WARNING: Audio not necessary, though helpful. Yes, I do make cartoonish commentary again at some point and I’ll never apologize for that.
There is so much we can learn from our dogs, and while having a formal education certainly helps (either as a Trainer, Veterinarian, technician, behaviorist or behavior consultant), it’s not mandatory. Anyone who owns a dog has the ability (and, frankly, responsibility) to familiarize themselves with how they communicate (I’ve included some helpful resources at the bottom for anyone who wants to Up their Body Language Game). The purpose of these breakdowns is to help showcase some of these subtle languages “in real time”.
This video shows 3 dogs total: Ollie (large, blonde Doodle), Aurora (small- medium, maple & white Doodle), and Indy (medium, black super-mutt). For some context, Indy, Aurora and Ollie all go to the same park together. Indy has known these two since they were pups (just over a year now). Aurora and Ollie are next door neighbors who are similar in age, and therefore have had many-a-play dates together.
As the video starts, Aurora and Ollie are already engaged in a bout of wrestling; Aurora has the upper hand, pinning Ollie to the ground. We can tell this is play for a number of reasons. 1) Ollie is clearly larger than Aurora, but has decided to take the “attack-ee” position; 2) both Aurora and Ollie are engaged in some “mouth-sparing” (open mouth in a “smiley” like formation, with a wide range of visible teeth- if this were genuinely aggressive in nature, you’d typically expect to see less teeth, and lips in a tense “c” formation, although not always); 3) Ollie’s limbs are fairly “loosy-goosy” in nature despite being pinned, and Aurora pivots her pinning him to a point where she eventually relaxes into a down- an otherwise vulnerable position to put yourself in if this wasn’t play; 4) If you have the audio on, you can hear some low level, breathy growling. While this vocal-ness isn’t indicative of play, some dogs just are during play. This is arguably a form of doggy laughter!
Indy casually walks in and out of the frame, head down sniffing and tail positioned high, but laxly bouncing side to side (typical of mid level alertness/ interest). I know for a fact she’s on the case looking for her ball (which Ollie stole at one point). By now, we’ve seen a slight role reversal with Aurora and Ollie. Ollie has now taken the position of “attacker”, gently gnawing on his friend’s head. Aurora uses soft eyes here, partially due to her head being almost entirely in Ollie’s mouth (what trust!), but also as a calming signal. Indy darts back into the frame and seems to be narrowing her search. As she turns inward to the duo, Ollie briefly redirects his mouth-sparring to her. In what seems like a microsecond, Indy closes her mouth, turns her head slightly, the sclera of her eyes become visible and she gives a lip lick while exiting the scene. These are all indicative of calming signals and mild stress. In other words, “Woah, no thanks!”
It’s then back to business as usual with the duo- Aurora has now rolled to her side, exposing her belly while maintaining some mouth sparring with Ollie. Again, this rolling over is, in and of itself, a vulnerable position to be in. It would therefore require at least a certain amount of trust on Aurora’s behalf. Similarly, the mouth sparring is fairly dramatic in nature; wide open, many teeth exposed, and almost hap-hazardous movements. When either of their mouths actually lands on a target (a paw, or side of an ear, a cheek, etc.) the duration in which it’s held is very brief.
This sparring goes on consistently for quite some time before Aurora positions herself back onto all four feet. Here, she is able to take on a bit more of an “attacker” role, but it is quickly thwarted and she returns into a “self disabling” down (another indication of play; she didn’t need to be in a down, but it “evens the playing field”, so to speak). It is very shortly after Aurora returns to her down position that Ollie actually responds with a head turn, which he turns away from Aurora’s continued mouth-sparring advances. Head turning is a calming/ negotiating signal; by nature, when you turn your head, you are averting your gaze. Staring would be considered socially intimidating, and therefore wouldn’t be appropriate unless the intention is domineering* or assertive. Ollie actually gives another brief head turn before giving a relatively dramatic bark in response to Aurora’s defiance. Afterwhich, Ollie returns to his feet to create some distance (not much, mind you), gives a “refresher” Play Bow (front paws to the ground, rear end elevated and a neutral-ish positioned tail, although Ollie’s is still in the midst of an east to west wag) and then “self-disables” into a down again. I call it a “refresher” play bow because it’s purpose is to remind the playmate that all the actions taking place are for fun (the duo had actually been giving each other plenty of these before the video started). Furthermore, the sequence of Ollie self-disabling himself back into the down is nuanced in and of itself! Notice how Ollie’s back end almost curves inward towards his head as he falls to the ground. This “C” formation of the body, bringing the “two ends together” can be considered “polite vulnerability”. This could serve as another reminder that he “comes in peace”. At this point, Aurora is likely sensing Ollie’s quickly shrinking tolerance and his need for a break, and therefore redirects her mouth sparring to her long lead.
*We’ve got to be really careful when using terms like Dominance in the Dog World. While Dominance is a factor that plays into the social interactions with dogs, it is not the same as the human concept of “maintaining dominance” or “being the Alpha/ Pack Leader” for training. Dominance in canine language is much more nuanced and fluid than we humans really understand. Domestic dogs do not follow the strict hierarchies that their wild cousins sometimes have in order to survive. David Mech, the wolf researcher who originally proposed the Alpha Theory we, unfortunately, know all too well in the training world today, debunked his own theory. He has spent the greater part of a decade trying to re-educate around this error.
A Special shout out to Michelle and Kathryn, Dog Moms to Aurora and Ollie, respectively! Thank you both so much for allowing me to use your fur children as educational tools, hehe.
Doggie Language: A Dog Lover’s Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend by Lili Chin
(IMO: should be mandatory reading for all dog-parents. Great illustrations, chalk full of helpful info.)
Canine Body Language: a Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff
(This is my Bible. It’s honestly a Trainer Must Have, but also great for the novice who wants to further their knowledge.)
(This website is very user friendly and perfect for the dog person who is too busy to also become a trainer. Fantastic resources for Youngins’ and Littles’, and those who are going to welcome new fur babies into their homes.)