What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

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Watch Closely for Cues to Dogs’ Feelings

It’s not necessary to understand micro-expressions to read Cali’s displeasure here.

Anyone out there remember “Lie to Me”? It is a TV series about a group of psychologists who solved mysteries by decoding the micro-expressions of various players until they unraveled the problem or found the missing person or whatever. That’s where I first heard of micro-expressions, which are involuntary and almost imperceptible facial expressions that express a person’s emotions — before the person consciously arranges her features to show whatever she thinks she’s feeling or wants others to see. Micro-expressions most often occur when a person is trying to hide her true feelings — or is lying, which is the premise of the TV series.

Turns out, dogs have micro-expressions too.

These are similar to — but far more subtle and easier to miss than — calming signals. Calming signals are dog body language cues that offer insight into how the dog is feeling, and they can be involuntary. But dogs can actively choose to offer calming signals, and they often do so — to other dogs and to humans, as targeted communication. But even involuntary calming signals are communicative. Examples of calming signals are the lip-licks and yawns of a stressed dog. These serve to both self-soothe (calm the dog) and tell others that she’s stressed. More examples are given in Please Back Off.

Micro-expressions in dogs, according to research done in Japan, are similar to micro-expressions in humans; they are fleeting and very easy to miss. But they also reveal preferences and can show an astute observer whether a dog is happy about something or feeling fear or dread. The researcher, Miho Nagasawa, has also studied the link between oxytocin level and dog-human interactions (dogs’ oxytocin levels rise when they gaze at their owner or interact; people’s oxytocin also rises when they stroke a dog).

Back to micro-expressions. Dogs show, with quick ear flicks, if they find something (or someone) unappealing or frightening. They show, with a quick eyebrow raise, pleasure at the sight of their human or a favorite toy. The images were captured with high-speed cameras, and are probably too fast for most of us to notice. You can read more about it in Dr. Stanley Coren’s blog post, “Just How Happy Is Your Dog?

As with MRI studies by Dr. Gregory Berns, the research points to more and more ways that dogs and humans are alike in how we experience and show emotions. I don’t find the similarities terribly surprising, but I do think that the more we learn about how dogs (and other nonhumans) think and feel, the harder it will be to justify or excuse much of our terrible treatment of them. It also offers a great excuse for spending time just watching your dog … you both get that nice oxytocin boost, and you might observe some fleeting body language cues that will help you understand your dog better!

 

Speaking Dog

One golden retriever bows to invite another to playI saw a sad little exchange today. A brown dog and a black dog met, and, while their humans chatted, the brown dog play bowed and invited the black dog to engage. The black dog’s human reacted by jerking his dog backward, away from the brown dog in what seemed a defensive or fearful response. Brown dog’s human pulled his dog away too, then leaned down and gave brown dog a stern talking-to. It seemed that both humans completely misunderstood the play bow and the friendliness in brown dog’s approach and demeanor.

This happened just a few minutes after a conversation with a friend who had described her communication with her birds. She doesn’t teach them English; she doesn’t exactly speak their language, but they have all evolved a communication that goes beyond words and human language to describe a relationship and mutual respect and understanding.

I know little of birds; I do strive for that sort of communication with the dogs in my life, though. The dogs learn many words of English (Hebrew, too, in Jana’s case). They also excel at reading human body language. But there is another layer that comes from a deep, close relationship. It is communication. It might be language, but it’s not something anyone outside the group would understand. When a person gets to that level of communication with her dog (or her bird), it is very satisfying and intimate. Jana and I had that kind of connection, and it’s what makes her loss so hard.

Most dogs seem to try very hard to understand their people; many succeed at understanding lots of people and dogs, even cats, if they live with a cat or two. It would be nice if more people made the effort to learn the basics of dog-to-dog and dog-to-human communication.

 

Scary Dog

Cali, puffed up and trying to be fierce
Cali tries to look fierce

A few weeks ago, while Jana was recovering from a vestibular incident and not joining Cali and me on the morning trek to the park, Cali found herself in a scary situation. On the way to the park, we pass a big, old corner house with two doggy residents. We see the younger one at the park pretty regularly. He’s a young husky mix, big and boyish. Cali doesn’t play with him; he’s too high-energy for her. But she’s not afraid of him, and he’s sweet. If he’s in the yard when we walk by, he doesn’t even bark.

