Do your dogs ever misread each other?

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.

Snow dog yoga. #snowday #germanshepherds #charlottesville
Edie thinks, “This looks like an invitation to play to me!”

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.

Christmas 2013
Are you a dog? I can’t tell!

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?


6 thoughts on “Do your dogs ever misread each other?

  1. Interesting. Now that you point it out, Oz is the same way on leash as Pyrrha when the other dog “lacks” something to communicate with like a tail. Now, how do we teach our dogs not to overreact to that? That is the big question! Great post!
    Gina (and Oz)

  2. Interesting! Kaya & Norman have never misread each other but they have both missed cues from other dogs. Norman is often apprehensive when he doesn’t need to be because he has been attacked in the past. He often stops and stares when he sees a dog, as you’ve pointed out this would be a trigger to a reactive dog and looks intimidating but I know he is thinking, I want to greet you, but I’m not sure it’s okay. Whether the dog is friendly or not, I get his attention and either walk on or show him the dog is friendly by approaching first.

    And Kaya tends to be overbearing in greetings and doesn’t realize when she overwhelming the dog, luckily she’s very obedient so I can tell her when it’s too much and she’ll back off right away. These are off leash situations though. We never greet leashed dogs.

  3. Our dog Tino was blind and the poor guy, yes he had a hard time reading the signals. Luckily he had many years of living with our dog Sally – like an old married couple they were fine, but then Sally died and we adopted a new dog, SHE had a hard time with Tino. He had no sense of personal space and would walk into her or over her bed all the time. Luckily she was as mellow as they come, but there were a few tense moments.

  4. My Bruce, who can be a neurotic jerk, sometimes responds to Neeko and Faolan’s play invitations in a grumpy manner, which makes no sense to me.

    My girl (and both boys) do the paw marking/kicking thing after using the restroom as well. My boys both see it as a reason to go pee exactly where the other one just did.

    I have read some interesting articles regarding how we have confused dogs by removing their parts which display emotion. Meaning dogs with cropped ears and tails are often misread by other dogs. Very interesting and thought provoking post.

  5. Very interesting! I’ve read and witnessed lots about how dogs with docked tails and cropped ears can be prone to miscommunication/being misunderstood by other dogs.

    I think for Moses and Alma, that they don’t so much as “misread” as they just ignore and disregard. Say, for example, a smaller dog is a bit nervous about meeting them and is showing pretty clear – even to me – signs of discomfort (lip licking, whale eye, tucked tail or sitting down), they might go for a less intense butt sniff than face-to-face greeting, but I’ve also seen them satisfy their curiosity about the dog before moving on (even if it’s quicker than it would be with a relaxed dog). I don’t think they are misreading the signals; I think they just don’t care that the other dog is uncomfortable.

    Though, what they definitely do is misread our cats’ body language – or they read it correctly as a dog would, but not as the cat intends. Alma thinks a stretch means playtime, and, for the cats, it definitely does NOT!

  6. I really think that a large part of Lucas’ on-leash issues are his inability to give and understand appropriate cues. One of the first trainers we ever worked with on his aggression pointed out in the first session that he is very rude with his signals, which other dogs react to, then he reacts back. Likewise, he often mistakes back-off signals for play (like, when Coop turns his body and averts his eyes from Lucas, Lucas thinks, “Oh! I know! I’ll go put his neck in my mouth!” Sigh.) Maybe Pyr just struggles with understanding/giving cues, too?

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