Posts tagged ‘body language’

Cesar’s Rules – a ‘must read’ review

My friend Alison Lever recently wrote a wonderfully detailed and perceptive review of Cesar Millan’s latest book, Cesar’s Rules over on infopet. Go, read the whole thing now.

Alison discusses Cesar’s philosophy on living with dogs, his evolution as a trainer and compares popular behaviorism with Cesar’s dog psychology. Her observations on life with dogs in a small Spanish village provide an insightful bridge between Millan’s rural Mexican roots and the experiences of American dog owners.

I was especially struck by her discussion on the importance of touch in our relationships with dogs. In my puppy and beginning classes I spend much of my time teaching people how to use touch and other aspects of body language effectively. This is something I feel that I’ve always known and I’m sure that (like Cesar) I picked these skills up during summers spent on my grandparent’s farm when I was a young child.

Dogs on that Iowa farm didn’t have much formal training, but they had good manners and they understood what was expected of them. Even though they rarely, if ever, came in the house, they existed as fully integrated – and fulfilled – members of the extended family, like many of the dogs in Alison’s village in Spain.

The current fashion of treating dogs like voters (independent agents whose behavior should only be manipulated by indirect methods) strikes me as insulting to dogs and to their human owners. So when Ian Dunbar is quoted as saying that “Most human hands cannot be trusted,” I can’t help but wonder if the man hides some kind of dark secret.

Dogs are brilliant social creatures not just capable of tolerating, but rather thriving on, a full range of social input. And, with only rare exceptions, people aren’t mindless violent brutes. We all make mistakes in handling dogs – but those mistakes are an unavoidable and valuable part of life.

I believe that the growing fashion of “hand’s off” philosophy is having a terrible effect on dogs in the US today. Some trainer friends and I have been commiserating about how difficult it is to get our clients to commit to going beyond very basic management and bribing to deal with problem dog behavior. As the idea that “human hands can’t be trusted” gains traction, our society is losing the ability to use our bodies effectively to communicate with dogs (and also with each other). These skills are most effective when we learn them intrinsically, as a part of our culture (see the writings of Edward Hall for more on this), and I am deeply concerned that if we continue down this road it will be difficult, if not impossible, to turn back.

Based on Alison’s review, even though I’m not one of Millan’s fans (or detractors) I’ve added this book to my ‘must read’ list.

May 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm 7 comments

A Lesson

One of Charlie’s remaining quirks is a continued profound fascination with, and sometimes irrational fear of, reflections and other shiny or sparkly things.

One of the ways this manifests is in his unswerving conviction that his reflection is some kind of unspeakably evil thing.

Early this morning I was having a cup of coffee and catching up on a bit of reading when Charlie caught sight of an evil thing in the glass front of the fireplace.

Charlie was transfixed by his reflection. He went stiff-legged and bug-eyed. He piloerected from the front of his forehead to the tip of his half-raised tail. He started growling softly but quickly escalated to an eerily accurate imitation of the demon Pazuzu.

I looked down at Audie, who was lying at my feet. Audie met my gaze with the kind of deep look that conveys an entire conversation. He got up, trotted across the room and picked up Charlie’s favorite stuffed toy. He carried it over to his irrational, ranting buddy and playbowed. Charlie woke from his trance, went soft, wagged his tail at Audie and the two of them moved away to play tug games together.

Audie (whose play was rooted more from of a sense of duty than real enthusiasm) quickly tired of the game and returned to his spot at my feet. Unfortunately once he was no longer distracted by the game, it didn’t take Charlie long to discover that the unspeakable evil had returned to the fireplace and he continued his tirade.

Audie and I had another silent conversation and, being a dog with a strong sense of duty, he trotted over to the horrid little dog at fireplace again.  Eschewing the toy, this time Audie put on his best bendy, prancy, head-rolling, come-hither body language and successfully flirted Charlie’s attention away from the abomination in the window.

The ploy worked and the boys wrestled a bit. They got distracted by a squirrel on the deck and Audie laid at my feet again.

And once Charlie’s attention was free to roam on its own – it made a bee-line for the same ugly, obsessive place.

