Reading dogs 8: Friendly dogs

How can we identify friendly dogs? Dogs express friendliness in the same ways from puppyhood to old age. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, above, is obviously pleased to see the photographer. Her eyes are open wide and her pupils appear to be dilated. (Cavaliers commonly show quite a bit of white around their irises; this is not a sign of stress for the breed.) The puppy’s face is unwrinkled and her ears hang lightly. Her open-mouth smile and the angle at which she tilts her head say that she’s happily paying attention.

Faces

I’ve discussed dogs’ eyes and mouths in earlier posts, but it’s worth repeating that we expect a happy dog to have relaxed eyes and facial features. Dogs usually smile with their mouths open, showing their tongues and some teeth, but a closed mouth does not necessarily mean the dog is unhappy as long as the rest of the facial features and ears are calm.

friendly eyes
italo [ripartito] / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
friendly eyes
tanakawho / Foter / CC BY-NC
friendly eyes
Tambako the Jaguar / Foter / CC BY-ND

The dog on the left, in the photos, above, has placid, almond-shaped eyes, no facial or brow wrinkling and a gently open mouth. His ears are pricked forward slightly, showing his interest in the person he sees. The golden retriever, in the middle, is just plain happy. Her smile is easy, her eyes are almost half-closed, her face and brow are clear and her ears are relaxed. She seems to be a classic, happy golden who is pleased to see the one she’s looking at. The wolf, on the right, is also in a friendly mood. As with the other two canids’, the skin around his eyes is smooth and we see no signs of stress on his face. His ears are attentively erect, but not straining in any direction. Though the photo is cropped, we can see that he’s standing up and holding his head level with or slightly below his spine–a relaxed position in harmony with his facial expression.1)This Mongolian wolf lives in a zoo in Zurich, Switzerland. While it is impossible to know for whom this wolf’s friendly expression is intended, it is important to note that captivity doesn’t deprive animals of pleasure. Tambako the Jaguar has photographed this wolf many times; he is an excellent photographer. I’ve learned a great deal from his photos and highly recommend following him on Flickr.

Head position

friendly walking
Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
friendly Saint
essgee51 / Foter / CC BY-NC
friendly old golden
pobby-dog / Foter / CC BY-NC

Like the wolf, the dogs in the three photos above portray easy, friendly body language. The old boy on the left is simply ambling along. His neck is level with his spine and he holds his head at ease, slightly below the crest of his shoulders. Relaxed ears, partly-open mouth and mellow eyes go along with the lack of tension in his shoulders. His tail is at half-mast and may even be waving gently as he walks. This powerfully-built fellow is self-confident, at ease where he is and likely happy to meet whomever he may as he walks along.

The Saint Bernard in the middle expresses precisely the same message as the dog on the left. Notice how his ears hang in exactly the same way and that his head is also in the same position relative to his spine.

While the other two dogs have been photographed in mid-stride, judging by her weight on her front legs, the rather wide angle between her back feet and her splayed toes, the golden retriever on the right, has just stopped walking. If she stays where she is, I would expect to see her to draw her hind legs a little closer together and relax her toes once she’s still. Nevertheless, despite the slightly awkward position, her body appears to be relaxed. Her ears are set just like the other two dogs’. Her tail is hanging low and may wag casually. Her eyes are at ease and that trademark golden retriever smile is full of welcome.

In the photo below, on the left, the retriever facing the camera is pleased to be greeting a friend. See how his head is level with his spine, his ears move easily as he walks, his eyes are tranquil and his mouth is open in a smile. Although we can’t read the facial expression of the white dog towards whom the retriever is walking, we can see that her head is only slightly higher than her backbone. Her ears are erect–this is a prick-eared dog–but are not stiffly turned forward, and what we can see of her body appears to be composed rather than tense or ready to spring. Indeed, her posture mirrors that of the oncoming retriever. Since mirroring is a sign of commonality between two dogs, I think it’s safe to conclude that she is also happy to be meeting her friend.

friendly meeting
pwill312 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
friendly pug
lordog / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The pug, above on the right, has completely lowered his body onto the ground as he meets the tortoise. Rather than looming over it, the pug is attempting to make himself look small and unthreatening. This version of “down” is one often used by a dog who wants to meet someone else and is signalling something like, “I want to meet you. I’m kind and friendly! You can come close if you want to.”2)Short-nosed dogs like pugs frequently attract aggressive behaviour from other dogs. This may be because their heavily wrinkled faces are less expressive and more difficult for other dogs to read. Their laboured breathing sounds may also cause dogs not familiar with their breed to feel anxious.