His big sister, Diva, is a different story. She’s about Jana’s age, and she aggressively defends her territory. OK, that’s not fair; she barks aggressively, but doesn’t do anything more than bark. When Jana’s passing by, she anticipates Diva’s barking and tenses up. First of all, she just knows that she should be called Diva. Secondly, she envies Diva her large yard. But even beyond all my anthropomorphic projection, there is a bit of a grudge match between these two. Jana wants to preempt Diva’s barking by barking. They hurl insults at each other as I hustle Jana past the yard. Cali feels safely protected by her big sister.

That’s all fine when Jana is there. But on this morning: No Jana.

We were on our way home from the park, which means that Cali was carrying her tennis ball in her mouth. So, we were walking along, and I saw Diva a split second before Diva saw us and started barking. With no big sister there to protect her, and with mom woefully inept at the barking needed to address this dire threat, Cali stepped admirably up to the plate. She puffed up her hackles, making herself as fluffy … I mean, as big and scary … as she could. She barked her fiercest bark. However, that bark, filtered through the tennis ball in her mouth, sounded like a Chihuahua. A laughing, decidedly non-fierce Chihuahua.

Need I even say it: Diva was not impressed.

Not frightened at all by this fierce version of Cali. I wouldn’t have been frightened either; I just wanted to hug her since she was being so cute. I resisted; the humiliation might have done in poor Cali.

I feel for Cali. It must be terribly frustrating when you are trying your darndest to be strong and courageous and scary … and the people and dogs you’re trying to impress just want to hug you. Or laugh. A human teenager might respond by taking up weightlifting or trying out for the football team, but Cali seems OK. Maybe she’s emotionally healthy enough to shake it off. Or maybe she’s just really relieved that Jana’s recovered and back with us on morning walks.

That Soulful (and Loving) Gaze

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in social bonding, as implied by some of its nicknames: the love hormone, cuddle chemical, or bliss hormone. It’s also something that dogs and humans share.

Studies published in 2009 found that, when dogs gazed at their owners — you know, that adoring gaze that says, “feed me; I’m yours,” owners had more oxytocin in their urine. This correlates with feeling affection and social connection.

You can see where this is going, right? They gaze at us, we interpret it as adoration, we respond by feeling loved and happy. This works well for the dog. For us, too; real or not, we have that great “someone loves me” feeling.

But there’s more to this story. A later study looked at more variables. For example, the oxytocin in dogs’ urine. Did they get the same emotional lift out of the exchange of adoring gazes? Also whether interaction with the humans affected oxytocin in either humans or dogs.

This is where things get interesting.

A note: In both studies, dogs and wolves were used, as a way to determine whether this was just a canine thing, or whether it really has to do with the dog-human relationship.

First, the study looked at the effects if the person and dog exchanged gazes only, versus when the person also interacted with the dog, talking to her or petting her. No one was given oxytocin in this study; dogs’ and humans’ levels were measured before and after. The dogs and owners who spent the longest time gazing and interacting with each other had significant increases in their oxytocin levels — the dogs’ levels as well as the people’s. The dogs like the attention — even you, Jana! The gaze-only dogs and the shorter-gazing couples had small or no increases. Neither did the wolves.

A variation of the study had researchers administer oxytocin to some of the dogs to see whether the amount of oxytocin in their bodies made a difference. Then, the dogs and humans were allowed to gaze at each other, but the humans were not allowed to intentionally interact. If the dogs touched the humans, it was noted, but the humans were not allowed to respond by petting or talking to the dog.

So, was there a change in the dogs’ behavior if they had higher (administered) oxytocin? There was — but only for female dogs. With more oxytocin, they gazed at their humans for a significantly longer time; the length of their gaze at a stranger wasn’t affected. Male dogs actually gazed at their owners longer if they had not received oxytocin. The wolves didn’t really gaze at the people.

Not to knock boy dogs, but … maybe they’re just not that into you.

