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?


How to introduce unfamiliar dogs

As you know, we have learned the hard way from some dog-to-dog introductions (see Rainer attacking potential adopter’s dog) that introducing strange dogs to each other is a very important and delicate process.

Heath and Loki
Young bros Heath and Loki sizing each other up.

Most of you probably have already heard these tips before, but here are some of the things I’ve had to remind myself of, repeatedly, when introducing dogs to each other.

Calm yourself first

Especially after the Rainer incident and seeing how badly introductions can go, I get SO nervous about new dogs meeting. Pyrrha, obviously, picks up on this, and this only ratchets up her anxiety. The big thing I’ve had to teach myself, every time, is to slow down, BREATHE, and loosen up. I close my eyes for a second, I take deep breaths, I loosen my posture and my grip on the leash (not entirely, but so that Pyrrha isn’t feeling any tension on her harness or collar). Dogs reflect our moods and study the nuances of our body language so much more than we even realize. Putting myself in a calm state is always the first thing I have to do when introducing new dogs.

Truly “neutral” ground is hard to find

All of the advice you read says to let the dogs meet on “neutral territory,” but I’ve found that this is quite difficult. Fosters are often just dropped off at our house, and even if we went to a nearby park, there’s still the possibility that Pyrrha would see that as “her” territory. Thankfully, Pyrrha has never shown signs of territorial protection/aggression (she is not very shepherd-y in that way), so our strategy has been to keep the dogs leashed and far apart in our spacious front yard, and then if that observational period/meeting goes well, we transition to the backyard and let them drag their leashes for a bit before unhooking them. Have you been able to find and utilize “neutral” ground when introducing new dogs?

Don’t try this alone

Always have another dog-savvy person help you! Particularly if you don’t know the dogs’ backgrounds (as if often the case with foster dogs who have come straight from the shelter). My husband is usually the one who helps me introduce our fosters to Pyrrha. Talk to your helper in advance about what your strategy is going to be (e.g., you walk that way, I’ll walk this way, and then we’ll see how they do, etc.).

Resist the urge to let them meet face-to-face

This is a hard one, and this is why the “walk apart from each other for a while” method is repeated. Most dogs are naturally going to pull you straight up to each other, and this is how the fights can start. I wasn’t sure how to pull off this “walking apart” business, but the best strategy I read seems to be to have one handler-dog pair walk in front of the other, kind of staggered, and then switch places, let the dogs sniff where the other dog has been, and carefully observe the next step:

Study that body language!

Brush up on the subtleties of canine body language, and watch for those calming signals (or, more importantly, the lack of calming signals). Be extremely wary of stiffened postures and hard stares. The slightest shift in a dog’s movement can signal a transition toward either play or fight mode.

Also: Don’t be afraid to tell the other handler what signals you’re noticing. I wish, wish, wish I had done this with the dog that Rainer attacked; I should have told his owner, “Your dog is giving Rainer a really hard stare. This probably isn’t a good idea.” But she couldn’t see that — and I couldn’t see what Rainer was doing. And so we ended up with a fairly serious dog fight. The dogs are already communicating with each other silently; as humans, we should remember to communicate with each other verbally about what we’re observing, otherwise we can both miss some pretty clear signals that the dogs are giving off.

Off-leash behavior vs. on-leash behavior

Once dogs have passed the on-leash greeting portion and seem to be amiable toward one another, I like to transition them into a spacious fenced area for them to be off leash together. As we know, leashes build tension, and dogs can really have the freedom to interact naturally with one another when the leashes are off. I like to let them drag the leads for just a few minutes once in the fence — in case something does escalate, we can intervene with more agency if a leash is still attached. But once things seem to be going smoothly, leashes come off, and we stand back and watch and let the dogs do their thing.

Play-date with Juniper
Juniper and Pyrrha. As you can see, this could have been tense, but Juniper is defusing Pyr by averting her gaze.

Online Resources

Break for some butt sniffing
Some good old-fashioned butt sniffing. (Pyrrha and Roland)

What have you learned from your experiences of introducing two unfamiliar dogs? Any helpful advice or wisdom you’d like to share?

New: Resource guide for shy, fearful dogs

Brokering a tentative peace
Our shy dogs, interacting. Check out those calming signals!

So. I’m realizing that volunteering for a German shepherd rescue means that shy dogs just come with the territory. This is probably true for most dog rescues, but GSDs are fairly well known for their sensitivity and predisposition to shyness (particularly if they’ve come from rough backgrounds).

That said, I’m also realizing how many of our potential adopters don’t really know what to do with shy dogs. I was this way myself when we adopted Pyrrha! I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Obviously, I’ve done lots of reading and research since, but Pyrrha is still a work in progress, just as I am. We both have lots to learn. To help myself and to help others with shy dogs or those adopting shy dogs, I’ve created a new resource page:

Living with Shy Dogs

This will be an active page, which I will add to from time to time, particularly as I hear from all of you about your favorite resources for fearful dogs. Feel free to share in the comments below!


