacingly. It wasn’t that the dog had forgotten his training or chose to ignore it; he merely wanted to be aggressive “for something.” Once he’d marked his territory, he was quite willing to display the necessary body language to protect that territory.

As we embark on our quest to interpret the exchange of body language and emotion between humans and dogs, we should bear in mind that any such exchange must serve some purpose for both participants. Because dogs use various postures to indicate their relationships to their environment, we need to recognize them as valuable clues about their emotional life; and we must not only recognize the signals, we must learn to assign appropriate meanings to them. Otherwise we’ll never get the most from our relationships with our dogs. Think of Al Esposito watching Max stare adoringly at Joey. Before the biting incident the Doberman’s expression meant only one thing to Al: devotion. Joey still sees love in that expression, but Rose now interprets it as evil and predatory. Al isn’t so sure. Is Max worried? Devoted? Evil? Or does the Doberman feel anything at all?

An understanding of human/canine body language and emotion must somehow fuse two seemingly antagonistic schools of thought:

  • The unemotional, highly objective approach of the animal behaviorists (ethologists).
  • The emotional and highly subjective view of the average pet owner.

It would be quite easy for Cupcake McCorkle’s owners to insist that scientists who study wolves and wild dogs don’t know anything about miniature poodles. Similarly, more than one behaviorist has openly scoffed at owners who believe their dogs respond to them purely out of love and devotion. However, such conflicting views do little to expand a curious owner’s knowledge of canine psychology and may actually hinder anyone seeking to create the best possible relationship with a pet. Let’s take a look at some of the differing beliefs of objective behaviorists and subjective owners that have the most influence on dog/owner relations.

Dominance and Submission

Scientists who studied wild dogs and other canids (foxes, wolves, coyotes) quickly classified two basic types of body language animals exhibit when interacting with one another: dominant and submissive behaviors. Dominant body-language displays typically include:

  • Placing the chin on the other’s shoulders
  • Growling or snarling if the other whines or attempts to move
  • Placing the front paws on the other’s back
  • Circling and sniffing the other
  • Holding the ears erect
  • Holding the tail erect
  • Looking directly at the other
  • Deliberately marking the area with urine

Submissive behaviors include:

  • Tail lowered and even curled under the body
  • Ears flattened against the head
  • Gaze averted
  • Rolling over and exposing the abdomen
  • “Nervous” licking or swallowing
  • Cringing or trembling
  • Seemingly involuntary dribbling of urine

Although other dominant and submissive signals do exist, the major ones listed above basically describe the body language wild dogs use in their interactions with other animals.

Behaviorists don’t make value judgments about dominance and submission but simply define them as unemotional states of being. Dominance and submission aren’t good or bad traits, just forms of behavior that serve to keep the peace whenever two or more animals relate. As long as one animal responds more dominantly to the other’s more submissive display, a fight will not occur. In nature this recognition conserves critical energy; stores; when life depends on seeking prey, mating, or caring for young, constant squabbles over rank would threaten the survival of the entire species.

From the behaviorists’ point of view, these often highly involved and intricate displays have resulted from evolutionary trial and error. When wild dog A curls his lip, growls, and walk stiffly toward dog B, the behaviorist insists that A doesn’t think “I’m more qualified to lead this pack then B, so I’ll show him who’s boss!” but merely responds to a set of unemotional instinctive nonthought patterns that lie as much beyond his awareness and control as his eye or coat color.

“Hogwash!” screams every dog lover in the universe. “My dog not only thinks, she loves and gets mad and feels all the emotions I do.” Regardless of your own opinion, don’t summarily dismiss the behaviorists’ view; it does offer insights for all dog owners. If we occasionally mimic the scientists, divorcing emotion from canine behavior in an effort to understand it better, we become like the entomologist who uses black and white films to study butterfly flight patterns without being distracted by the subjects’ vivid colors. Such approaches produce information that can be extremely helpful and instructive, even though they rely on assumptions that take the color out of the picture Eventually, information about butterfly flight increases our appreciation of the full-colored form; and eventually, unemotional studies of dominant and submissive behavior can broaden our understanding of those happy-go-lucky canines that have snuggled their way into our hearts.

