Deer, Dogs, and Body Language

deer portrait smallMy husband and I just returned from a trip to Ireland, where I was teaching a weekend seminar. We stayed three extra days and absolutely loved the country. We met some wonderful people, saw some beautiful scenery, and even danced to Irish music at a non-tourist bar. I would have happily danced the hornpipe all night had the band not quit at midnight! But one of the highlights of our trip had to be feeding the deer in Phoenix Park.

The park, which was close to our hotel in Dublin, is the largest in Europe. It’s home to a variety of wildlife including many deer who roam the park freely. There are wild ones, who are naturally skittish around humans, and then there’s a herd who have become conditioned to people. These tamer deer congregate around the park’s hospital at lunch and tea times and are used to being hand fed. Armed with carrots and apples, courtesy of our fabulous self-appointed tour guides Denise O’Moore and Mike Ho, we set out in search of deer.

The first deer we encountered were in a herd of twenty or so, who were moving nervously away from a pair of tourists who were trying to approach them. The husband hung back while the woman walked straight toward them, arm outstretched, food in hand. The deer wanted nothing to do with it. Finally, they left. Denise and Mike tossed some apple pieces a short distance from us to draw the deer closer. Once the deer had come closer, I crouched, turned sideways, averted my gaze, and extended a carrot toward a large male. I know nothing about deer, but figured that keeping my body language non-threatening, just as I would with a dog, could only help. Happily, like a dog who is nervous but wants treats, the deer approached and cautiously ate from my hand. To be perfectly honest, I had a bit of a moment when, from my low vantage point, I saw most of the herd coming toward me. I’m a lot more comfortable with wolves and dogs than I am with hoofstock, and these guys had some pretty big antlers. But we seemed to understand each other, and I was able to feed them for a while. Later, we all ended up feeding the tamer deer at the hospital, which was great fun and much easier; but feeding that one wild deer was the highlight for me.

Wild deer.

Wild deer.

Tame deer. Pretty sure I was singing to it here.

Tame deer. Pretty sure I was singing to this one.

Back at the L.A. airport, while waiting for our bags (which ended up being delayed a day since they apparently went sightseeing in Boston where we changed planes), I noticed a woman with an adorable LWFD. Yes, it’s an official breed, or should be—the Little White Fluffy Dog. A man was petting the dog. I hadn’t seen him approach the dog, but I did see the dog moving uncomfortably away, licking his lips, looking away, and developing a sudden itch that was most likely attributable to stress. A short while later, still waiting for our bags, I asked if I could pet the dog. After getting permission, I did pretty much what I did with the deer, with the added high-pitched verbal silliness that comes from being away from one’s own dogs for a week. The dog jumped on me as though I was his long-lost friend, wriggling from head to toe, wagging his tail wildly. “Well, he certainly likes you,” remarked the woman.

So did the dog and deer react the way they did because I’m special, or because I have magical powers? As much as I’d love to believe the answers are yes and yes, the truth is, it’s all about body language. Whether the being is a predator or prey animal, humans still present a potential threat. But as anyone who works around wildlife knows, there’s still a lot we can do to display non-threatening body language. Although what’s effective may vary with species, putting animals at ease has a lot to do with moving slowly and projecting calm energy. Although some people seem to have a natural way with animals, knowledge, experience and practice certainly help. Music may be the universal language, but across many species, body language and intent is intuitively understood as well. And how magical is that?


8 Responses to Deer, Dogs, and Body Language

  1. Great post! Definitely agree with you!

  2. ragtimelil says:

    Good post, but one thing I’ve learned from my goats and sheep is that crouching down makes them think you are going to pounce. A fellow who raised elk agreed with me. Everything else works fine.

    • wildewmn says:

      Interesting. I don’t claim to know much about hoofstock, but I’m thinking that since they did approach, they were able to differentiate the sideways position from one in which I would actually be able to spring at them. I will keep this in mind if I encounter other hoof stock though, thank you!

  3. Natasha says:

    Nice, thank you, and great pics. Though I would say “shy deer” and “bolder deer.” As you said earlier, some have become more conditioned to direct contact with people.

  4. Anu says:

    Loved this story! How thrilling that must have been to hand feed a wild animal who trusted you enough to do so! Gorgeous pictures, too!

  5. Jennifer says:

    I have a fearful Kelpie, and I’ll often have people ask if they can pet him (even if he’s barking and lunging!). My response usually depends on the person and what I pick up from their body language when they look at Blazer or how they speak to me. The petting usually ends up being more for them than a desensitization and counter conditioning exercise for him.

    But one day a couple a weeks ago, I had a gentleman quietly ask about Blazer. After asking me a couple questions, he asked if he could interact with him (that alone floored me… interact!). I told him if he crouched and didn’t make eye contact, he could.

    His response? “Ah, like a wolf.”

    My husband and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

    He *slowly* (that’s key) crouched down, not looking at Blazer at all, and within seconds, Blazer was kissing this man’s arm up and down, and even kissed his face. The man gently pet him under his chin and around his neck and never once moved toward his back.

    After he was finished, he slowly stood back up and told us about how wolves were sensitive and needed to be worked with a soft hand and Blazer was just like that (again, Rob and I looked at each other). He also told us he was good with dogs.

    I said, “If I had a dollar for every person who *said* he was good with dogs…”

    He laughed quietly (I loved how our whole discussion was quiet) and said, “Good point.”

    He thanked us for visiting and off he went.

    I thought about you the whole time we had that experience. It *finally*, after a year and a half of having Blazer, showed me that it’s not necessarily Blazer’s issue when he’s meeting strangers. I had never seen him warm up to someone so quickly, and now I know he can. His reaction was identical to the LWFD’s to you (to segue back to your post).

    Amazing what a little knowledge can bring out of someone.

    • wildewmn says:

      Jennifer, I love this story! Don’t you love it when you encounter someone who’s respectful of an animals’ space and feelings, and knows how to approach them? Encounters like this give me hope. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

      • Jennifer says:

        It’s so easy to focus on the bad experiences that we have (like the one you wrote about recently), but the good ones are so rewarding that it teaches you the bad ones don’t matter (at least to the degree that they make us feel when they occur).

        People like that are hard to find, but my hope is that they’ll become easier and easier to unearth. Though I consider myself immensely lucky with just that one.

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