I could tell Audie had moved from dutiful to annoyed because this time he didn’t even look at me. He just got up, snatched a dirty sock off the floor, marched over the fireplace and stepped between Charlie and the object of his obsession in a coldly calculating way. Audie blocked the fireplace and stared at Charlie in obvious contempt until Charlie quit ululating and averted his gaze. Audie returned to my feet, spat out the sock and sighed in a distinctly annoyed way – but instead of relaxing he remained alert.

In the mean time Charlie had hopped up onto the couch to sulk. He averted his gaze from Audie’s direction (and mine) and fixed it on a blank spot on the wall, apparently trying to stare a hole through it. He remained like this, hunkered down, ears pinned back, glaring at the epic unfairness of it all until the sound of the UPS truck broke his rumination.

All the dogs ran to the door, but we’ve worked on this. They barked a bit, then sat quietly and attentively near the door while the driver dropped off two boxes and three dog treats before he rang the bell and walked away. They were antsy, but stayed generally sitting until I picked up the boxes – and the treats – and rewarded their good behavior.

The three dogs drifted around me for a while in a soft, curving, happy mass. Glad to be together, pleased to have been given an unexpected treat and proud to have earned it. Sadly, the serenity didn’t last long. And when the joy of the moment had passed, each of the dogs wandered off to pursue his own interests. Unfortunately Charlie’s interest went immediately back to staring down his demon.

Audie had settled on one of the dog beds to work on a bone. He tried to ignore the shrieking abomination across the room, he really did. But the utter wrongness of it could not be denied. And it could not be allowed to continue.

Audie dropped the bone, narrowed his eyes, laid back his ears and darted across the room. He’d given up on asking Charlie to agree to stop his annoying, unbalanced behavior. He would make it happen.

Audie delivered a swift muzzle punch to Charlie’s left flank. The impact threw Charlie off balance and instantly pulled his attention away from the monster in the fireplace. He spun around and yelped more, I think, in surprise than in pain. He took one look at Audie’s intensely annoyed expression and dropped to grovel softly – and quietly – at his feet. Audie stalked around Charlie to block him once more from the fireplace and Charlie got up and slunk away to the kitchen.

Audie stood claiming the fireplace until he was sure Charlie wasn’t going to return. Then he resumed his preferred position at my feet.

A while after Charlie banished himself to the kitchen to process events I took the dogs outside for a break. Charlie and Audie romped together as if nothing had happened. Charlie didn’t express any fear or mistrust of Audie. And Audie showed no trace of resentment or unwarranted bossiness toward Charlie. (And Zip was as haughty and aloof as she’s ever been.)

Life in my dogs’ world went on much as it always has with only one notable exception. This happened more than seven hours ago – and Charlie hasn’t so much as looked at the fireplace since.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere…

November 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm 9 comments

Are We Having Fun?

Over at ScienceBlogs The Thoughtful Animal has a recent post on his excellent new blog on how to tell the difference between real aggression and play fighting in dogs. Thoughtful’s post follows Marc Bekoff’s lead and focuses primarily on play signals. He writes:

Actions called play signals have been observed in many species which appear to engage in play. It is generally accepted that these behaviors serve as signals to communicate the initiation (“I want to play”) of play. One behavior that is used a LOT by dogs (and their evolutionary cousins, wolves and coyotes) is the bow.

Dr. Marc Bekoff (who blogs at Psychology Today) from the University of Colorado, Boulder wondered if the bow was used as a play signal, and how it functioned. He hypothesized that the bow might serve an additional function beyond initiation; it might support the maintenance (“I still want to play”) of ongoing social play.

While I agree that the play bow is an important signal in canine communication, I don’t think it is the only – or even necessarily the most important – signal dogs use to communicate whether they intend their actions to be interpreted as friendly or aggressive.

A signal I see a lot between dogs who want to initiate or continue play is a slow, rolling, side-to-side head shake. The dog smiles as his head makes a smooth figure-eight motion. Sometimes the head roll accompanies a play bow, sometimes it doesn’t. Another play signal I’ve observed is a curving, prancing side-step away from the desired playmate. The step is accompanied by a smile and a toss of the head. A dog that really wants someone to play with him will sometimes make a series of these unmistakably flirtatious steps.

