Something I’ve been musing about lately: Dogs who misinterpret other dogs’ body language.
There’s so much talk about dog body language and calming signals that I think it’s easy for me to forget that sometimes dogs can actually misread each other. In general, yes, dogs are excellent at reading other dogs’ body language and what postures, looks, ears, tails, and mouths communicate. But sometimes, I’ve found, dogs can get each other wrong.
There are a few examples I’ve seen in our household.
1: As in the photo above, Pyrrha is doing her morning stretches, but Eden thinks they are play bows. It’s easy to see how Eden could think the stretches are invitations to play; both postures have a very similar shape. But in the photo above, I can tell that Pyrrha isn’t asking Eden to play. She’s just stretching out after being in her crate; she’s not facing Eden or engaging with her directly.
2: Pyrrha kicks up dirt after she urinates or defecates, and Eden thinks this is an aggressive challenge. This is kind of a weird one, because I haven’t walked dogs who reacted this way before. Pyrrha occasionally kicks up dirt and grass after she pees, like a terrier, and Eden almost always reads this as if Pyrrha were a bull rooting up the ground in preparation for a tussle. Edie gets anxious when Pyrrha does this, and often barks at her, as if to say, “I’m watching you! I’m ready to rumble!” They don’t fight, because clearly, Pyrrha has no aggressive intentions, and so Eden then figures out, a second later, that she misinterpreted the situation. But it makes me grin every time.
3: Pyrrha meets a dog whose eyes are concealed and thinks this dog is suspicious and possibly aggressive. Even if the dog is fairly relaxed (like Adelaide, pictured above), Pyrrha cannot seem to read the rest of her body language and is only concerned about the lack of eye contact. To be fair to Pyrrha, Adelaide is very disadvantaged in the canine communication department. She has no tail; fur covers her eyes; her ears are drooped; and she is all black. It is difficult to discern that she is, indeed, a dog!
With Pyrrha’s reactivity to other dogs on leash, she is somewhat selective about the dogs she reacts to. If she meets wiggly, friendly puppies, she is unlikely to have an outburst. But if she walks past a dog who is very still or watching her (or, God forbid, barking), all bets are off. Even if this latter set of dogs are not really aggressive or protective, Pyrrha can’t take even the slightest hint of tension in body language — and erupts.
As with Adelaide, I feel like this misinterpretation often happens with dogs who have diminished normal canine body parts, e.g., docked ears or docked tails. A dog who doesn’t have a tail can have a much harder time communicating with other dogs, and likewise, other dogs can have a much harder time reading them. My childhood Aussie, for example, was often read as an aggressive dog by other dogs, because she lacked a tail. Similarly, dogs with very heavy, droopy ears can’t communicate much with them, and dogs with rigid, cropped ears may come across as being more aggressive than they actually feel.
Either way, it can be amusing and interesting to observe dogs mistaking body language signals from one another. Hopefully, this doesn’t happen too often with your dogs, but it is interesting to note when it does.
Have you ever seen this? Do your dogs ever misread each other or other dogs?