Sunday, March 9, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Aditi Terpstra on Canine Body Language

Aditi’s second presentation of the day was on canine body language. Most of this was review for me, but there were two things that I really liked about this presentation.

First, I really liked that Aditi put body language under the broader category of behavior, which she defines as “the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus.” Body language falls very neatly under that. Aditi also emphasized that behavior is a pretty broad spectrum, dependent on the individual animal. Obviously, genetics, previous experiences, and the current environment will all influence a dog’s behavior- and in this case, body language.

Second, I appreciated her emphasis on describing behavior (and body language) in objective terms. This means describing something without allowing it to be influenced by your own thoughts, feelings, prejudices, or interpretations. In other words, describing it so that a person could create an accurate mental picture of what happened. So, an objective description of a dog might say that the dog’s eyes were soft, his mouth was open, his tail down and wagging slowly, and his ears back. A subjective description- one in which we allow our own perceptions or opinions influence the words we use- might say the dog is happy.

Of course, we all know this is harder than it sounds. Saying a dog is happy is quicker and easier than describing all his body parts. Often, the subjective interpretation is enough, but there are times where we need to be objective. I would argue that as an instructor, I need to be especially mindful of this. After all, my job is to educate, and shorthand doesn’t do that very well.

The great thing about Aditi’s presentation was that she broke everything down into individual body parts and then gave us words we could use to describe each one. 

Eyes can be described by shape: are they soft? round? almond shaped? hard? Is there white showing? Are the muscles around the eyes relaxed or tense? The pupils can be described as normal (for the light conditions) or dilated. The movement of the eye can also be described: are the eyes fixed, direct, or staring? Are they darting back and forth?

The dog’s mouth can likewise be described. It could be open with relaxed muscles. The lip may be “long” or curved up in a “smile.” Or, it may be drawn forward or curled back, possibly exposing teeth and gums. There may be tension or wrinkles around the mouth. A dog can yawn or lick his lips.

Ears change quickly and can be difficult to read because there are so many sizes and shapes of a dog’s ears. Because of that, Aditi advised that we look at the base of the ears to determine if the ears are forward, back, or off to the side. They may be tense or relaxed.

Tails are likewise difficult. Again, looking at the base can be helpful. Is the tail still or wagging? Is it held in a neutral position (at spine level), held high, or low and tucked? The wag could be slow and loose, or tight and fast.

Finally, you have to put all of this together and take in the full picture. Is the dog’s overall movement slow and “sleepy” looking? Is he moving quickly and appearing frantic? Is his posture upright? Forward? Back? Are his paws all on the ground? Are they sweating? Is the dog avoiding you? Is he sniffing the ground, shaking his full body, or rolling over to expose his belling? Is the hair flat on his back or the hackles up? Does he look away from other dogs or offer play bows?

Sometimes, body language can be conflicted. This makes things a bit more difficult to read, but keep in mind that body language is fluid and can change moment to moment, so keep watching and describing. It is likely that things will come together and make more sense as you do. 

Okay, gang... here's a (hilarious) action shot of Pyg and Napi. What do you see?


1 comment:

Nina Worthe said...

I'm not good at expressing canine body language in words yet, but I'll try, so that I can get better with practice.

I see what at first glance looks a bit like an attack, but when you look more closely, is play.

Both dogs have relaxed mouths, and their eyes don't show any whites. Overall their bodies are loose, and Pyg's tail seems to be wagging in broad sweeps (this may also be balancing out a previous motion, but I think it's wagging).

Most telling for me is Pyg's mouth. His 'lips' are far forward, and his teeth aren't bared - he's not biting, he's sort of bashing him with his mouth.

I expect Napi 'bit' him right back the next moment, maybe with some wrestling or some chasing each other following up.

They're adorable!