Sunday, January 22, 2012

Writing Science Fiction and Reading Canine Body Language

Our German Shepherd Dog, Oka, developed fear-aggression after being attacked by other dogs. I watched him go from "Another dog! Hooray -- great fun, great smells!" to "Another dog -- oh no, OH NO -- he's after me -- ohhelpwhatdoIdo -- Pre-emptive Strike!"

After wrestling with 90 pounds of fit, not to mention intense, dog in self-defense mode, we enrolled in a "difficult dog class." This was my first experience of a dog class, let alone one based on positive training techniques. Several things quickly became clear to me.

One, our dog really wants to please us but much of the time, he hasn't the foggiest notion what we want. What he notices is not necessarily what we think is the major point of the communication. So it's up to us to give him cues and feedback that make sense in dog-experience.

Two, dogs learn from consequences and the shorter the time between action and consequence, the better. There are all kinds of other things happening at any moment in time, things the dog may associate with the behavior in question but of which we are unaware. We need to learn a new way of paying attention, but it never hurts to be in control of a consequence that has a high value for the dog. In Oka's case, that's bits of freeze-dried salmon. This is not "bribery." It's using a powerful reinforcer to let the dog know the behavior is desirable. Salmon equals good. Loose-lease walking past another dog equals salmon equals good.

Three, and most importantly, Oka is very clear in communicating what's going on with him. A huge chunk of the fear-aggression problem was my not understanding when he tells me he's anxious or fearful. I had to learn, for instance, that an off-leash dog bounding "playfully" on a direct path toward him (non-threatening dogs approach a strange dog calmly and on a curved path) is certain to elicit signs of anxiety -- ears pinned forward, body tense, gaze fixed -- even before the fur rises in his ruff.

After immersing myself in books on canine body language, I began seeing mistakes in my own inter-species communication. It's natural for us as primates to use primate-friendly language when greeting a dog. We make eye contact, we bend over. (We also make ridiculous chirping noises.) Direct eye contact is a signal of aggression in dogs (polite dogs soften their gaze and look away to indicate their non-threatening intentions). Bending over a dog is dominance behavior, which makes many dogs uncomfortable or fearful. I've had occasion to practice polite dog language in greeting: look away, soft eyes, don't bend over the dog but beside it, approach slowly, maintain distance if the dog exhibits symptoms of distress. I'm amazed at the clearness of their response, often an immediate relaxation of their anxious body-language.

The situation got even more interesting when we introduced two young cats to the household. One had learned that dogs were Dangerous Cat-Eating Monsters; the other hadn't figured them out yet and decided Oka was a sort of overgrown, illiterate big brother. Watching these two, each trying to communicate in his own body language, each puzzled by the other's response, has been fascinating.

As a primate, I know I'm seeing only a fraction of the interaction. I notice the commonality of "predator stare" and "look away." "I just don't get what that ear position means" (cat) is matched by "I'm signaling submissive 'puppy-ears' but he isn't getting it" (dog). This reminds me of conversations I used to have with a co-worker, he in Spanish and me in French.

Eventually Oka decided that "freeze" was a safe response and Shakir took his immobility as an invitation to come rub against him. Once the dog had discovered a successful approach to non-provoking behavior, he decided to try it out on the other cat. She was not impressed at first, but as she relaxed, her curiosity came forth. She was clearly interested in his smell, now that he would stand still long enough for her to feel safe.

As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I create alien races and strange, divergent human cultures. I don't want my aliens to be actors with bumpy foreheads. That's sloppy writing. Neither do I want to see my animals as people with fur. That's even sloppier thinking. The lure of projecting human reactions and emotions not only leads to misunderstandings, usually at the pet's expense, but deprives us of the opportunity to get outside our own primate limitations and see the world in a new way.


  1. We do get tangled up in those primate limitations don't we?

  2. We certainly do, but I think half the battle is being aware of how our genetic heritage as primates influences our perceptions and reactions. They're still ours, but we can learn to see them a bit more objectively rather than as the ONLY way to behave!