Dog Signals and Social Cues: what is your dog telling you?

What are Dog Signals and Social Cues?  And why do they matter? If you want to know what your dog is telling you then you need to understand the language your dog speaks. Dog signals and social cues is the language your dog speaks. Like any language each individual communicates using their own style. The materials on dog signals and social cues teaches how a dog will respond in a given situation. Unfortunately most materials aren’t able take into consideration all of the variables that we need to consider when we observe our dogs.

It can be even more confusing when a dog uses the same signal and it has multiple meanings. We can compare it words we use that have multiple meanings. A great example is aloha which can mean hello or good bye depending on the context. There, in a nutshell, is the key – context.

If we know the context when we observe our dog we can have a better understanding of the message she communicates. By knowing the context it is easier to determine if the paw lift means everything is wonderful or if it means that she is uncertain or wary.

Another useful tip: it is helpful to cluster several signals together. Clustering dog signals is similar to putting words together to form a sentence. From there we can form a paragraph and before you know it you are hearing an entire story. Take a moment, learn the language and listen to your dog’s story.

How do we know if the story we are hearing is happy story or one that needs intervention? Let’s use the traffic light model to define zones. It works because it is simple, clear, and easy to understand. The zones that are defined here provide you with instruction as well. When we use zones it is important to remember that they don’t define the dog rather, they define behavior.

Here is an illustration to help you see how this system works with different dogs.

The illustration shows how different these respond to situations. The Life’s Good signals seem pretty consistent even with different dogs. The responses begin to change when the dogs display their with stress signs.

  • Caution: yawn vs paw lift; lip lick vs rolling; shake-off vs sniffing – these are very different signals between the dogs. Note – these are only the “big” signals that are named. There are other signals displayed too.
  • Danger: panting (with tension) vs scratching; making self small vs self-soothing licking; frozen in place vs trembling – again very different signals are displayed.
  • Worth noting: look at the difference in size in the black dog, Jade, in the down position from the Life’s Good to the Danger. The change in her size in this instance matters.
  • The beagle, Charlie, doesn’t usually scratch or self-sooth unless he is stressed so when he displays those signals something is bothering him. If it happens once, he is in the Caution zone, but if it happens several times then he has moved to Danger zone.

How will your dog respond? Take photos and complete observation logs. The logs are for you, but if you want let me know how you are doing… If you have questions ask – either on Facebook or here. The key is to observe your dog. Take the time to get to know your dog. Keep observing your dog over time because your dog changes.

Remember, each dog has a unique response to situations. Not only that, but over time, dogs change the way they see the world. It is a good idea to keep a photo journal of how our dogs look at life and respond to situations.  Now, that would be amazing! Not only are documenting how wonderful our dog is, but we are learning how our responds in each situation. We are learning how our dog changes over time.

Resources to help you understand Dog Signals and Social Cues:
Books:
Aloff, B. (2005). Canine body language: A photographic guide: Interpreting the native language of the domestic dog. Dogwise.

Handelman, B. (2012). Canine behavior: A photo illustrated handbook. Dogwise Publishing. (the hard cover book is wonderful, the e-book is all in color)

McConnell, P. (2009). For the love of a dog: understanding emotion in you and your best friend. Ballantine Books.

Rugaas, T. (2005). On talking terms with dogs: Calming signals. Dogwise publishing

Articles:
Glenk, L. M., Kothgassner, O. D., Stetina, B. U., Palme, R., Kepplinger, B., & Baran, H. (2014). Salivary cortisol and behavior in therapy dogs during animal-assisted interventions: A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(3), 98-106.

Hasegawa, M., Ohtani, N., & Ohta, M. (2014). Dogs’ Body Language Relevant to Learning Achievement. Animals, 4(1), 45-58

Jakovcevic, A., Elgier, A. M., Mustaca, A. E., & Bentosela, M. (2013). Frustration behaviors in domestic dogs. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 16(1), 19-34.

Mariti, C., Gazzano, A., Moore, J. L., Baragli, P., Chelli, L., & Sighieri, C. (2012). Perception of dogs’ stress by their owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7(4), 213-219.

Mehrkam, L. R., & Wynne, C. D. (2014). Behavioral differences among breeds of domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris): Current status of the science. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 155, 12-27.

Ng, Z. Y., Pierce, B. J., Otto, C. M., Buechner-Maxwell, V. A., Siracusa, C., & Werre, S. R. (2014). The effect of dog–human interaction on cortisol and behavior in registered animal-assisted activity dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 159, 69-81.

