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Keeping Up Appearances

Anna Bradley investigates how physical appearance affects behavioral perception


between dogs and its possible impact on communication n the previous, issue I outlined dogs’ perceptual abilities and the behavioral impact of those abilities (see A Dog’s World, BARKS from the Guild, January 2018, pp.31-33). Thus, barking at “thin air” or “staring into space,” consequently negating our attempts to engage, while frustrating, may actually be due to our dogs’ amazing capability to detect sounds and movement at great distance. As humans, we are often far too quick to judge and blame rather than recognize the superior perceptual excellence of our canine friends. This issue, I want to explore how dogs perceive themselves, particularly with respect to their physical aspect – does the dog’s individual appearance affect how he perceives and subsequently behaves? This is often a question posed indirectly by my clients, e.g. “He doesn’t like long-coated dogs,” “I don’t think she gets on with squashed-faced dogs,” “We had a bad experience with boxers,” etc. The entire issue of how dogs perceive themselves is centered upon artificial selection. This refers to the selection of traits perceived desirable and their subsequent promotion via the breeding of animals which possess those traits. This successive promotion may be for our desirability but, unfortunately, it may have been to the detriment of our dogs too. For example, if we consider the behavioral aspect, due to this selection process dog-dog communication may have become more difficult.

Eye Stare

Think of border collies. That piercing stop and stare right at something: a stick or a sheep, but it could also be a person or another dog. That stare has been selectively bred (Coren, 2013). Piercing stares towards another dog can be perceived as challenging and threatening, especially depending upon context. Sadly, there are cases where the collie stare has become so overselected that some dogs demonstrate stereotypical staring at blank walls (McGreevy & Nicholas, 1999).

Hair Coat

Everyone loves a shaggy dog, right? But have you ever thought about how that hairy coat might impact your dog’s communication with others? Let’s think about those really long coats. Take for example the puli. The United Kingdom breed standard states that the hair should fall completely over the eyes like an umbrella. How on earth is the dog supposed to see? There are, of course, many examples of similar breeds who also have long-haired coats obscuring their vision. It is likely, therefore, the dog will at times be startled, putting him at risk of reactivity in certain situations. Social signaling, e.g. hackle raising, can also be very difficult for certain dogs such as corded coat varieties, short coated dogs and fluffy dogs (think Samoyed and similar). What if you don’t have hair and you just have skin—a lot of it? Problems here too! Think shar-pei. Communication can be even more difficult for these dogs due to their copious skin folds.

Facial Morphology

There is much awareness now regarding the health deficits of brachycephalic dogs such as pugs or boxers, but not so much regarding behavioral perception. I have seen some extremely exaggerated squashed faces and heard some very snuffly pugs and I feel sad for them. If you watch your own dog, you will see how expressive his face is. Pugs, who have been selectively bred for that flat face, are prevented from using facial expressions (Leaver & Reim32

BARKS from the Guild/March 2018

© Can Stock Photo/vauvau

Shaggy-haired dogs may find their vision is sometimes obscured if their hair covers their eyes, and this can impact communication with others

chen, 2008). The predisposition to brachycephalic airway disease can also lead to frustration and pain, especially in dog-dog encounters, with reactivity as a common behavioral result.

Short Limbs

Short-legged dogs may look very cute, but leg length is a selected trait. Smaller Dachshunds, Dandie Dinmont terriers, and corgis are all smaller, short-legged breeds that have been selectively bred for that length of leg. We also have bulldogs with short, stocky and stiff legs (Gabbard, 2017). What that can impede or prevent, however, is interactions such as play bows and other subtle movements that are indicative of various social invites (Netto, van der Borg, & Slegers, 1992). If a dog’s desire to play is impeded, then surely this is detrimental to him?

Tail or No Tail

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, tail docking was banned in the U.K. (although there are exceptions). As a behavior consultant, I have witnessed some extremely interesting behavioral differences since this ban was introduced. We now see boxers, old English sheepdogs, spaniels, Rottweilers etc. all with lovely long tails. Personally – and anecdotally – I have started to notice a decrease in behavioral issues amongst these breeds, perhaps simply due to the fact they are now able to communicate their emotions more accurately. Prior to the docking ban, many dogs would attempt to signal by wiggling their whole body along with that meager little stump. Obviously tail signaling is just one part of the jigsaw when it comes to communication but it is an important one, not only for the dog himself but for other dogs too – especially puppies during those crucial formative weeks when social interaction building blocks are put into place.

Ears up, Ears down

Ears are very expressive. They move up, down, back, and around in response

BARKS from the Guild March 2018  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...

BARKS from the Guild March 2018  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...