Wherein this becomes just another really obnoxious photo blog (canine body language a go-go)

After waiting for YEARS, I finally have a digital SLR. It’s just a Nikon D40, beloved of all beginner digital photographers, but yowza is it miles above anything else I’ve ever had. And so, of course, the dogs must be photographed. Grand total today: 200 pics of dogs, less than 100 of my own children, darling offspring of my loins.

I captured the following exchange, which is fascinating from a dog behavior standpoint. Let’s parse, courtesy of Rugaas, Aloff, and Handelman (which, by the way, I like in that order, though all are valuable).

Enter Player 1, Bronte, Cardigan Welsh Corgi, age 18 months. You need to know the following: We have a rule in our house that dogs are not allowed to jump on kids, and in fact they are supposed to be invited to approach kids. I am very strict about this with the baby, less so with the older kids.

Meriwether is lying on the ground and Bronte has approached. Bronte knows she’s not supposed to jump on her but is SO tempted. See the airplane ears? They indicate uncertainty. The eyes are round and a bit anxious, tail is down.

She is overwhelmed by the thought (this is very normal for Bronte; she is a very gentle and submissive girl and she very rarely disobeys). The ears are completely flat, tail down, indicating stress. She tongue-flicks, which is a calming/distancing signal that announces to the world that she is nonthreatening and also works to calm herself down. If you look very closely on the bottom left of the picture, you can see the fuzzy hair of Player 2, who is about to enter the scene.

This is Ginny Weasley, who is a one-year-old “designer dog” rescue from the Hartford pound. Ginny is two things in our family: the fun police and the enforcer of all rules. Clue, our other Cardigan, is the dominant bitch, but Ginny considers herself the schoolmarm and she hates chaos. She KNOWS that dogs are not supposed to be near kids, so when she saw Bronte approach Meri she ran over. This has all taken place over about three seconds, by the way; you can see that Meri is still in the exact same position and has only had time to put her leg down. Bronte displayed the calming signals in the prior picture and then came around Meri to the other side.

Ginny is plainly coming over on a mission and is reeking of dominance. Her tail is ostentatiously high. Her head is high. She moves immediately toward Bronte’s face. Bronte is not instinctively submissive to Ginny–see the ears back up again?–but she’s willing to be told what to do. Her tail is at half-mast.

Ginny plants herself between Meri’s body space and Bronte. You can see that Bronte is already shifting her weight to move away. Her ears are cupped and listening in two directions (see how the ear to the right of the screen is much narrower at the base than it was in the prior picture?) indicating that she is agreeing to obey and is listening closely. Their wider set means a little bit of anxiousness.

Ginny is not satisfied–she has decided that she will not merely split the two up but punish Bronte for thinking about disobeying. This is very typical of Ginny; she is not very tolerant of any infractions and she is very vocal and physical with the other dogs (not at all with humans, interestingly). Here she’s interposed herself between Meri and Bronte. Note how Ginny herself is shrinking up to avoid touching Meri–she follows the rules as well as enforces them. “Splitting” is a technique often used by dogs; often it’s used by the pack leader to end a squabble or calm down a play session that’s too chaotic, but as here it can be used to separate a dog from a resource. Ginny’s head is still very high and her nose is over Bronte’s back–this is not an accident.

Ginny swiftly shoulders Bronte away from Meri and delivers a Punishment Bite. Notice the perfect bite inhibition here–Ginny’s mouth remains slightly open and she actually hits with her mouth and jaw rather than biting down. There is no intention to cause injury here, just to make her point absolutely clear.

Message sent, conflict over. Bronte continues to move to the side, turning her head away from Meri to indicate that she does not want to go toward her. Ginny’s head is now medium-height and relaxed, her ears are relaxed, her tail is at the level of her back. Neither wishes to continue the confrontation, so they look away from each other.

Plainly a job well done, at least in Ginny’s mind.

Keep in mind that the last five frames were consecutive frames from a D40 in continuous shooting mode, which means that a total of 2 seconds has passed since Ginny arrived on the scene. This was a micro-moment that I would have missed entirely if I hadn’t had the camera going (I had been taking pictures of Meri rolling around on the ground). Dog communication is VERY rich, but it is incredibly efficient and elegant. Entire paragraphs are packed into a third of a second of action.

Tomorrow: play-fighting.


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