Wan, M., Bolger, N., & Champagne, F. A. (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PLoS one, 7(12), e51775.

 

Do You See What I See?

Admit it – it’s fun watching our dogs because so often they are joyful. There is a big difference between watching our dogs and observing them. Let’s look at what it means to observe a dog.

Often when we look at dogs we see their love, joy and devotion. However, when we observe dogs we need to be to objective and consistent in what we see. If we are do this task well it can help us understand what our dog experiences as she faces each day.

Everyone's attention is on Louise while they wait for her to throw the dummy. Dogs are Rixa, Galley, Ryder, Jade
Everyone’s attention is on the handler, Louise, while they wait for her to throw the dummy. The dogs are (left to right) Jade, Ryder, Galley, and Rixa

Do you see what I see? It is easy to say that the dogs in this photo are happy and focused on the handler. But what does that tell us about each dog? It is more informative when we slow things down and take photos one frame at a time. You may find it helpful to know the dogs in the photos:

  • Jade (black and white Portuguese Water Dog)
  • Ryder (black Portuguese Water Dog)
  • Galley (black Portuguese Water Dog – white socks on front paws )
  • Rixa (gray Portuguese Water Dog) and
  • Charlie (beagle – blind, no eyes) appears in later photos

Background:  We were playing retrieving games in the yard. The dogs would return to Louise and she would toss the dummy for them. They would all come, sit, and look at Louise. Once they were focused on her she would throw the dummy and the dogs had to wait until they were released from the “wait” to get the dummy after it was thrown. Galley and Jade took off to play right after the photo above was taken which isn’t surprising since they are the youngest dogs in the group. Rixa and Ryder are waiting for Louise to give them their next cue. Meanwhile Charlie is exploring the yard. Rixa and Ryder were focused on Louise when “out of the blue” Rixa lost her focus. The photos make it clear why this happened. When Rixa lost her focus it happened very quickly and it didn’t seem like a big deal. Looking at the photos it is obvious that there was a reason for Rixa to be distracted.
It is helpful to know:

  • Ryder is very stoic and when given a cue he does it and doesn’t usually move from that position
  • Rixa is older and deaf.
Everyone's attention is on Louise while they wait for her to throw the dummy. Dogs are Rixa, Galley, Ryder, Jade
Everyone’s attention is on Louise while they wait for her to throw the dummy. Dogs are Rixa, Galley, Ryder, Jade
  • Jade: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth open panting, tongue straight out, sitting straight, tail not visible in photo
  • Ryder: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth closed, tongue inside, sitting straight,tail straight behind;
  • Galley: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth open panting, tongue out to her left, sitting straight, tail straight behind;
  •  Rixa: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth closed, tongue inside,sitting straight, tail not visible in photo
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise

Galley and Jade have run off to play. Charlie is wandering around and is coming toward Ryder and Rixa. At this point both Rixa and Ryder are still focused on Louise, but notice that Charlie is aware of the two dogs and his body language indicates he is concerned.

  • Rixa and Ryder are focused on Louise
  • Charlie is about 6 feet away
  • Charlie furrowed brow, ears are soft/floppy, mouth is panting – open with tongue out; body position is a cower (neck and back are level); tail down but not tucked.
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise

As Charlie approaches Rixa moves her head away from Louise and toward Charlie. Ryder has not moved.

