There are people watchers and there are dog watchers. I am decidedly a dog watcher. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, if a dog should wander into my field of vision, I will always take a few moments to admire what we frequently call “man’s best friend.” I am, of course, fascinated with the incredible variety of shape, size, color, and personality that we find in the dog. No other species on the planet can boast as broad a spectrum of attributes and still remain the same animal. Great Danes, Yorkshire Terriers, Dachshunds, and German Shepherds are all the same animal. I find that pretty amazing.
But it is rare in my experience to see a dog without their human around. So there is often more to see when I look at dogs. I find it fascinating to observe the dynamics between a dog and their person or persons. Some dogs will be on leash, walking calmly by their person while others are running madly through the fields at the local park taking little notice of their humans save to stay in some relative proximity so they won’t get left behind. There are the plodding older dogs, the barky young dogs, the nervous dogs staying close to their person, and the determined pullers who drag their person down the path with excitement. And all of these dogs tell me something about themselves and the person they are with.
You see what you want to see
While dogs can’t talk with us, there is a wealth of information about how a dog is feeling available to the observer if you only take the time to look. In her book “For The Love Of A Dog”, animal behaviourist Patricia McConnell spends an entire chapter describing the various ways dogs display their emotions through body language. The way a dog moves, they way it holds its body, the position and movement of its head and tail – all tell something about the dog’s emotional state. If you are close enough to see their face, there is even more information to see. The way a dog holds its mouth, the shape and movement of its eyes, its breathing patterns. There are several great books and videos out there that can tell you what a dog is likely feeling when they display specific physical signs. There is enough actual research that we are fairly well versed in the dog’s body language.
Dogs don’t lie. Oh, they may have some rudimentary idea of how to misdirect us or use a bluff to perhaps steal a snack from the table, but the wiring in their brains doesn’t to allow them to outright lie in the human sense. That would require long term memory, the ability to reflect on past events, and even to extrapolate what future consequences might come from their deception. Fortunately for us, the dog is a pretty honest creature. But we have found ways to make them much more complicated than perhaps they are. We layer our own motives on them and misinterpret our dogs all the time.
If you take the time to learn about canine body language and the nature of dogs, you can read an awful lot about a dog just by looking at it for a few moments. I offer you this word of caution, once you know what you are looking at in a dog, you cannot “unsee” it. I learned about reading stress in my dogs’ body language so I could do a better job of managing them in difficult situations. But once I knew what stress looked like, many of those dogs I would enjoy watching at the park suddenly looked different to me. I could not “unsee” the signs of stress in some of them as they walked with their human.
There is some debate about the kinds of emotions that dogs can feel. We know that they can experience joy and fear and even some of the more subtle emotions. We also know that some emotions that require more complex brain function are not the same in dogs as they are in humans – love, envy, altruism, etc. Our dogs do feel a spectrum of emotions, both positive and negative, and that these likely come from their experience of their world. As their owners and caretakers, much of our dog’s world involves us in one way or another. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that dogs have feelings about us too.
Our relationships with our dogs are, in a very real way, written all over them. As they pass me on a walk, I can see from a dog’s body language if he is enjoying his time out with his human or if he is cautiously controlling his actions to avoid something unpleasant. Some dogs even seem to have given up any initiative to explore and just wait patiently for their human to give them permission to sniff a bit of grass. There are the nervous dogs with ears flat back and tail tucked, whose eyes dart around scanning for any sign of danger. There is the wheezing, panting dog who is straining at the leash, mostly oblivious of their human who they are dragging behind them in their exuberance. All of them have something to say about how they are feeling at that moment in time.
Action and reaction
Dogs excel at knowing their humans. They spend their lives studying our every mood and movement. A dog’s ability to respond to their human companions is uncanny. At times it rises to a level that looks like the paranormal as if they can read our minds. The result of all of that study comes out in their bodies as well. My relationship and my history with my dog is visible to anyone who watches me interact with her. Whether I like it or not, her reactions to me will broadcast to anyone watching exactly who and what she thinks I am.
Her actions have a lot to say too. My dog’s initiative and engagement with her environment, other people, and other dogs can say a great deal about her feelings. Is she allowed to think for herself? Does she trust me to keep her safe? Does she want to work with me or would she rather be left alone to do her thing? Everything my dog does while we are out and about can be another indicator of how she feels about her life with me.
Now hear this…
So what is my dog saying about me? When people see her out in front of me at the end of a six foot leash, do they think she is being dominant? Or do they understand by her relaxed mouth and attentiveness to me that she is just eager to explore and that I encourage her to do that on her walks. When I ask her to come in and sit by my side, do they see a dog who is obedient to her master or one who is eager to work for her partner and human companion? As I said earlier in this article, a good deal of what people see in dogs comes from their own perceptions and their own understanding of dogs. But anyone who understands dogs and their body language would know exactly the kind of relationship my dog and I have. It’s all right there. She is broadcasting it all over her face, all over her body, and with every swish of her tail.
Do you know what your dog says about you? Do you watch other dogs to see what they have to say? The Rottweiler with plodding along with his head down has a story to tell. The toy poodle that barks and jumps at people passing by does too. And the smiling Labrador retriever towing their owner down the street has a different story to tell. But they are all reflections of their humans. They are products of their environments. They are, in many respects, the kinds of dogs we make them.
It is my hope that dog owners care as much about what their dogs might have to say about them as they do about getting compliance from their dog. I am always disappointed to see some dog owner showing off their “very obedient” dog who dutifully and carefully performs exactly what they are asked by the owner. But there is no smile, no light in the eyes. Only resignation and acceptance of their lot in life. It makes me sad.
I hope your dog has great things to say about you when you go out. I’m very proud of my dogs and I’m pleased that they tell the world how happy they are too.
Until next time, have fun with your dog.
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available -
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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