Seriously, what this all means — according to the researchers, anyhow — is that a mutually reinforcing loop occurs (particularly with girl dogs). They gaze at us, we look back, babble nonsense at them, rub their bellies … Hmmm, how do they gaze at us while we’re rubbing their bellies? OK, we stroke their long, soft ears and gaze back into their eyes. And everyone feels all warm and mushy and loved, so the girls keep staring at us, to keep this good thing going. More gazing, more oxytocin, so more and longer gazing, and the cycle continues.

Gazing is important in human social bonding and communication, starting when babies nurse. Lots of research shows that dogs use humans’ gaze as communication — and use their own gaze to communicate with us. And, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, dogs choose to hang out with us. All that, to me, adds up to a mutual bond that is very rewarding to all of us, including the dogs. That, and they need someone with working thumbs around to get access to their dinner.

Is He Really “Just Playing”?

Are they playing or fighting?
Are they playing or fighting?

My dog-human communication students recently discussed a study on how well people interpret dog body language. The study, published in 2009, compared the descriptions of dog professionals, dog owners, and people with no dog experience. They all watched the same nine videos that showed a range of behaviors, most interestingly aggression and actual play.

The study’s authors wanted to know whether the amount of dog experience a person had improved his or her skills at reading dogs’ body language. They showed the video clips to observers from four different groups: veterinarians, professional trainers, dog owners, and people with no dog experience. The dog professionals and owners had at least two years of hands-on dog experience.

After watching each clip, observers were to identify the predominant behavior, choosing from a list of eight adjectives. They were then asked to justify their choice: What about the dog’s body language suggests this behavior?

How’d they do?

Not well. Professional trainers (other than the ones participating in the study) and behaviorists have their work cut out for them.

Surprisingly, the dog professionals did no better than the people with no dog experience at identifying the dogs’ body language.

  • The scariest result was that a third of the observers saw aggressive behavior as playful.
  • A sad result was that 43 percent saw actual play as aggression.

Too many people can’t tell when a dog is playing and when the dog is being (or working up to becoming) aggressive. That’s often why people get bitten.

The observers’ descriptions of the body language they relied on to identify behavior are revealing. For example:

  • Most descriptions focused on tail movement, mouthing or vocalizing, and large, whole-body movements.
  • Nearly all tail movement was described as “wagging” and it was always identified as playful.
  • Nearly all barking was seen as aggressive and growling as defensive.
  • The only clip where a dog’s teeth could be seen was the active play video, but two-thirds of the observers who mentioned it saw it as aggression.

That’s another reason behind dog bites, especially the ones where people say “it came out of nowhere.” They look only at big, dramatic body movement and assume that barking or tail movement has only one purpose. They miss or misinterpret the more subtle body language and vocalizations.

If our dogs ever interact with other dogs, with children, even with unfamiliar adults, we need to be able to intervene if the dog is stressed or scared, remove the dog if he or another dog is showing stress, aggression, or fear, and generally pay attention to how our dogs react to different situations. This enables us to keep — and the people and dogs who interact with them — safe.

To do this, we have to look at the whole dog. A wagging tail might mean the dog is happy or wants to play — or it could indicate that he is stressed or unsure of the situation. Raised hackles might be defensive or aggressive — or could simply indicate arousal, which is more likely the case in an actively playing dog.

Not knowing this and not noticing the more subtle movements — a raised lip, ears pulled back, a stress smile — is how people miss the early signs that a situation is overwhelming or frightening to a dog, that the dog is losing patience or getting close to a literal “snapping point.”

When it’s our own dogs, the more often we watch and notice, the better we’ll get at putting together a “big picture” understanding of our dogs’ body language and of the messages they are sending us.

(Oh — those dogs in the photo? Playing. How can you tell? There are many cues: Hackles are not raised, eyes are soft, ears are loose and not pinned back, tails are low and not stiff, both dogs are showing similar energy (one is not going after the other), lips are not pulled back from teeth.)

 

Please Back Off

Not all dogs are as fortunate as Molly. Molly’s parents wrote to The Thinking Dog, asking for help getting people to understand that Molly needs her personal space. In this post, I am speaking for all dogs who are not as lucky as Molly.

