This writer once observed an interesting exchange between a bright-eyed little girl and an elderly Parsi lady walking a Pomeranian and a Poodle. “Do your dogs bite?” asked the girl, stooping to stroke the cuddly creatures without waiting for an answer. “They haven’t bitten anyone yet,” offered the lady, after struggling to find an honest response, “But I can’t promise you they won’t, dear — they are animals, you know.” Regardless, the girl continued to shower her affection on the canines, unconcerned about the implications of the response. Man’s best friends, after all, are known to be affectionate. Besides, they were wagging their tails and everyone knows that indicates happiness.
Though the dogs did not bite and the girl skipped away merrily on that sunshiny day, canine behaviour specialist and editor of digital dog magazine, Woof!, Shirin Merchant would caution against callousness. “I’ve seen dog trainers hug dogs who are wagging their tails and I’ve asked them: ‘What are you doing? He’s going to bite you’,” adding, “It’s important to read the body language of the dog too. A dog may also wag his tail if he’s in a state of conflict. He could be nervously or excitedly aroused, and that’s when you have to be very careful because he can swing quickly in any direction.”
Shirin is therefore less than thrilled about the new findings published in the American journal, Behavioural Processes, which was designed to gauge the magnitude of human instinct and which asserts that humans can spot emotions such as happiness, sorrow, anger, anxiety and even surprise and disgust on a dog’s face. Dr Tina Bloom, lead researcher of this study conducted at Walden University (Minneapolis) told reporters, “Although humans often think of themselves as disconnected or even isolated from nature, our study suggests that there are patterns that connect, and one of these is in the form of emotional communication.” In addition to stressing the pertinence of reading canine body language in conjunction with such facial expressions, Merchant emphasises, “Not everyone can read dog expressions, accurately — some dog owners may be particularly good at it, others are not — and besides, facial expressions of some dog breeds may be easier to read than others. German Shepherds with clearer faces may be easier to read than pugs that have crinkled faces.”
Wag the dog
But surely there’s something to those expressions. While dining at a friend’s home recently, we watched with, “Awww,” as his beagle made these sad eyes and then placed his paw on the man’s leg, begging for a treat. When he didn’t get it, the dog whined and tried again — it was just heartbreaking, this gentle imploring, and those oh-so-sad eyes. “Begging for food is their way of manipulating you,” Merchant says, “It’s a skill dogs have fine-tuned as it ensures their survival. The dog has learnt that making these childlike eyes can get them food which is tastier than what the dog gets to eat.” She also points out, “It’s important to also understand that we’ve bred certain dog species like Cocker Spaniels and Labradors to be more human-like, by selectively choosing which dogs to breed.”
Animal instinct matters
Rohini Fernandes, dog behaviourist who co-manages the Animal Angels Foundation, offers a somewhat different perspective. “Humans pay selective attention to animals,” she says, “That’s how our ancestors survived in the wild. So puppies inspire the ‘awww’ factor, but a snake or tiger will make you pull away. In that sense our instincts are pretty strong but since humans have now distanced themselves from the animal world, those instincts are naturally watered down.”
It’s instinct therefore rather than recognition of facial expressions that holds the clues when it comes to understanding what your dog is trying to tell you. Matunga-based dog behaviourist, Dr Shruti Srinath also cautions against stocking too much faith in canine truisms such as: all dogs enjoy swimming; an old dog can’t learn new tricks; barking dogs don’t bite. Stressing that an owner “must never be the one to put his or her dog in a position that the dog would find threatening,” Srinath reminds us, “Some dogs may not want to swim; they may even be scared of water.”
Concurrent with Merchant’s view, Srinath who was once an ENT specialist but chose to work with dogs because of her love for them and who conducts home-visits to train families that haveadopted dogs, offers examples of body language, which, she’scareful to stress, may not apply to all dogs: “If a dog is scared,he’ll have his ears drawn back; he’ll freeze when stressed. If he’s uncomfortable with something around him, he may lick his lips or scratch himself — that’s classic displacement behaviour. Or, he could chase his tail when stressed. Dogs read you as much as you read them,” Srinath however concedes, “Dogs dosmile when they’re happy but you have to read it correctly. Hemay have his tongue hanging out, but he wouldn’t be panting when he smiles.”
A bit of that human touch
Merchant, however, also stresses the need to understand that dogs are a different species and expressions notwithstanding, they don’t live by the same behavioural code that humans do. “Dogs don’t hug as a sign of affection, naturally — it’s primate behaviour,” she offers as an example, “Though dogs living with a family may learn to accept this as stupid human behaviour. When you go up to a strange dog and hug it, he however may perceive this as a threat and you might get bitten on the face.”
Explaining how it works, Merchant says, “If you’re out on the street you are likely to feel threatened if a strange man came too close, but in elevators this proximity may be acceptable; likewise, dogs living with humans learn to accept some human behaviour while street dogs or dogs in shelters may not enjoy being hugged at all.” Simplifying this smorgasbord of information, Merchant says, “The safest way to play it is if you don’t know a dog, don’t touch it!”
Watch out for these signs
> If a dog is scared, their ears are drawn back.
> Dogs freeze when stressed.
> If uncomfortable with something around, he/she may lick their lips or scratch their bodies.
> Dogs chase their tails when stressed.
> Dogs don’t hug as a sign of affection, naturally.
> Dogs smile when happy but you must read it correctly. The tongue may hang out, but the dog would not be panting when he/she smiles.
> Begging for food is their way of manipulation.
Dr bloom and prof friedman’s study
Fifty volunteers were shown images of Mal, a five-year-old police dog (German Shepherd) who was photographed when subjected to various stimuli — reprimanded, the dog produced a “sad” reaction, with eyes cast down, surprising him with a jack-in-the box made him wrinkle his brow into a sort-of frown, he flattened his ears in disgust upon receiving medicine etc — and asked to identify the emotions, here’s how the humans scored: 88 per cent of the group recognised happiness, 70 per cent spotted anger, 45 per cent picked up on fear, while 37 per cent identified sadness. Surprise and disgust proved more challenging to identify — only 20 per cent of the group identified the former while a meagre 13 per cent recognised the latter. Dr Tina Bloom, who led the research, told reporters, “There is no doubt that humans have the ability to recognise emotional states in other humans and accurately read other humans’ facial expressions. We have shown that humans are also able to accurately — if not perfectly — identify at least one dog’s facial expressions.”
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