Do the more subtle aspects of poise and of muscle tension really make any difference? If you think they are of no consequence, you might ask your dog for a second opinion, because...
…everything we know about dogs suggests that, in a way that is true of almost no other animal, dogs are students of human movement.
A dog cares, deeply, which way your body is leaning. Forward or backward? Forward can be seen as aggressive; backward – even a quarter of an inch – means nonthreatening. It means you’ve relinquished what ethologists call an intention movement to proceed forward. Cock your head, even slightly, to the side, and a dog is disarmed. Look at him straight on and he’ll read it like a red flag. Standing straight, with your shoulders squared, rather than slumped, can mean the difference between whether your dog obeys a command or ignores it. Breathing even and deeply – rather than holding your breath – can mean the difference between defusing a tense situation and igniting it.
Tthe owner unknowingly provides the dog with cues that it will interpret in its own fashion. Those cues and the consequent behaviour are regular and predictable enough to quickly link into the dogs intuitive decision-making.
But if observation of your breathing is not subtle enough, how about whether your eyes are dilated?...
“I think they are looking at our eyes and where our eyes are looking, and what our eyes look like,” the ethologist Patricia McConnell, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says. “A rounded eye with a dilated pupil is a sign of high arousal and aggression in a dog. I believe they pay a tremendous amount of attention to how relaxed our face is and how relaxed our facial muscles are, because that’s a big cue for them with each other. Is the jaw relaxed? Is the mouth slightly open? And then the arms. They pay a tremendous amount of attention to where our arms go.
In the book The Other End of the Leash, McConnell decodes one of the most common of all human-dog interactions – the meeting between two leashed animals on a walk. To us, it’s about one dog sizing up another. To her, it’s about two dogs sizing up each other after first sizing up their respective owners.
The owners “are often anxious about how well the dogs will get along,” she writes, “and if you watch them instead of the dogs, you’ll often notice that the humans will hold their breath and round their eyes and mouths in an ‘on alert’ expression."
"Since these behaviours are expressions of offensive aggression in canine culture, I suspect that the humans are unwittingly signalling tension. If you exaggerate this by tightening the leash, as many owners do, you can actually cause the dogs to attach each other. Think of it: the dogs are in a tense social encounter, surrounded by support from their own pack, with the humans forming a tense, staring, breathless circle around them. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen dogs shift their eyes toward their owner’s frozen faces, and then launch growling at the other dog.”
It's almost a truism by now to say that there is no such thing as a problem dog; just a problem owner. But if it's the owner that needs retraining, maybe it should be in awareness of their own behavioural habits and of how to change them.
In another blog, I look at a dance expert's interpretation of a 'dog-whisperer's' poise and movement. She is very impressed!
(Excerpts from Malcolm Gladwell's 'What the dog saw' 2009)