Personal space is a cultural issue. Americans tend to like more of a bubble around them than people in some other countries. I’m not sure whether dogs in different countries or cultures have different needs for personal space, but I am positive that all of the dogs I know need people to respect that bubble. Especially people they don’t know well.

Dog bite stories in the media often say that “it came out of nowhere” or that the dog gave no warning signs. This is rarely true. Spending a few minutes looking at Facebook postings of photos and video of dogs with babies and children is a great way to gather photos of dogs showing dozens of warning signs or pleas for space. Watching those news videos of the “bites that came out of nowhere” also offers a catalog of behaviors that are clear warnings.

It’s not only children who do things that cause annoyance or stress to dogs: A particularly chilling video I’ve used in canine communication classes is one where a news anchor is severely bitten after putting her face right in the face of a stressed, overwhelmed dog — a dog who has spent the previous couple minutes (or more; it’s a short video) asking her to back off in every way a dog can.

The problem isn’t that the dogs are not giving fair warning, asking for help, or both; the problem is that most people aren’t listening or simply don’t understand the signs. Here’s a list of the most common stress signs:

  • Licking lips or nose
  • Turning the head away
  • Whale eye — wide eyes with the whites very clearly visible
  • Yawning
  • Ears back
  • Tail tucked
  • Scratching — self or the ground
  • Sniffing
  • Shaking or shaking off (as if shaking off water)
  • Bowing
  • Stress smile
  • Red eyes
  • Sweaty paws
  • Panting
  • Hypervigilance
  • Freezing

What do we do that is stressful or threatening to our dogs? Most dogs do not like being hugged or patted on the head. Frontal approach with direct eye contact is scary for many dogs. Many dislike rough petting or play hitting or people bending down, putting their faces right up close to the dog’s face and kissing or blowing at them or baby-talking them. In short, if you would be annoyed if someone did it to you, don’t do it to a dog, especially a dog you don’t really know. This doesn’t mean you can’t cuddle your dog; it means you should look for cues that he is enjoying — or uncomfortable with — what you are doing, and respond accordingly.

Some of the signs listed above do double duty: They are also what is commonly called “calming signals.” These are body language cues that dogs use to calm themselves or others. Dogs will direct calming signals to other dogs and to humans. A well-socialized dog responds appropriately — backing off, giving the dog some space, or responding with calming signals of his own. Unfortunately,  the signals are often subtle and, when noticed, misunderstood by many humans.

Cali stress
Stressed Cali

For example, the smile. A smiling dog might be a happy dog; depends on the smile. These photos show a happy Cali and a stressed Cali. She’s “smiling” in both. But in the relaxed, happy photo, Cali’s eyes are soft, her smile is loose and relaxed; in the stress photo, her eyes are hard and tense, and her mouth is tighter. For many additional (better) photos of stress, take a look at these blog posts by Eileenanddogs: “Dog Facial Expressions: Stress” and “Is That ‘Smiling’ Dog Happy?

 

Happy Cali
Happy Cali

Other common calming signals that could be early signs of discomfort or stress are the licking the lips or nose, yawning, and turning the head away. When you notice these subtle signs, it’s a good idea to remove your dog from a situation that is becoming unbearable for him. Some dogs lick submissively — no, the dog is not “kissing” you because he’s enjoying the close attention — or shake or try to leave or hide behind their owners.

If the dog can’t escape the situation and the “aggressor” doesn’t back off, the dog is likely to escalate. Bared teeth, soft growls, or air snaps might be the first steps when a dog feels that he has no choice but to defend himself. And if the owners have taught the dog never to growl, as so many believe they should … the dog might just bite “without (obvious) warning.”

We’re our dogs protectors. It is our job to learn their stressors, heed their calls for help, and remove them from stressful or overwhelming situations.

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about dogs’ stress signals? Here are some articles and blog posts that offer good info and advice:

Your Dog Hates Hugs, by Melissa Dahl

It’s Only Funny Until Your Dog Runs Out of Spoons, E. Foley, Your Dog’s Friend blog

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure, eileenanddogs blog

The Gift of Growl, Pat Miller

Preventing Dog Bites, Patricia McConnell

A Canine Stress Dictionary, and Signs That Your Dog Has Stress, and so much more on the Whole Dog Journal website