  • Charlie is about 4 feet away
  • Rixa moves her head to her left – the direction Charlie is approaching
  • Ryder does not move
  • Charlie, he is panting and has a furrowed brow. His cower deepens – his head and neck are lower than his back (previous picture they were level with his back), his tail appears to be tucked.
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
  • Charlie is almost behind Ryder.
  • Ryder moves his head to his left (the direction that Charlie approached)
  • Rixa moves her head to her left and down (toward Charlie) while extending her neck toward Charlie.
  • Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Ryder, and is in a a cower (not as deep as the previous photo), his tail appears to be tucked (from the position of his rump and prior photos).
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
  • Charlie is behind Ryder and is moving away – he is increasing the distance between himself and Ryder
  • Ryder moves his head to his right and slightly down (following Charlie) while doing a tongue flick (his tongue goes in and out very quickly – a self-soothing behavior)
  • Rixa moves her head to the left and up (toward Charlie) and extends her neck toward Charlie.
  • Charlie has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Ryder and continues to cower. His tail appears to be tucked.
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
  • Charlie is almost behind Ryder.
  • Ryder moves his head to the left (following Charlie)
  • Rixa moves her head to the left and down (toward Charlie) and extends her neck toward Charlie.
  • Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Ry.der and is in a bit of a cower. Cowering: Charlie’s neck and back are level. his tail is tucked
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
Rixa and Ryder, focus on Charlie, not Louise
  • Charlie has passed Ryder.
  • Ryder moves his head to the right slightly (following Charlie)
  • Rixa moves her head to the right (toward Charlie) and tilts her head toward Charlie.
  • Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Rixa. Charlie is not cowering at this point. His tail is low medium – at a 45 degree angle. This information indicates that while he is in the caution zone he is transitioning away from caution toward the green zone- Life’s Good (a happy place). My next post will be about the zones – first you need to understand how to read the body language before you can place the animal in a zone.
Charlie walks past Rixa. Who is more concerned – Rixa or Charlie?
  • Charlie is almost past Rixa.
  • Ryder moves his head to the right (following Charlie)
  • Rixa moves her head to the right and down (following Charlie).Did you notice that Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Rixa and is not cowering. Compare this photo of Charlie’s head, neck, back and rear to the others and you will see the difference in his body language. You may wonder why is there a difference. Often it is due to more distance between dogs.
Look at steady Rixa and Ryder are sitting - it is beautiful. They are clearly focused on Louise.
Look at steady Rixa and Ryder are sitting – it is beautiful. They are clearly focused on Louise.
  • Charlie has walked out of the photo and away from Rixa and Ryder
  • Rixa’s focus is back on Louise
  • Ryder’s focus is back on Louise

Definitions:
Cower: Head and Neck are level with the back
Tongue Flick: tongue goes in and out very quickly

dog bite prevention

 

We may not always realize why our dog is distracted and is unable to paying attention to us. We may think that our dog should be giving us his or her undivided attention. When our dog is distracted there is often a logical explanation. Our job is to find the reason and help our dog do the job we want him to do. Oh – don’t forget to have fun in the process!

How do we keep track of all of this? It looks so easy when someone else does it so here are a couple of forms to help you get started. If you want to ask questions along the way feel free to post here or on my Facebook page.

A completed form for you to use as a guide when you fill observe your animals

 

 

A chart that explains the questions you need to consider when observing animals. You may not have the answers to each question, but you want to consider each question when you observe your animal.

observation-log_exmpl_revisedobservation-log_information

A practice quide – there aren’t any “right” or “wrong” answers here… just take a few minutes and think about what you observe in the illustrations and which zone your might place the animal in for the scenario you created. You can create multiple scenarios – how does that effect the zone placement? It is fun to see how each scenario influences the zone.observation-log_practice

A blank form for you to use with your own dogs or clients

observation-log_blank

Once you become proficient at observing animals you won’t need the reminders of Head, Body, Rear, etc.

hugs and woofs

Charlie’s Facial Expressions and Unimaginable Joy

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live with a blind dog? Charlie was only a puppy when I was told that he needed both of his eyes removed. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to read his facial expressions. Trust me, I was worried for no reason! Charlie is one of the most expressive dogs I’ve ever met.

charlie-ncsu-vs-ted-4a

Charlie was at the North Carolina State University in this photo. He was a participant in a research study. After he completed the study I met some of the research team that reviewed the photos from the project. These members of the team were not present during the testing. They told me that he was so happy which made his smile so big that his eyes were shut! I laughed and said “Yup, that’s my Charlie! He shares unimaginable joy everywhere he goes. But, his smile didn’t shut his eyes. His eyes are sewn shut because he eyes were removed due to complications from blindness…” The professor said he learned that after he reviewed the photos of Charlie, but it wasn’t the his first impression of the dog. I find this interesting because it often happens when Charlie meets new people.

char faces-8

Let me introduce you to puppy Charlie. When I learned he was losing his eyes I thought of the Velveteen Rabbit. In case you don’t the story there is a quote that reminds me of Charlie.

velveteen rabbit

Charlie is very Real and incredibly beautiful. He is resilient and doesn’t easily break. He has taught me much over the years. He sees with his heart and soul. When people meet him they know that he sees them even though he has no eyes. It is a wonderful thing.

It took two different procedures to remove both eyes because there were complications after the first procedure. Charlie was a trooper and in this photo he is on the road to recovery after the surgery. You can tell he was a little wary here as the photo portrays one of Charlie’s more serious moments. This serious pup grew up to be very joyful.

