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:

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