Spiking the Behaviorists’ Punch

Let’s see how two typical dog owners would interpret our list of dominant and submissive body-language displays. Our first owner, Emily Sullivan, is a systems analyst who owns a male Scottish terrier, Brittamark’s Bit O’Honey of Skye. Our second owner is Lou Rutherford, a physical-education teacher, football coach, and proud master of Merlin, a black Labrador retriever. Compare the way Emily and Lou interpret the behaviorists’ findings:

Behavior Emily Lou
Placing chin on shoulders “He’s expressing love.” “He’s showing who’s boss.”
Growling or snarling if other moves “He’s saying, ‘Don’t leave me.” “He’s saying, ‘Don’t move!”
Placing paws on other’s back “He wants to make love.” “He wants the other to lie down.”
Circling and sniffing “There can’t possibly be any meaning for anything so disgusting.” “He’s checking him out.”
Ears erect “He’s listening.” “He’s paying attention.”
Tail erect “He wants to play.” “He’s ready for action.”
Looks directly at other “He trusts you.” “He’s watching very carefully.”
Marks with urine “He’s being spiteful.” “He’s challenging you.”
Tail lowered “He’s scared.” “He’s a coward.”
Ears flattened “There’s too much noise.” “He’s a coward.”
Averted gaze “He’s shy.” “He’s shifty, guilty about something.”
Rolls over and exposes abdomen “He wants to be loved.” “He’s a chicken.”
Cringes or trembles “He’s scared or cold.” “He’s chicken.”
Dribbles urine “He’s scared.” “He’s being spiteful.”

As you would expect, neither Emily nor Lou perceives canine body language the same way the behaviorists do. Actions objective scientists view as totally void of any thought or emotion, subjective owners almost always see as the result of both. Furthermore, the two owners may assign completely different and, in some cases, quite opposite meanings to identical behaviors or body language. Not only do their perceptions of the emotion underlying the dog’s behavior differ, their own emotional response to that body language differs as well. Because Emily believes a lowered or tucked tail signals fear, she immediately feels sympathy for any dog displaying that behavior. On the other hand, Lou perceives this same behavior as a sign of cowardice and is repulsed. The behaviorists point to this obvious lack of agreement as proof that because emotion is “in the eye of the beholder,” it doesn’t exist in dogs at all.

Such inconsistencies and their implications bring to mind the story of the census taker who cautiously approached the elderly New Englander sitting on her porch with her growling hound dog at her side.

“That dog bite strangers?” asks the nervous public servant.

“Nope,” says the old woman, where upon the census taker enters the yard and is painfully nipped by the dog.

“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite strangers!” the man roars.

“He don’t-only census takers.”

People unfamiliar with the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed experience a more pleasant surprise. The characteristic raised ridge of fur along the spine of these dogs causes many strangers to assume they have encountered a frightened or angry animal. What a relief to learn that this ever-present characteristic carries no more behavioral or emotional significance than eye or coat color!

If the interpretations of body language span such a broad spectrum, and if the signs themselves can vary from breed to breed and from person to person, how can we possibly use body language and emotion to enhance our relationships with our pets?


In Through the Looking Glass the caterpillar responds to Alice’s criticism of one of his rather peculiar definitions by saying that words mean precisely what he wants them to mean. As long as he uses the same word to mean the same thing, it doesn’t matter what it means to others. They’ll eventually figure it out. Although this sounded ridiculous to Alice and comical to generations of readers, we dog owners adopt the caterpillar’s position all the time. When Bit O’Honey stares at Emily Sullivan and Emily responds, “Is it time for baby’s ice cream and cookies?” the owner has attached a highly complex and emotional meaning to what an impartial observer might consider an almost insignificant body-language signal. When Merlin stares at Lou Rutherford and Lou tells his poker pals, “Gotta let Merlin out. He wants to chase some rabbits and show the neighbor’s mastiff who’s boss,” he’s tacked an equally complex but totally different meaning on to the same behavior.

We can take a cue from the dispassionate behaviorists here, avoiding judgment of Emily’s or Lou’s differing interpretations as right or wrong and examining how they affect the specific owner/dog relationship instead. Given Emily’s response to Bit O’Honey’s staring, the dog will probably dash madly to the refrigerator to wait for Emily to produce the promised treats. If his owner doesn’t fetch the treats, he’ll repeat the stare-and-dash routine until she does. Similarly, Merlin may bring home a dead rabbit and display some bloody puncture wounds his owner will attribute to battle with the mastiff next door.

