Communication Signals in Dogs (Part 1)

This was one of the questions for my Coursework for the ISCP Diploma in Canine Psychology:
Observe a group of dogs and people together, and note the body language and vocalising that occurs between them. Write an essay of between 1,000 and 2,000 words about the communications signals you have perceived, and how other dogs and people have responded to these. Include your reasons for the conclusions you have reached.

Here is my essay. I’ve split it into 2 posts, as it’s rather long, and also because Part 2 is a summary of my conclusions:

I was in the park by myself and noticed a couple sitting under a tree with 2 yellow Labradors gambolling nearby off-leash, doing their own thing, sniffing at tree trunks and following scent trails. There was another dog, a brindle Staffy type playing Fetch with its owner about a hundred feet away from them. There was also an older woman walking her small Shih-Tzu dog on its lead along the path by the park.

The brindle Staffy’s owner must not have noticed the Labradors, because he threw the ball in the direction of the Labradors, and as the Staffy went after it, the Labradors noticed it and stopped their play. One of the Labradors adopted a forward-facing stance, with its tail held straight out almost level with its body, and with its paw held up. It resembled a German Pointer.

The Staffy had until now been concentrating on fetching the ball for its owner. Now suddenly there were these 2 yellow Labradors standing in his field of vision. And his ball was close to them. He had been running to catch the ball, fixated on it, but once he noticed the 2 Labradors eyeing him, he slowed down and started to walk instead in a large curve. His body was therefore facing the Labradors sideways, not head on. When the Staffy reached his ball, he grabbed it, and after casting a cautious eye back at the Labradors, began walking almost nonchalantly back to his owner. When he felt he’d reached a safe distance, he started running again towards his owner.

During this time, the Labrador owners had suddenly realised that their dogs were potentially about to meet a strange dog, with unknown consequences, and they got up on their feet and started walking quickly towards the Labradors, with the dogs’ leads in their hands. One of them, the man, started calling the dogs to them, and whistling. I could hear the tension in his voice.

The Labrador doing the German Pointer impression relaxed its body, and started to wave its tail gently when it heard its name being spoken by its owner. It looked towards the retreating Staffy, then back at its owner, then back at the Staffy again, as if asking for permission to go forward towards where the Staffy was. The other Labrador, which looked smaller and younger and could have possibly been the offspring of the bigger Labrador, was shifting its weight from foot to foot nervously, wagging its tail low and whining. It too, was looking back and forth between its owner and the Staffy.

When the Labradors’ owner started shouting and whistling, the small Shih-Tzu dog walking along the path with its owner suddenly got excited and started lunging forward, pulling his owner. She pulled back on the lead, tightening it, and started shortening it. This made the Shih-Tzu all the more excited, and it pulled against the tension even more, all the time making excited yelping/whining noises.

The younger Labrador found this excitement too much to endure. It broke away from where it had been standing nervously, and started running towards the Staffy. The other Labrador, after a moment’s hesitation, did likewise.

The Labradors’ owners, naturally concerned at what would happen should the Labradors and the Staffy not manage to become friends, broke into a run after their dogs, calling and whistling for the Labradors to stop. This only made the Labradors more excited and they ran even faster towards the Staffy.

The Staffy and its owner, meanwhile, were trying to make tracks to get away from the approaching Labradors. The man was trying to clip his lead onto the Staffy’s collar and walk it away from the park, but the Labradors were too quick. I heard him yell in frustration as the Labradors reached within 10 feet of the Staffy.

I was watching this and hoping there would not be a fight between the dogs, that the owners could manage to get their dogs introduced to each other properly, or that the dogs themselves knew the proper doggy etiquette for making new friends.

Before the Labradors reached the Staffy, they slowed down and started turning their bodies away from him, and almost looked as if they were walking away. When in actual fact they were approaching the Staffy in a large curve, showing calming signals that they meant no harm. One Labrador curved to the left, the other curved to the right. Together, as they criss-crossed in front of the Staffy, they looked almost as if they were collies herding sheep or cows.

The Staffy, now being held in a tight grip by his owner, could only stare balefully at them. Maybe his owner wasn’t aware that the Labradors had friendly intentions, or maybe he wasn’t sure if his dog was able to understand the calming signals, or perhaps he himself did not know what the curving body language meant. He kept his hands tight on the Staffy’s lead, so tight that the dog’s front legs were almost raised off the ground. This only made it more tense, and it started twisting its body around, to try to release itself. But this only made its owner tighten his grip even more.

All the time this was happening, and it was only in the space of a few seconds, the Labradors’ owners were still shouting, calling and whistling for their dogs. They were also by now rattling the chain on their leads, hoping to distract the Labradors’ attention from the Staffy.

And the little Shih-Tzu was still pulling and lunging to get to the Labradors and the Staffy. The woman, who looked to be in her 60s and rather frail, was having a hard time holding the Shih-Tzu back, small as it was.

Then I heard the woman cry out in pain, as the Shih-Tzu must have torn its lead from out of her hands. The next thing I saw was this little white barrel of fluff tearing straight towards the Labradors and the Staffy, yelping excitedly and trailing its lead behind it like a long red ribbon.

Now the Labradors found themselves caught between the tantalising Staffy in front of them, and the little maelstrom of a Shih-Tzu, coming up from behind them. Everyone froze, dogs and humans, apart from the barreling Shih-Tzu and his frantic owner trying to catch up behind him.

The Staffy’s owner decided this was exactly the distraction he needed to get away safely with his dog. Quickly, and wordlessly, while the Labradors were frozen in place, he tugged at his dog’s collar and got it to move. The Staffy was reluctant at first to move, but his owner tugged at his collar again, urgently. And then man and dog exited stage right, at a brisk jog.

The little Shih-Tzu suddenly found himself between the 2 large Labradors, who were naturally startled but also curious. As it was too late for any of the humans to intervene, the dogs were able to conduct their proper introductions, doggy style. Which involved an almost formal Sniff-n-Greet, firstly done by the larger Labrador to the little Shih-Tzu, who stood still but quivering as he subjected himself to it. The younger Labrador, not to be outdone, also had a good Sniff-n-Greet of the Shih-Tzu. Now with both Labradors sniffing either end of his body, the Shih-Tzu had no choice but to simply stand and submit.

Once the Labradors were satisfied with their greeting, they allowed the Shih-Tzu to sniff and greet them too. Which was quite funny to watch, as he was so tiny compared to them. But the Labradors were patient and tolerant, and once the Shih-Tzu had satisfied himself, the younger Labrador did a play bow towards the Shih-Tzu. The little dog responded in kind, and then all three dogs took off in a madcap game of chase. The little Shih-Tzu got bowled over by the bigger dogs a couple of times, but he managed to keep up. One of the Labradors even let him pin it down and stand on top of it, before rolling back onto its feet and dislodging the Shih-Tzu.

By this time, the Shih-Tzu’s owner had caught up with the Labradors’ owners, and they were enquiring if she needed first aid for her hand. I think she was alright, it may have been just a rope burn or even just the shock of having the lead slip out of her grasp. At any rate, all three humans seemed very relieved that their dogs were able to play together instead of fighting.

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3 thoughts on “Communication Signals in Dogs (Part 1)

  1. great article (again) 🙂 do you ever watch ISCP webinars? I like them a lot, the last one I’ve seen was on street dogs -brilliant as quite a few people here (in the UK) adopt a street dog (mainly from Romania), and there isn’t much material on working with them.

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