What's Your Dog Really Saying? McConnell Speaks

What's Your Dog Really Saying? McConnell Speaks
with Patricia McConnell (center) and Dr. Robyn Barbiers, Anti Cruelty Society President

"Because we've lived with dogs for thousands of years, and because we think we understand dogs doesn't mean we really do understand dogs," begins certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell in her talk to a mixed house of both the general public and canine professionals at a fund raiser July 11 at the Anti Cruelty Society in Chicago.

McConnell says primates (particularly great ape species) often greet one another with a kiss. Chimpanzees, bonobos and even gorillas will kiss, as will people, of course.

"I mean a kiss face to face on the lips is what we humans do," says McConnell. "I have a Border Collie named Willie. I figure, he gets massages, a personal physical therapist, acupuncture, belly rubs, all natural food. Every once in a while, he has to tolerate a kiss."

Check out Google images and look for pictures of people kissing their dogs. Do the dogs really seem to be enjoying it? Most are likely tolerating the experience, some barely.

She continues, "Dogs do greet us and one another with tongue licks, which we call a kiss. There are many reasons for this, but one may be a sign of affection. And some of us feel the same way about those wet dog licks as dogs feel about getting a kiss from us: tolerance.

Another similar problem that's fundamentally primate is hugging. Many monkey species hug, and all the great apes do, as do people all around the world. The behavior is innate. Of course, among primates, hugging is an expression of affection. Canines don't hug. For starters, dogs don't quite have the physical mechanism to do it. The closest thing to it, dogs standing up on their hind legs, or a dog placing one leg over the top of another dog is an assertive or aggressive signal.

"Every dog behaviorist or dog trainer knows that one of the toughest problems to deal with is a toddler who goes around hugging everyone, including the dog," says McConnell. "Many dogs learn to deal with crazy humans who hug them, but some just don't."

McConnell, based just outside Madison, WI, has authored many books, including two top-sellers, "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend" (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2006; $24.95) and "The Other End of the Leash" (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2002; $13.95). She says tests have shown that dogs pay much more attention to HOW we tell them to do something that what we tell them to do. And that's similar in all mammals (except perhaps marine mammals).

For example, low, deep tones and slower frequencies may be used to direct attention or to express anger. One example is a dog growl or a wife telling her husband to take out the trash, for the third time.

McConnell adds, "Short, rapid bursts in higher tones suggests friendliness or excitement. Want to get the tail of a puppy to wag? Quickly say, 'pup, pup, pup, pup,' in a high-pitched voice and smile as you say it."

McConnell suggests that studies have shown that people can have a difficult time understanding canine signaling or body language. But interestingly, people do far better at distinguishing meanings of various barks, understanding without even seeing a dog that the dog is saying, "I need to go out to piddle" compared to, say, "Warning! There's someone at the door."

The one visual signal people can read is a dog's face. After all, we've bred dog's faces and mechanisms to be so much like our own. For example, in both people and dogs, a closed mouth with the lips sort of curled at the ends may indicate concern. An open mouth with the ends of the lips turned upward indicates pleasure in people and dogs. That's right, dogs really do smile!

┬ęSteve Dale, Tribune Media Services

 

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