Can't She Just Get Along? (Part II) - Dog Talk

Last September, I blogged about how our beloved Boston Terrier, Lilly, turns into a whirling dervish when other on-leash dogs draw too close, say, within five miles of her.

Kidding aside, my wife and I had mapped out a methodical plan of desensitization and counter-conditioning for Lilly - a kind of behavioral one-two-punch.

Through desensitization, Lilly would, theoretically, experience gradually reduced anxiety and, thus, display fewer convulsions when a dog approaches. This methodical process would involve gradually decreasing the distance between Lilly and other dogs while monitoring her responses. By counter-conditioning, we would teach Lilly to associate the presence of other dogs with something she (almost) never turns down: a yummy treat.

We learned very early on that the success of these approaches was dependent on our skill in detecting and interpreting Lilly’s body language. Initially, we were not the best translators.

Humans have it easy. When we want to impart a thought, feeling or need, we just open our mouths and talk. Even when the verbal channel is not accessible - as is the case in some people with severe motor speech impairment - there are other means to transmit the message: we may be able to write, draw pictures or gesture.

Animal companions, on the other hand, rely heavily on body language to let us and other animals know what’s going on inside them. Of course, dogs can change the quality of their barks and growls to convey their delight or distrust. However making sounds comprises but a tiny fraction of what they have to say.

Dogs “talk” with their whole bodies: their lips, ears, eyes, tail and posture. Hundreds of communicative combinations exist with possible perilous consequences if not accurately understood. A wagging tail paired with pinned-back ears, for example, may mean “Come closer, but go away!” to an approaching dog or person.

If the whole-body language of dogs weren't challenging enough to grasp, consider the fact that there are more than 400 dog breeds and a vast number of mixed-breed permutations. So many sizes and shapes of every body part moving this way and that as the dog experiences his ever-changing environment.

Our canine companions originally served as sentries and hunters. As their function shifted more to companionship, we began breeding dogs to retain more of their juvenile characteristics as adults. Neoteny is a cornerstone of selective breeding and helps explain the existence of everything from chihuahuas to great danes. It also explains why dogs that look less like wolves seem to look and act like puppies forever.

Unfortunately, in the present-day world, not all dogs are created equal in the language department. Dogs resembling their distant cousins, the wolves, have a richer non-verbal “vocabulary” than do dogs that look nothing like them. Ergo, the Akita and German shepherd are far more “articulate” in dog language than are pugs or cocker spaniels.

Lilly has a short snout, bug eyes, pricked ears and a stiff, tiny nub of a tail that creeks back and forth like a rusty hinge when she’s happy. She looks and acts very different than her burly, pit bull friend down the street, though they still manage to romp together amicably. Lilly’s relationship with the standard poodle mix on the next block is a whole other story. Lilly’s trembling trunk and raised hackles tell the story: “Trouble ahead!” The object of her terror, meanwhile, appears calm though, with long-haired breeds, there are no hackles to be seen. Regardless, Lilly’s signals mean it’s time for a snappy about-face or retreat behind a parked car until she calms down.

Susan and I have made great strides toward understanding Lilly which has helped us to diffuse or avoid situations in which she may become too reactive. But we still have a long way to go. One side benefit of our canine language-learning process has been the development of a keener awareness of other people’s body language which often says far more than their words. 

During this new year, many families will resolve to bring a dog into their home. My hope is that each family member devotes him or herself to learning their dog’s special personality and language as well as possible signals offered by an unfamiliar dog.

Misunderstanding within and between species should never be cause for surrender.

Please check back for future installments of Can't She Just Get Along, as we chart Lilly's progress - and our own.