Lying down

People are sometimes frustrated when, while walking on a leash, their dog suddenly lies down, focusing on another dog some distance away who is coming directly toward them. When this happens, it is generally extremely difficult to convince a dog to get up until the oncoming dog has passed by. That may be what has happened in each of the photos, below.

friendly down
O.F.E. / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
friendly down
collectmoments / Foter / CC BY-ND

Lying down is not only polite, it is also the strongest calming signal3)See Rugaas, Turid. On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. 2nd ed. Wenatchee, Wash.: Dogwise Pub., 2006. Print. “Calming signals” are physical cues dogs use to defuse tension with other dogs and, often, to calm themselves, too. a dog can express. The important things to note are that the dogs have their bellies right down on the ground, their faces are relaxed and their bodies express patience rather than tension. They are not staring or making threatening displays. The “greeting down” is one way dogs declare that they have no interest in confrontation. The spaniel on the left is in a greeting down position, saying, in effect, “You can come close. I’m friendly.” She has turned her head to one side, adding, “I don’t want you to feel any pressure. You can ignore me if you like.” The basset hound on the right is portraying more confidence yet is also not making demands on the dog he sees. Many dogs offer these greeting downs when a significantly smaller dog is approaching, giving the impression that the dog doesn’t want the smaller one to feel intimidated. Sometimes dogs will perform the greeting down when a much larger dog is coming near, likely to forestall aggression or hostility from the larger dog.

Jumping up

Jumping up is also social behaviour and perfectly normal for puppies and dogs. When they are excited to see someone, jumping up to be near that person’s face replays young puppies’ behaviour with their mother. Puppies try to get close to their mother’s mouth and to lick her lips, causing her to disgorge food for them. When they grow older and are eating independently, the mouth-licking behaviour remains as a form of enthusiastic greeting.

Many people find it charming when a puppy jumps up on them, but when an older dog jumps up, it can be irritating at best and sometimes dangerous if the human is unbalanced by the dog or unable to walk forward because of it. Reprimanding the dog is not generally effective. The dog’s intention is good: in jumping up, the dog expresses affection and delight. To be scolded or punished at such a time is confusing and doesn’t teach her what you do want her to do instead.

jump up JRT pup
@TheDailyPuppy
jump up JRT
K. W. Sanders / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The best way to teach a puppy or a dog not to jump up is to teach an incompatible behaviour–something the dog can’t do if she is jumping up. Requiring the dog to sit before being greeted works for many people. It’s often helpful to have a treat in your hand; give it to the dog only when she is sitting or at least has all four feet on the floor. Another option is to toss a few treats on the floor a few feet away to distract the puppy or dog from jumping up.

 

Next: Reading dogs 9: Playing and chasing

References   [ + ]

1. This Mongolian wolf lives in a zoo in Zurich, Switzerland. While it is impossible to know for whom this wolf’s friendly expression is intended, it is important to note that captivity doesn’t deprive animals of pleasure. Tambako the Jaguar has photographed this wolf many times; he is an excellent photographer. I’ve learned a great deal from his photos and highly recommend following him on Flickr.
2. Short-nosed dogs like pugs frequently attract aggressive behaviour from other dogs. This may be because their heavily wrinkled faces are less expressive and more difficult for other dogs to read. Their laboured breathing sounds may also cause dogs not familiar with their breed to feel anxious.
3. See Rugaas, Turid. On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. 2nd ed. Wenatchee, Wash.: Dogwise Pub., 2006. Print. “Calming signals” are physical cues dogs use to defuse tension with other dogs and, often, to calm themselves, too.