The things that tie the play bow, head roll and flirt step together are the shape and structure of the dog’s movements. A friendly, relaxed, non-aggressive dog (i.e. a dog that wants to play) interacts in smooth, flowing, arcing, rhythmic motions. His body is loose, his movements follow arcs and curves and his expression is soft and relaxed.

The rhythm and intensity of a dog’s movements also tell us a lot about his intent. When a dog is relaxed and ready to play one movement flows into another in smooth transitions. The dog rolls, he lopes, he bounds, he bends. His gestures are a polite blend of approach and retreat. His movements and emotions are in balance.

An over-stimulated, stressed, frightened or aggressive dog (i.e. the dog that isn’t going to play) interacts in more intense erratic and linear motions. His body is stiff, his gaze and expression are intense and he approaches in a direct line, not a polite curve. His legs thrust into the ground like pistons, they don’t sweep along the surface. He stares instead of making quick flirtatious glances.

The over-stimulated dog doesn’t move or react in a smooth, rhythmic way. And as he reaches increasing levels of arousal, the dog’s movements transition quickly from staring to pacing, from relaxing to freezing, or from trotting to bolting. These rapid changes in state are key indicators that a dog has exceeded a threshold in reactivity – and it’s important to be aware of them. A dog in a transitional state has moved from balance to instability.

He’s a hair-trigger just waiting to go off.

That is what I look for when I watch dogs interact. The transition from balance to instability. It’s an enormously important factor and one that a lot of people miss. I believe that this is one why so many people describe dog fights and dog attacks as ‘coming out of nowhere.’

And, while I agree that it is important in canine communication, I don’t believe that the play bow is the only, or even the most important, signal dogs use to indicate their desire to play. And I also disagree with Thoughtful’s notion that:

These findings suggest that the bow is not used to stretch the muscles, or because it is a good position from which to increase the range of movement. Instead, it seems to serve a particular social communicative function.

While in many young dogs the bow may be used most often to indicate a desire to play, sometimes dogs perform the motion simply to stretch their muscles. The lowered position of the stretching bow is generally held a little longer than it is in the play bow, the stretching dog’s neck is often extended upward instead of held loosely or cocked to one side and the dog will also sometimes sigh or groan as his body stretches.

Still – it’s an interesting post and a fine new blog. Go read it.

UPDATED links 4/20/10

April 19, 2010 at 11:58 am 8 comments

Sea Kittens and Getting Bitten

Via AtomicNerds, a bit of entertaining and insightful commentary on the latest bit of pointless ranting PR from the morons our friends at PETA courtesy of BluntObject (go – read it now):

The clever folks at PETA decided that the best way to convince people to stop eating fish was to RENAME THEM AFTER A CARNIVORE.  (Not only that, but a carnivore famous in popular culture for eating fish.  Gosh, that was clever.)

With apologies to BluntObject I’m going to argue that PETA’s idea was clever.  Our culture has, to a frightening extent, succeeded in romantically recasting cats and dogs as harmless, helpless, Disneyesque caricatures instead of the living, breathing, complex (and sometimes flawed) animals they really are.  Like Rousseau’s noble savage they’re increasingly seen as more innocent, more noble – and to some – more worthy – than we humans are.

And when they inevitably ‘betray’ our romantic image by, well, simply behaving as animals instead of noble savages, we tend to react in fear and avoidance just like we did when presented with that other famous character from romantic fiction – Frankenstein’s creature.  And when, like Frankenstein’s creature – who started out as an innocent, loving being; then turned into a monster from torture and neglect – our pets behave aggressively… we demonize them.

An interesting example of this kind of cognitive dissonance was reported in last week’s news when Barney the Whitehouse dog “attacked” Reuters reporter Jon Decker.  Check out the video clip below and carefully watch Barney’s posture and demeanor in the beginning of this little misadventure:

In the seconds before he bit Decker Barney laid his ears back, tucked his tail, lowered the front part of his body, partly averted his gaze, held his mouth closed — and probably threw other fearful and distance-increasing gestures easy to miss when viewing a black dog in poor quality video.  In other words, he did everything in his power to tell the reporter “I’m stressed out, stay away from me!”  Decker, obviously clueless when it came to recognizing and reading those important signals, moved into the danger zone anyway because “he just wanted to pet Barney.”  And, very predictably – the dog bit him. 

