Misreading Dogs

Have you ever been in a situation where you took something someone said the wrong way? What about misreading the expression on someone’s face, or their body language? Of course you have; it happens all the time. Although we intuitively understand the facial expressions and body language of others, the simple fact is, now and then we make mistakes. Fortunately, a straightforward conversation can usually clear up the confusion.

But what about reading dogs? Sure, we understand basic canine body language, and we know for the most part what a dog’s expressions and behaviors indicate. But it’s possible for everyone from the greenest dog owner to the most experienced trainer or behavior expert to make mistakes. Dogs are, after all, living creatures; it’s not like reading a temperature gauge or taking a pulse, where the answer is measurable and finite.

I remember once being at the computer when Bodhi came over, sat down, and gave me a meaningful look—you know, the one that can bore holes into your skull. Busy with my work, and assuming he was just bored and pestering me for attention, I told him repeatedly, “Not now.” Imagine how badly I felt when I finally left my office to find that his water dish was empty and probably had been for some time, especially after the bully stick I’d given him 30 minutes before had made him oh so thirsty.

Things can get dicier when we misread our dogs in situations that involve other dogs or people, especially if our dogs aren’t comfortable in those situations. Missing a subtle stress signal or a split-second flash of a mannerism can mean we don’t remove the dog from a situation quickly enough and, as a result, a more serious interaction occurs. This point was driven home recently, as I’ve been preparing a new seminar that includes half a day on dog-dog play. It’s extremely video-intensive, and the process of assessing all that video has been very educational. There is no way our eyes and brains can process all the nuances of play and communication between dogs; it just happens too fast. It really did blow my mind to see, during the slow motion playback, just how much I had missed. I bet that slow motion playback will open a lot of attendees’ eyes during the seminar as well.

Fortunately, completely misreading our own dogs doesn’t happen very often if we are tuned in to them. What I see more often is strangers misreading my dogs. “Oh, look, your dog wants to play.” No, my dog is stalking your dog, who apparently looks like lunch. Or the infamous, “All dogs love me” as the person approaches, even as you step in front of your dog to block any further interaction. It’s obvious to most that your dog does not love everybody, but some folks just seem to waft along in a cloud of blissful ignorance.

When others misread our dogs, we can step up and be our dogs’ advocates, their protectors. When we misread them…well, we can always do better the next time, and that means staying open to the possibility that our dogs’ intentions or behaviors may not always be what we perceive them to be. It means we continue our own ongoing education by being in the moment and practicing close observation of the amazing, nuanced signals and communication that is the language of dogs.

9 Responses to Misreading Dogs

  1. Kristy LeBlanc says:

    “some folks just seem to waft along in a cloud of blissful ignorance” – We had a lady like that at the wolf sanctuary. She felt like she had a special connection to the animals, so she flat out ignored their body language… her access to the animals has now been restricted.

  2. As a person working in the animal industry – people get upset when I initially ignore their animals. They seem to think I should immediatly start interacting with them because of my profession (a veterinary nurse in Australia – know as Vet Techs in the USA), I should have an instant repore with them. They don’t get my explanation that I am giving the animal the respect it deserves by allowing it to decide whether to interact with me, rather than forcing my attentions on them.

  3. Robin says:

    Yes, I have made some mistakes! It taught me something each time and I like to think I have gotten better at reading dogs as a result of my mistakes. No major damage occurred so it was worth it.

  4. Jim Crosby says:

    Great post-and perfect illustration of why I am always less then impressed by “trainers” who claim to “work with aggressive dogs” that then show off their bite scars as if they are badges of honor. A bite is a mistake by the trainer, and any bite can be a death sentence for a dog.

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  6. I love your encouraging point about how “We can always do better the next time.” There’s always more to learn, isn’t there?

  7. PawsitivelyTraining says:

    My OH has a friend like that; “”Inka just needs to come for a walk with my and my three dogs, he’ll love me after that!”

    No. No he does not and no he will not. He has anxieties around men, especially tall men – which you are. And he has issues with other dogs, he can also be very forward & has only recently remembered the more obvious canine language signals (e.g. barred teeth & snapping!). Plus he’s not castrated, and you wouldn’t keep him on a lead or long line. Plus he is obsessed with tiny dogs and you wouldn’t know what to do when he got obsessed.


  8. Tegan says:

    A big one for me is all the photos I see where the dog is looking away… Often with the comment, “I couldn’t get Tess to look at the camera!” Tess was displaying a calming/stress signal because she didn’t like your probing manner with the camera. It’s not coincidental. Your dog was stressed. Same goes with licking-lip pictures or yawning pictures. Makes my skin crawl!

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