Thursday, February 20, 2014

Happy, Sad, Fear, Anger: What Does Your Dog’s Face Say?

I'm a Dog Mom. Hear Me Bark.

For many years, the general consensus has held that humans began to domesticate dogs when we started settling down around 8,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture and the rise of stable, non-mobile communities. New evidence in the past decade, however, has caused scholars to rethink this theory. Archaeological finds show that the domesticated dog dates back at least 15,000 years, when we humans were still in our pre-agriculture, hunter-gatherer days. One of the most surprising, and poignant, finds is a set of fossilized footprints of an eight- to ten-year-old child, walking at a leisurely pace, intertwined with those of a very large canid, believed to be a “proto-dog”—evolutionarily speaking, a dog mid-way between the Eurasian Grey Wolf and the domestic dog. Discovered in the famous Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France (which contains some of the earliest known cave paintings), these footprints have been dated to around 30,000 years ago. Needless to say, humans and dogs have been keeping company for a very long time.
Why? Perhaps the reason was purely utilitarian: we provided food and shelter and dogs assisted us in hunting, offered protection, and served as early warning systems. However, prehistoric dog burials suggest that our relationship with dogs was effective not only for mutual survival, but one of genuine respect and affection. In 2011, the 26,000 – 27,000 year old remains of a dog buried with a bone in his mouth was discovered in the Czech Republic.

The process of domestication over thousands of years has biologically altered dogs more than any other species, not just in the huge variety of shape and size, but in their ability to understand us to an extent that no other animal can match. Our best friends interpret the smallest changes in our facial expressions and body language with amazing accuracy. So what about us? How well do we understand them? Most dog owners would say, “pretty darn well,” especially if they have been a dog parent for a number of years.

I myself have been a dog mom for 30 years. But since opening Camp Bow Wow and seeing a wide variety of dogs and their facial expressions and body languages, I discovered that I have mis-read many cues from my own dogs over time. For example, I wondered why my sweeter-than-pie Bluetick Hound, Buster, would growl when I hugged him around the neck. None of my other dogs protested such a simple show of affection. I now know that most dogs do not like being hugged. In dog language, an arm over the shoulder/around the neck is perceived not only as status-seeking, but puts them in a vulnerable position in terms of being able to escape an uncomfortable situation. And a dog who can’t escape is a fearful dog, which can quickly escalate to an angry dog. All this time, Buster was telling me clearly, “I don’t like that, mom. Please stop.” Thankfully, I now know what he was saying and I respect his wishes.

The good news is, extensive research and observation by animal behaviorists such as Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. has revealed some basics of “dog language” that the layman can easily understand and apply. If you haven’t read her book, For The Love Of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, I highly recommend it. A link to her website, which features a great “Reading Room” is at the bottom of this post.

So, I offer here some basics—look for these expressions in your own pups and in dogs at dog parks and other dog/human gatherings. With practice, you’ll be amazed at how well you learn to “speak dog.” After all, a dog’s facial expressions are amazingly similar to our own. Go to a mirror and show yourself your “happy face,” “sad face,” “angry fact,” etc. Then compare to the same expression as show in the dog, described below. I think you’ll be amazed. I was!


“A curved line under two dots [smiley face] is enough to signify happiness to us; even infants respond to this simple set of stimuli” (McConnell, For The Love Of A Dog, 336).
A dog’s facial expression for happiness, or a relaxed state, is indicated by an open, full face, a relaxed jaw, relaxed muscles around the eyes, and an open mouth—often with the tongue hanging out. A “big smile” on a dog is almost identical to that of a human’s: the commissures, or the corners of the mouth, are pulled back and the eyes are crinkly, squinty. The body is loose, with tail wagging loosely and slowly.

On Alert: A dog on alert, or on the offensive, will show a mouth closed, with commissures bunched forward, often barking, sometimes with raised hackles. This is a typical expression that lets others know, “I see you. Don’t try anything funny.” Watch your dog the next time he or she barks at the mailman or neighbors (both human and canine) walking by your home. You’ll see this expression.

Anger: Anger is indicated by a mouth that is closed up tight, with or without the lips pulled up in a snarl, with the inside corners of the eyes pulled together and down. The head and body is held stiff and tense. Sometimes the tail might wag when a dog is angry; however, unlike a loose, slow wag when happy, a tense or angry dog’s tail will wag stiffly, whipping quickly from side to side. The hackles might also rise when a dog is angry, but this can also simply be a sign of excitement.  You must combine the facial expression with the body language to determine if a dog is angry or simply highly excited or on alert.

Worried/Sad: The mouth is closed and the inner eyebrows are raised upward and together. You’ve seen this expression in the dogs shown in the ASPCA ads featuring Sarah McLachlan. If you’re like me, seeing this expression makes me want to adopt every homeless dog, everywhere.

Fear: The commissures of the mouth are retracted far back, the eyes are widely rounded with the whites of the eyes easily visible, and the teeth are showing. This is often referred to as the “fear grimace.”

Concentration: The dog who is concentrating on something is still and focused: the mouth is closed, the commissures are neither pulled back (as in a smile or “fear grimace”) nor pushed forward (as in anger or on alert/offensive).

“Whale Eye”: The nose is turned away, but the eye is focused on you. The eye is rounded, with the white of the eye showing clearly. The mouth is closed up tight. A dog showing “whale eye” is telling you “I don’t trust you. Stay right where you are. Don’t attempt to pet me.”