More interesting information can be seen in the still shot below, captured from the video immediately before the dog bit:


Note the dog’s expression.  His eyes are wide open with the sclera (white) showing, the corners of mouth pushed forward, upper lips pursed, and ears still pinned back. These are classic signs of the fear-biter.

And all of this because a clueless reporter “just wanted to pet the dog.”

All too often today people see a dog as a sort of adorable, animated stuffed animal that can be approached and handled at will.  And where did that come from?  I mean – do the same people who treat dogs like this go out and grab strange children so they can fondle them?  I think not (and if they do, they usually get ‘removed’ from society).  So why then do they assume that they are entitled to behave this way with dogs?

We have somehow created a cultural ideal where we believe that ‘good’ dogs are incapable of violence.  Because we can’t imagine that they’ll hurt us, we don’t take take precautions to prevent bites. And when – inevitably – they do bite, we are utterly unprepared for it.  We blame them for our ignorance and mistakes instead of taking responsibility for our own actions.

Dogs are wonderful, social creatures. They make excellent companions – and I believe that the social lives of both of our species are more complete when we spend them together. But a vital part of that shared life needs to be an awareness and respect for what they really are – animals.  And as the nut-jobs at PETA have so annoyingly (but accurately) pointed out – in our Rousseauesque desire for purity or Disneyesque search for innocence – this is something that we have managed to lose track of.

To gain an important – and somewhat sobering – bit of perspective it might be wise to consider the words of ethologist Konrad Lorenz:

“One day, during a hard winter, a deer crossed our snowed-up garden fence and was torn to pieces by my three dogs. As I stood horror-stricken by the mutilated corpse I became conscious of the unconditional faith which I placed in the social inhibition of these blood-thirsty beasts, for my children were at that time smaller and more defenceless than the deer whose gory remains lay before me in the snow. I was myself astonished at the absolute fearlessness with which I daily entrusted the fragile limbs of my children to the wolf-like jaws.”

Konrad Lorenz – Man and Dog          

And, oh yeah – “sea kittens” don’t just eat fish, they kill them too.  Even in the wonderful world of Disney.


November 9, 2008 at 9:04 pm 6 comments

Clever Isaac

Flipping through the channels late tonight I chanced upon a re-run of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that featured a story about a dog.  Since it was late and it was a dog and there was NOTHING else on, I decided to sit back and check it out.

The episode included a story about a Labrador Retriever named Isaac who was reported to be a mathematical savant.


His owner said that Isaac could add, subtract, multiply, divide and calculate square roots.  He noted that he saw early on that Isaac was an exceptional dog and said that he began teaching the dog to count when he was just a pup.  Isaac loved participating in these training sessions and was soon able to amaze the people he met.

All his owner, Gary Wimer, had to do was give the dog a math problem and Isaac would bark the correct number of times to solve it.

I watched the segment that featured Isaac several times in real time, slow motion and even at an excruciatingly slow frame by frame speed – and I didn’t see his owner give him any obvious cues (though I strongly suspect that creative photography was the deciding factor here) but….

When I read about Isaac, I cannot help but be bothered by this little concept that scientists refer to as the Clever Hans phenomenon.  The Clever Hans Phenomenon is a form of involuntary and unconscious cuing associated with an exceptional horse.  Clever Hans was an Arab stallion who learned to respond to perform mathematical calculations by tapping his hoof (do you see a similarity here?)

Clever Hans seemed to be able not only to respond appropriately to complex forms of human language but was also apparently able to comprehend basic mathematical ideas.


Hans performed for many people and his audiences were amazed at his abilities.  Unfortunately the people who watched his performances focused on the wrong set of abilities.

Hans could not understand human language or do mathematical computations; he was a brilliant student of human body language.

Otto Pfungst was skeptical of Hans’ accomplishments.  He conducted a set of experiments where he observed different people asking Hans to do calculations for them.  Pfungst noticed that when no one present knew the correct answer to the question the horse gave the wrong answer.  This led Pfungst to conclude that, rather than being a mathematical savant, Hans was a body language expert.  He proposed that Hans used subtle cues emitted by his questioners to correctly answer the questions.

