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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dog body language

A post yesterday at Champion of my Heart inspired me to take my camera to a dog training class today. I took a lot of photos hoping to capture some key moments of dog communication. I need to spend some time going through them in detail but one sequence caught my attention. I've added my interpretations but I'd be very interested to hear what others think.

Knowing a little about K will help. She's been a nervous dog for most of her life. Until last summer, she wouldn't play much during free time in dog class. Rather, she'd hover near me and look nervous. Then, we discovered that she had very low levels of thyroid hormone and began supplementing it. Her behavior changed remarkably. She now interacts with other dogs and people during free time in training class although she still checks in with me much more often than most dogs do.

In the photo series below, I'm focused on three dogs who are loose in a dog park during free time at the start of training class. It involves: K, the chocolate lab; a Bernese Mountain Dog whom we don't know (he wasn't part of the class); and a black poodle who is less than a year old.

In the first photo, the three of them have been in this orientation for about 5 seconds (I have a series of rapid-fire photos taken at a rate of several per second). Notice that the Bernese is facing away, and K is sniffing his hindquarters.

Three seconds later, the Bernese has spun around to face K, and his tail is very high. K has also re-oriented herself so her body is sideways relative to the Bernese. I think that she's making herself seem nonthreatening by not facing her body toward the Bernese, keeping her wagging tail low, and 'curling' her body shape. Note that K's ears are back, suggesting to me that she's nervous.

One measly second later, K has her head and tail low. Now, even her head is oriented away from the Bernese. K is starting to lift her left front paw (possibly a calming signal to try to cool off a scary situation or it could be the first step of her coming flight). The Bernese is sniffing her privates - his posture almost looks like a play bow but I think that it's not. It's simply a result of the Bernese's sniffing. K has also lifted her right rear leg which makes the Bernese's sniffing easier - I think that it looks like a very submissive gesture by K.

One more second later, K has begun to gallop away while shaking off at the same time (note the funny ear position). I think that her 'shake off' is related to the stressful situation. The Bernese's tail is still high, and he's taken the first step in chasing K. His posture looks assertive. In the following seconds, he took a couple of steps following K and then stopped.
What do you think about this interaction? I'd be very interested to hear if other people see different dynamics at work.

I was happy that this 'scary' interaction didn't affect K at all for the rest of class. She acted confident during the training exercises and during the play breaks. Below, we're working on 'stay' and 'leave it' at the same time. She's not allowed to eat the treats that are on her forelimbs or take the ball unless I offer them to her, which I did periodically over a 5 minute period. She looks happy and relaxed to me. She's panting because of the very warm sun.

The dramatic effects of low thyroid levels on behavior don't seem to be well known. I'm so glad that we have a vet who stays up-to-date on the literature and recognized K's low thyroid symptoms even though they weren't classic. They involved a spate of infections, a 'sad' looking face, and lack of confidence. Once we adjusted her supplements correctly, she became a much happier dog!

1 comment:

  1. I see the same things you do. It looks to me like she handled it well, and at least the Bernese got the hint and didn't pursue. Interesting, though, how the poodle pretty much stays out of it.


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