Direct Stare: The dog that is staring directly at you, with eyes that are rounded and fixed can be a dangerous dog. The mouth is closed and the body is held very still. This dog could be getting ready to attack. DO NOT STARE BACK. This will be interpreted as a challenge. Look away and if possible, calmly and slowly walk away.

Links for Additional Reading:

Patricia B. McConnell:

The Chauvet Cave:

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Do Dogs Love Ritual and Routine? Let Me Count the Ways.

I'm a Dog Mom. Hear Me Bark.

Dogs are creatures of habit. They like to know what’s happening, when, where, and who’s in charge. One of my favorite things at Camp Bow Wow is checking in Campers in the morning. Our “regulars” know the routine and they LOVE it: They come bounding into the lobby with mom or dad, and as we greet them by name, they often stand up at the lobby counter, lean in, and give big kisses. They stand in front of the lobby gate, tail wagging, as their parent gives any new instructions for lunch, nap, often asking if their pup’s favorite buddy is at Camp today. As a Certified Camp Counselor comes up, the dog bounds through the gate, and sniffs all the leashes hanging on their pegs—“Hey, that’s Steele!” Or Hank, or Belle, or Blue, or Tucker, or “Hey! A new kid!” When the Counselor opens the door into the back area, they know just where to go. If they’re a big dog, they head to their left, knowing that the left side aisle leads to the big dog yards. If they’re small, they head to the right, knowing that the small dog yard awaits. I can’t tell you how joyful it is to see all those happy butts bounding away, tails wagging,  as they run toward the play yards, eager to greet their best buddies, make new friends, and have a rompin’, rollickin’, rowdy good day at Camp!

When dogs are disrupted from their routine it is often hard to witness; their confusion and worry is especially painful because we can't just sit them down and explain what's happening. We have had many Campers who have come to us as a recommendation from a trainer: dogs whose family is moving, or having a baby, or having extended visits from unfamiliar friends or family. Even something as seemingly simple as hosting a party at home can cause some dogs to act out in ways they never have before--destructive behavior, extreme neediness, separation anxiety, and even aggression--leaving their parents nonplussed. So when I see dogs who experience change calmly, not protesting or pouting (as we humans often do), I stand absolutely in awe. Case in point: I suffer from chronic migraines. And the past ten days have been really hard for my own pack. When I get a days-long migraine, our house is a very different place. Everyone tip-toes around, trying to keep things quiet, dark, and cool. My wonderful husband takes over providing meals, keeping the house decently clean, and fielding calls or texts from family and friends. However, I sometimes think my dogs suffer almost as much as I. They’re not feeling the excruciating pain of migraine, but their routine is completely disrupted and worse, they don’t know the rhyme or reason of it. They just know that mom is sick and all she wants to do is lie in bed, perfectly still and utterly boring. There’s no “Group Bark & Howl” to start the day. No happy, bell-like jingling of kibble flowing into breakfast and dinner bowls (dad doles it out as quietly as possible). No walks. No Frisbee throwing. No fetching the oh-so-loud squeaky ball. No swimming. No belly rubs or tricks for treats. And worse of all, it often seems that there’s no end in sight.

I am amazed at how wonderful and supportive my dogs are during my “flares.” They seem to know what’s needed. They spend most of the day lying quietly in bed with me; dark during the day, dark at night. There’s no barking at the mailman or neighbors and dogs walking by our house. There’s not the usual wrestling and tussling, or even chewing bones—that’s too loud, after all. Instead, they snuggle, lick my face, snooze for hours at a time, and just BE with me. They seem to know exactly what I need to get well as quickly as I can.

And eventually, the morning dawns when, like a miracle, I wake up without pain. And they know it! Maybe it’s the way I stretch, or the tone of my voice as I greet them. Perhaps it’s the way I sit up quickly and easily and reach out to give kisses and belly rubs. And when they see these signs, well heck! It’s party time! And our routine of the “Group Bark & Howl” to greet the morning gets going. Zoe, our eldest, a black-and-white Border Collie/Lab mix, launches onto my chest, pins me down, gives me my morning facial of luscious licks, and stretches out her back legs to get her massage. Buster, our 70 pound Bluetick Hound mix, begins his tandem “Who’s the man?” ritual with Charlie, our 7 pound wire-haired Chihuahua. Charlie on the bed, Buster on the floor, they race from one side of the bed to the other, growling, barking, tails a blur, and in Buster’s case, howling for all the world to hear. Bella, our middle child, a Catahoula Cur/Sheltie mix (we think), barks, growls, snarls, and snorts simultaneously—the strangest vocalization combo you’ll ever hear—in her own unique style, while tossing her head and alternating body pins with Zoe. Our smallest, Capri, a Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mix, weighing in at 6 pounds and a princess to boot, tucks up by my head, so she won’t get stomped in the fray. But she doesn’t let her small size keep her from joyfully adding her voice to the chorus. All of this lasts several minutes and by the end of it I’m so full of joy and laughing, that I add my own howl to the cacophony. When I’m finally able to sit up in between body pins, the ritual ends (mostly) and we all head to the kitchen for breakfast and the weather report.

When I see “routine” through the eyes of my dogs, the oh-so-human urge for something ever-new, ever-bigger, better, shinier than yesterday, seems rather compulsively ADHD. And I think, “Vive la routine!” What’s your morning ritual with your dogs?  Share!  

Here's my babies, all decked out in their Halloween costumes for our Camp "Howl-O-Ween Yappy Hour" in 2012.

Thanks for visiting!  Michelle Vardeman Martin

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