Scientists since have discovered that horses (and dogs) can detect the heartbeat of a person near them  and some have now proposed that as Clever Hans reached the correct answer, an increase in someone’s heart rate told him to stop tapping.

Clever Hans hadn’t mastered mathematics or German, he had become an absolutely brilliant student of human body language.

Sadly, the scientific community not only declared that Hans was a fraud, they also used his case to illustrate their theories that animals were not able to think.  In doing this, they overlooked the horse’s uncanny abilities.

Clever Hans and Clever Isaac demonstrate that animals have the power to reason.  They are able to contextualize observations, categorize them, and apply the concept of cause and effect – qualities that are cited as proof of intelligence.

So, should we be disappointed that dogs and horses don’t grasp details of human language and can’t do mathematical calculations — or should we be impressed by their amazing ability to read and interpret the most subtle non-verbal cues?

April 2, 2008 at 6:16 am 6 comments

Telling Tails of Aggression

This week’s Misguided Science Award goes to researchers at the University of Victoria who used a robotic dog to study how long versus short or docked tails affect canine behavior. 

The study concluded that dogs approach a dog with a docked tail more cautiously than they do a dog with a ‘complete’ tail.  According to one researcher, this could make a dog with a docked tail more aggressive. 

Their findings were based on a series of observations regarding how dogs at a dog park approached the robotic dog when it was fitted with a long or short tail.  The robotic tail wagged on some trials and stood up stiff in others. 


First, I am absolutely flabbergasted that anyone would consider that dogs’ reactions to an obviously fake, robotic dog represent valid data on dog-dog behavior.  I am certain that even the most sheltered, apartment-dwelling city dogs innately understand the difference between real and robotic dogs.  And in most cases they’re not going to react the same way to a robotic dog that they will to a real one. 

Second, it does not appear that the group conducted an initial study of how dogs with long and short tails (remember, not all short tails are artificially docked) wag them in different situations.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching dogs interact with each other.  In my experience, short-tailed dogs don’t just wag their stubby little tails when they’re happy and excited.  They typically wiggle the whole rear half of their bodies. 

Tail-wagging doesn’t always indicate happiness or friendliness.  Generally speaking, it indicates arousal.  The soft, slow wag of a lowered tail can indicate calm interest.  The rapid, loose wagging of a tail held at mid level (combined with a butt wiggle in a short-tailed dog) may indicate excited, friendly anticipation.  Rapid, stiff, wagging of an erect tail generally indicates intent arousal – and may precede an aggressive response. 

So, when robo-dog wagged what was very likely a short, stiff, erect, electronic tail he may have been communicating a weird, artificial kind of aggressive intent.  I don’t find it the least bit strange that dogs avoided robo-dog or behaved in an antisocial manner toward him if that was the situation. 

When robo-dog wagged a long tail at mid-height (especially if that long tail was constructed in a way that allowed it to flex as it wagged) he communicated an odd but friendly demeanor.  I would expect confident, social dogs to approach a ‘thing’ that behaved that way to investigate it.

In neither case do I believe that the dogs studied mistook robo-dog for a real dog.

As you can probably guess based on what I’ve written here, I don’t for a minute believe that having a short or docked tail predisposes a dog toward behaving aggressively toward other dogs. 

I have a different theory.  Check out the video below for frightening footage of a short-tailed dog demonstrating some extremely aggressive behavior:

Did docking his tail make this Airedale wire-haired fox terrier violently aggressive – or was it an owner who forced the poor beast to listen to death metal music that sent him over the edge?

Studies have indicated that listening to classical music, panpipes and whale songs may have a calming effect on dogs.  Is it then a stretch to suggest that exposure to gangsta rap, death metal and the music of Richard Wagner could turn them to violence?

Are the vicious pibbles and rockwilders we hear so much about in the media innately hostile beasts – or have they been ruined because their owners exposed them to too much teevee violence and musical mayhem?

It’s food for thought…. 

March 24, 2008 at 9:48 pm 9 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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