Dog is in the Details

One trainer wrote:  “A dog who puts its feet on you, a dog who seems to like pinning you down in your chair with its head on your lap is not being affectionate but rather treating you like a member of the pack that can be pushed, stepped on, and held down.  Dr. Karen Overall warns that such signs should be read for what they are. Dominance aggression in an overt form should come as no sudden surprise if this kind of behavior has been observed in the past.”

It is unfortunate that this sweeping condemnation of dogs seeking contact is fairly often heard.  What’s lacking here are the details, because details make a difference.  Not all nose nudges, head in lap, climbing on you, sleeping on your pillow, etc, means “dominance.”  But how do you know the difference?

This strikes me as yet another problem with “labels” – they do not accurately describe the nuances, context, interactions.  In my seminars, I pose this question:  “A woman is running towards you screaming – is this good or bad?”  Reflexively, many answer “not good!” (especially the men, for some odd reason…)  I point out it’s just your grandmother who is delighted that you’ve finally arrived for an overdue visit.

“A woman is running towards you screaming and she has a knife! Is this good or bad?”  Again, the reflexive answer is “bad!”  I point out it’s the same grandmother who happened to be chopping vegetables for your favorite soup when she heard you had arrived and dashed from the kitchen with knife in hand.

Generally speaking, I don’t care what position a dog is in until I also know the specifics of the body language:

  • orientation
  • muscular tension
  • body compressed or expanded? curving or straight?
  • flexion of joints or no flexion? movement with the flexion??
  • angle of head? angle of neck?
  • rotation of ears?
  • direction of glance?
  • breathing rate?
  • blink rate?
  • is the dog is moving and how it is moving (speed, rhythm, amplitude)?

All these points and many other bits of information that taken together provide the meta-message of the full communication.

Each of these interact with the other signals to provide the total message, and a shift here or increase there or absence of or presence of all combine to create very specific information.

I once had a mature German Shepherd perched on my head and shoulders. Was he dominating me? Hardly! He had been knocked over by a wave at the beach, and in his panicked response to being knocked off his feet, he climbed the only available safe place: me. Anyone observing the dog’s body language would have known there was nothing aggressive or challenging in his behavior.

We all know this in our human/human interactions.  A simple bit of eye contact with someone can be inviting, challenging, flirting, warning, threatening, etc, etc, but it is hardly covered by the label of “he made eye contact with me.” Take a moment to think about the multitude of other signals that accompany just the act of making eye contact any of the conditions I’ve listed above.  Someone who was flirting with you would also be doing what? Someone who was threatening you would be doing . . . what?

People often mis-read or misunderstand dog language, relying instead on a crude understanding of basic postures (the dog was leaning on me) and categorizing them as bad or okay without any sensitivity to the gorgeous complexities of how dogs convey in precise detail what they are trying to say.

Tell me the dog leaned on you, and tell me he did so with ears laid softly back, soft eyes, normal blink rate, normal breathing, little muscle tension, relaxed lips, curves in his body/head/neck, flexion (often active) of the joints and many other signals, and it’s one thing (a good thing!)

Tell me the dog leans on you with a slow or absent blink rate, with muscle tension throughout, with altered breathing, no active flexion in his joints, etc, etc, and then I’ll say it’s something else altogether. A dog could be plastered on top of you while you’re lying on the floor and be absolutely 100% friendly and affectionate (ask me about my German Shepherd blankets!). Or you could be in very big trouble.  But the gross posture is not the clue; the complete, detailed picture is what’s important if you want to know what’s going on with that dog.

This is why I’m disturbed and puzzled by the scales used for determining aggression by so many top professionals & researchers. This from Dr. Karen Overall’s aggression assessment form:

NR=no reaction; SL=snarl/lift lip; BG=bark/growl; SB=snap/bite

What I find incredible is that in the absence of a snarl/lip lift (the first level response noted), bark/growl or snap/bite, the dog is rated as not aggressive!  Perhaps not overtly to the average untrained eye, but I am dismayed that top researchers appear to be content with this rather coarse scale, instead of more accurately ranking the very specific behaviors that long precede a growl, snarl or snap. Long before a snarl/lip lift or growl, a dog may stiffen, hold his breath, head/neck movements may cease, and cut his eyes towards the person. Push past that clear warning, and yes, you’ll probably encounter a snarl, growl, lip lift or worse.

Seems to me as trainers, we are people who deliberately journey into the territory known as Dog. Unlike casual tourists, I feel we have an obligation to become fluent in the native language, lest we misunderstand and, without meaning to, respond inappropriately to those we seek to understand. To become fluent requires that we never fail to see -really, truly, accurately see – the dog before us, in all his glorious detail and nuance.

They say God is in the details.  So is Dog.