Regardless whether the stares are objectively related to Bit O’Honey’s passion for ice cream or Merlin’s desire for combat, the owners think they are. Again, most animal behaviorists would dismiss such associations as arbitrary and groundless. However, as the caterpillar knew, such associations do work for their creators.

Therefore, one of the first skills we learn consciously or unconsciously to use when we interpret our own dogs’ body language is consistency. Conversely, our own consistency helps our dogs read our body language, too. If Emily always produces ice cream and cookies whenever Bit O’Honey stares at her in a particular way, he’ll inevitably connect that behavior with her response. If the cookies and ice cream didn’t always appear when Bit O’Honey flashed the signal, he would probably make no connection and abandon the behavior .

When dog and owner respond to each other’s body language consistently, the definition or meaning of that body language becomes quite predictable and real to both. Doesn’t this mean our dogs merely respond randomly and we supply the emotion and meaning? Behavioral studies show that animals instinctively respond to a dominant presence or to fear in one of three ways: they freeze, they fight, or they flee. Let’s consider a typical frozen dog response to an owner who shouts, “No!” In the owner’s mind the dog has responded to a command and understands the complete message:

“No!” (Don’t leave the yard.)

“No!” (Put down that shoe.)

“No!” (Don’t chew the rug.)

“No!” (Don’t bark at my mother.)

The behaviorist analyzing this same situation says that the dog has responded to the owner’s position; it responds to the owner’s “No!” the same way it would to the growl or snarl from a dog it perceives as more dominant. It’s not that it’s stopping any particular (negative) activity: it’s stopping all activity in response to the owner’s dominant rank and the freeze/fear response it evokes.

Should we accept the behaviorists’ view that our dogs don’t respond to us emotionally, that we only pretend they do? Although behaviorists believe that scientific validity can only be maintained by eliminating anything as subjective and variable as emotion from interspecies interaction, few dog owners would keep a pet if it weren’t a source of emotional exchange. Even if we accept the notion that we create all the emotion that surrounds our relationships with our pets, we can improve these relationships by determining whether our interpretations of our dogs’ body signals are consistent and beneficial for us and our pets.

Unfortunately we often unknowingly reinforce certain body language and meaning linkups in our dogs, but when we come to perceive the dog’s behavior as negative, we throw up our hands and say, “I just don’t understand why dogs behave the way they do!” So the Bennetts unwittingly encouraged Photon’s doorbell-related barking and carrying on because they thought it was cute when she was a pup and because the behavior fulfilled their definition of normal protective dog behavior. Their consistent acceptance and even approval firmly reinforced the behavior. When the police warning revealed that their neighbors didn’t agree with their definition of the body language, the Bennetts suddenly felt betrayed—and it was easier for them to believe they’d been betrayed by their neighbors than by their dog and their beliefs.

While consistency and benefit/liability may appear to be quite unrelated criteria to apply to our interactions with our dogs, if we consistently link body language to emotion in our own behavior and that of our dogs, we inevitably create what we consider beneficial or detrimental results. If the behavior didn’t hold any meaning for us, we wouldn’t consistently link it with anything and would therefore ignore it. If we believe a particular behavior holds meaning, we often assign it a meaning that makes sense to us. Emily wouldn’t dream of turning Bit O’Honey loose to hunt rabbits or attack mastiffs any more than Lou would feed Merlin cookies and ice cream. Although each thinks the meaning of the dog’s stare originates with the animal, the fact that the owners fulfill their roles (dishing up ice cream, opening the door) means they find this interpretation acceptable, even beneficial. If they didn’t, they would never respond to the dog’s body language long enough to ensure its incorporation into the relationship.

Furthermore, if the dog didn’t find the owner’s interpretation acceptable, it wouldn’t consistently participate. If Bit O’Honey refused to eat ice cream and cookies, Emily would try to figure out what else her dog was trying to communicate with his stare. If Merlin sat on the porch and howled every time Lou put him out, Lou could easily decide the stare meant the dog wanted something inside the house.

All would be fine as long as we could guarantee that our interspecies interpretations were physically, mentally, and emotionally beneficial to owner and dog. Unfortunately that is not always the case. For example, when Bit O’Honey’s stare-related behavior leads to obesity and Merlin winds up crippled for life after a particularly vicious battle with his canine foe, we must question the value of the body language and emotional connections for the dogs. When body language and emotion linkups lead to the kinds of mental anguish the Espositos and Bennetts experienced, to say nothing of the physical pain Joey experienced, we can hardly call these relationships beneficial for either party.

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