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What Does Your Body Language Say to a Dog?

We continue talking about animal body language.

In our last posting we began talking about body language and how animals "speak" with their bodies. Before we continue with that, let's take a little true or false quiz about dogs, their senses and how they behave. We'll focus a little more on cats in a future posting.

1) Dogs can only see in Black & White. True or False?
2) Dogs have superior vision to us. True or False?
3) Dogs have better hearing than us. True or False?
4) Dogs act like wolfs. True or False?

The Answers

1) False. Dogs see color but just not as we do. It’s closer to people who have red color blindness. So, when a person with normal vision sees an orange ball on a grassy lawn, a dog sees only a greenish ball in greenish grass. Think about that next time you buy that brilliant orange dog toy!

2) True & False! Dogs are myopic. What we see at 75 feet has to move to 25 feet to be clearly seen by them. Best focus is 7-25 feet which sometimes explains why they can't see that piece of salami we just dropped on the floor! Their vision is tuned to motion though and can detect it far better then we can. Cats are even more nearsighted which makes sense for hunting small prey.

3) True. Dog's can hear about 4 times the distance of a human who has normal hearing and can hear higher pitched sounds that humans can't hear. They detect sounds in the range of approximately 67 - 45,000 Hz (varies with different breeds). Whereas we hear in the approximate range of 64 - 23,000 Hz.

4) False. We know now the wolfs and dogs act different. Dogs as a subspecies broke off from wolfs some 100,000 years ago. They emerged as opportunistic scavengers (sounds like my dogs) living in and around human settlements.

More on body language

When two dogs meet on the street or at the dog park, there's a whole lot of conversation going on at the blink of an eye. The position of their bodies relative to each other, leaning forward or leaning back, ear position, all indicate to each other if the intent is friendly or not. Often we complicate things by adding the leash to the mix. Not only does keeping tension on the leash in turn add tension to the meeting, but often it can distort our dog's body causing the wrong message to the other dog! So next time, try to keep your leash loose, even circling with your dog to stay untangled.

Our body language

The last thing I want to talk about in this posting is our body language when we greet a dog. If dogs could vote (obviously they would all be green party) about the one thing they'd like us to to change it would be the way we greet them, especially dogs we don't know. Most people lean and reach over a dog which is a threatening gesture, even if you don’t mean it to be and when we approach with shoulders square, facing, and reaching elicits appeasement and we'll often see dogs assume a groveling stance. When you greet a dog, try instead a side-by-side, cheek-to-cheek approach. Either crouch down with your legs turned to the side or at stand at an angle and lean back away from the dog, not stand over. You'll see a whole different light in the dog’s eye. As if to say, "Hey, that human is speaking my language"!

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Lynda April 09, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Love the ideas and information in your column! My experience is much more with cats ("Every life should have nine cats!") so I worry I unintentionally send the wrong messages to my dogs. as well as dogs I meet. Thanks for the suggestions about not reaching over a dog and greeting from the side. I really do agree (from my experience) about the extra tension having dogs on leashes creates in any encounters. I have also found that a glass or screen door between newly meeting dogs (or new people for my dogs) seems to increase (rather than decrease) tension. Is that valid too? Thanks again for the column.
Scott Shwarts April 09, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Lynda: Thanks for the kind comments. I think we're lucky dogs forgive us for what we "say" at times. It also never ceases to amaze me at how well they read us. Indeed in my experience, a barrier like a door, window, screen, etc does increase the tension of a meeting. I believe it's in part frustration at not being able to properly determine if this is friend or foe. It could be the distortion of the glass or screen, it could be sense of smell being crippled. Having said that, I'll often use a fence like chain link to separate two dogs, both on leash, to see how reactive one is (I use my dog as a test dog). The difference it that I keep them well back from the barrier. Distance is your friend.
Lynda April 09, 2012 at 06:32 PM
I appreciate the advice about keeping distance between dogs, dogs and people in new or tense situations. Our elderly dogs are pretty meillow, but I try hard to keep their lives stress-free. Thanks!

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