He is happy to be back inside and home life has returned to a nice equilibrium, as much as we can maintain. As many of you have noted, Pyrrha is generally uncomfortable with Rainer being here (see her body language above), but they have brokered a tentative peace.

Rainer still has some mysteries about his health, which we are actively trying to solve with the help of SGSR and our vet. (Essentially, he’s just kind of weak in the back end and has poor balance. X-rays have since ruled out hip dysplasia, so we are looking into other diagnoses.)

The good news is that he has another potential adopter interested in him, who may meet him this weekend, weather permitting. The former family fell through, but this person sounds like a great fit for Rainer and his needs. Will keep you posted!

Let me know what you think of Living with Shy Dogs and what you’d add, if anything!

Highs and lows: Stories from our morning

Deep in clover
Deep in clover, deep in thought.

A few highs and lows from my morning with Pyrrha.

HIGH: Squirrels, the most delightful of temptations

So, we’ve discovered the one thing that gets Pyrrha really, really excited: SQUIRRELS. Birds are mildly exciting, cats are very interesting, but SQUIRRELS, OMG, SQUIRRELS. She just loses her mind for them. I love it, of course, because it’s an opportunity to get to see her act like a normal dog. If she spots a squirrel, our gentle, slow walker TAKES OFF like a rocket (and nearly dislocates my shoulder). She jumps in the air, she lets out these adorable, frustrated barks. I’ve even seen her try and climb a grove of trees to try to get to a squirrel. Of course, she’s never even come close to one, but it is perfectly endearing to watch her try.

HIGH: A fondness for beagle-shaped dogs

This morning on our walk, for the first time, Pyrrha expressed a desire to actually run up and meet a dog on leash! A man was walking his beagle mix past us, and I drew Pyrrha off to the side of the walk to let them pass. Instead of her normal tail-tucking, hackles-raising display, she rushed forward to greet the dog and gave a play bow. No snarling at all! The dogs sniffed and Pyrrha was all happy wags (not slow, threatened wags). As the beagle mix and his human walked off, Pyrrha let out an excited, playful bark, with her tail wagging vigorously, as if to say, “Where are you going? Come back and play with me! I’m not even scared of you!” So, that was encouraging.

I say that she likes “beagle-shaped dogs,” because the few dogs that she hasn’t shown any fear of have been beagles or small hound mixes. (Lucy, the dog she met off leash, was a small hound mix.) Not sure why this is, but it’s a good trend to recognize.

LOW: Training mistakes

I just got my copies of Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt, and On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas. These are two books that I’ve been waiting to read for a long time now and both have been repeatedly recommended to me, as the new guardian of a shy dog. I’ve only read a handful of pages in each, but so far, they’re both great.

After reading the first 20 pages of Control Unleashed last night, I decided it may be good for Pyrrha to learn how to target. Pat Miller recommends teaching them to just touch an open and extended palm with their noses as a first step.

This morning, I pick up the clicker from Pyrrha’s basket and then go cut up a treat into many small pieces. I put the clicker and treats in one hand and call Pyrrha. Big mistake. Why, you ask? Because as soon as she spots the clicker–this strange object–she bolts. Pyrrha is now very susceptible to bribery, probably because of my errors. I tried to pair delicious things with scary events (such as grooming, ear cleaning), like all the books told me to, but Pyrrha gets herself into such a state that she will refuse treats in the moment and try to get away. Now, if I ever approach her with a treat or an object that’s unfamiliar, she immediately assumes I’m trying to bribe her into doing something scary and terrible and runs away. So, that’s problem #1.

Problem #2 is that I still tried to teach her “touch” after she ran away. Clearly, I should have stopped and tried again later. But I was frustrated. And that was problem #3. It was such a simple, non-threatening request! At least it was in my mind. To Pyrrha, the extended palm in her face, even when there were treats nearby, was alarming and too much for her to handle. I should have stopped and walked away. Instead, I tried a few more times, and then finally accepted that she wasn’t going to get it and so I put the treats down and left the room.

I left the house very disheartened this morning, but it was a good reminder that I really have to start at ground zero with this dog. She is not going to learn like a “normal” dog is going to learn and seemingly non-scary things–like extended palms or concealed little plastic objects–will frighten her. I mentioned this to my boss, a fellow crazy dog lady, and she recommended that I maybe try to teach Pyrrha to “look at me” first, instead of targeting a palm; this could be less intimidating to teach.

Anyway. I’m trying not to feel too dejected. She’s harder to train that I expected, and Pat Miller makes it sound so easy in her book! But Pyrrha is not an easy dog. This is the one thing I know.

And so we move back to square one.