Show Me The Love! Read Me!

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, dogs are able to read and interpret human body language and facial expressions really well.  But can humans understand their dogs?  Study your dog’s behavior. Pay close attention. Learn to read what he’s trying to tell you. You don’t want to confuse cues, no matter how subtle, or worse, misinterpret the message he’s sending. For example, when it comes to doggy body language, excitement in not a synonym for happiness. A happy dog wags its tail, correct?  But tail wagging does not always mean that a dog is happy. Dogs wag their tail because they are excited. They can be excited because they are about to give chase to a rabbit or because they are about to fight with another dog. Thus, a tail wag is merely a sign of excitement that must be taken into account along with other body language when interpreting its meaning. Furthermore, an enthusiastic dog is not necessarily out of control, though many out-of-control dogs may just seem overly enthusiastic. And don’t confuse growling with aggression. While growling can be a precursor to aggression, it is really just a form of communication that does not always escalate. As a matter of fact, many times a dog growls to avoid any further conflict. It is a warning; it is your cue to take control of a situation. If you scold a dog every time he growls, you will take away an important form of communication. Allow your dog to communicate and pay attentionso that you learn how to appropriately respond to what he is telling you. Try to take all his behavior into account when determining his state of mind.

You’ll be happy to know that science has proven that you can tell what your dog is feeling by merely looking at his facial expression. Yes, it’s true. Most people, whether dog owners or not, are able to accurately determine facial expressions in dogs.

In a study from Minneapolis’s Walden University published in the Journal of Behavioral Processes, Dr. Tina Bloom, Professor Harris Friedman, and their researchers showed photographs to 50 volunteers. The photographs were of a five-year-old Belgian Shepherd named Mal. They triggered different expressions in the dog by talking to him, praising him, reprimanding him, and so forth. They photographed each response to capture his expressions of happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger. They then showed the photos to volunteers, who’d been separated into two groups depending on their dog experience. 88% of the volunteers correctly identified happiness. 70% correctly identified anger. 45% percent knew when he was frightened. 37% percent were able to detect his sadness. It seems the toughest expressions for the volunteers to identify were surprise (20%) and disgust (13%).

Dr. Bloom and Prof. Harris noticed that people with less dog experience were actually better at spotting canine disgust and anger. They theorized that this could be because dog owners convinced themselves that their dog was not aggressive, and therefore associated those facial expressions with play. The researchers believe that the reason the inexperienced volunteers were better able to judge the dog’s emotions is that this ability comes naturally to humans; it is not a learned skill.

If your dog constantly looks nervous or worried, go look in the mirror; you might actually be the culprit. In a recent study of 132 dogs and their owners, the amount of the stress hormone cortisol was measured in both humans and canines. The dogs with owners who scored high in neuroticism had low variability in their cortisol. This means that these dogs were less likely to be able to deal with stress. On the other hand, the dogs with owners who scored high in agreeableness had greater variability in their cortisol response, meaning these dogs were more equipped to cope with stressful situations. Interestingly, male dogs with female owners are normally less sociable and relaxed than male dogs with male owners. I’m guessing the reason for this is that perhaps human males are less worried about their surroundings in general, thus, so are their dogs. Seriously, think about it. When was the last time the man in your life was worried about the lack of a clean kitchen sink? It’s fascinating how little men can worry about the fact that there are no groceries in the fridge or that the laundry basket is overflowing. I know that type of stuff drives mom over the edge. Thankfully, I take after dad. Back to the study, the researchers surmised that how the dog owner reacts to a given situation can shape the personality and behavior of their dog, especially when the dog is exposed to that reaction over time. So from now on, make sure you approach each day and each situation with a glass-half-full, optimistic personality and your dog will do the same. Then, once you’ve both achieved that laissez-faire attitude, you can take that half-full glass, fill it to the rim, and enjoy it while the two of you watch 101 Dalmatians for the umpteenth time.