Look at his face – my goodness! He is one of the most expressive dogs I know. Well, he is a beagle and isn’t shy about letting you know what he is feeling! In the photo Charlie is about 10 years old and is sharing his unimaginable joy. I am so thankful for his joy.

One of Charlie’s favorite things to do is the “Snoopy Dance!” Yup – up on his back legs … he stands to dance and he smiles a big goofy smile the entire time … it is a sight to behold when a dog with no eyes is dancing on two feet and laughing at the same time. He knows he will earn some sort of fabulous reward for this trick.

Charlie's official Pets At Duke

Charlie’s head tilt … everyone adores the head tilt. This is Charlie’s camera pose. If you say “Charlie, 1-2-3” he will stop, sit (or lay down) and tilt his head. You need to take the photo on 2, but keep counting to 3. Thank you Kristy for teaching Charlie this trick! Charlie was my active Pet Partner for 8 years and had a lot of photos taken during that time. The camera pose trick served us well. This is Charlie’s official Pets At Duke photo – thank you Diane Lewis Photography for this and many other amazing photos!

Don’t be fooled – the boy can get down and dirty. Somehow I think he is part duck because he almost never is muddy. However, one day he came inside so full of mud. He seemed so proud of himself for being so muddy, that I had to document his muddiness! Notice the ears – they are flipped back. I think the flipped back ears help him cool off, but they can also be a sign of arousal…

How did I ever think that a dog with no eyes would have a face that didn’t have expressions? Between his eyebrows, mouth, and ears there is a ton of information! (the flipped back ear in this case is arousal)

Charlies journey-29

After a hard day’s work even Charlie gets tired and needs to go to bed! This photo is from his early years. You can tell he is younger because his face has ticking showing so he was between 1 and 2 years old.

Thanksgiving Dogs-15

One of Charlie’s favorite things – to sit on my lap and help me work. I find this photo fascinating because it is like Charlie is watching himself on the computer… only how can he? The photo demonstrates why people ask me “are you sure he isn’t faking being blind?” I know, the dog has no eyes, nothing connected to his optic nerve and yet people want to know if he is faking it… I’m tempted to ask them “what color is George Washington’s white horse?” Yes, he is blind … he just doesn’t need his eyes to see.

Charlie may be getting older but he doesn’t let that slow him down. He doesn’t let a little thing like the weather slow him down. If there was a thought bubble over his head it might be something like “what, you think a little snow is going to stop me? I’m blind. I might older, but I can still get around… I like snow. Let me play. Stop taking my picture already!” You need a Jersey or maybe Brooklyn accent in there too. And did you notice… head tilt…. what do you think – does he always tilt his head the same direction?

char faces-5

Happiness!! More of Charlie’s unimaginable joy.
We all need unimaginable joy in our lives.

char faces-6

Charlie is on the beach. His head is lifted into the wind, feeling the breeze and smelling all the things that a beagle can smell.  Sheer bliss… He might not be showing unimaginable  joy in the form of the Snoopy Dance or giving you a goofy grin… but this face, this is his bliss face. He loves the beach. I’m not sure if it is because he likes the water (he does) or if it is because he likes the variety of stinky smells! He loves smelling dead fish, all things about birds, people cooking out. You name it he can identify the smells. He can tell you exactly where it is coming from and more importantly where he might snag a tasty treat! If you happen to go to the beach with Charlie – you had better safeguard your burgers!
char faces-13

Charlie with a chin over Ella … Charlie and Ella are best buds and snuggle together all the time. The fact that they are looking in different directions could be that each dog finds different things distracting. This photo was taken on the main traffic circle at Duke on a Sunday morning. There were several cars that kept driving around the traffic circle watching as I took a series of photos which I found distracting. I can only imagine what the dogs thought! Charlie “watched” the cars go round and round!

char-faces-11

Charlie still has the smile… and unimaginable  joy… and can make you feel special just by being near you. I still get requests for visits with him, but he is retired and has earned the right to be a couch potato, prowl for critters in the back yard, open all the kitchen cabinet doors (and climb inside) and howl at strange sounds.

Charlie’s parting thoughts are for you to find your own unimaginable joy. The list below are some of things that are Charlie’s happiness which is why he wants you to know that you should feel free to add whatever it is that makes you feel unimaginable joy.

charlies-wisdom