Canine Body Language


This is an interesting video snippet that has been making the rounds of the internet lately. While brief, it is particularly edifying. The salient and interrelated questions are: what precipitated the outburst, why doesn’t it develop into an all out fight, why are their jaws agape, why do they rise up on their hind legs, what is the criteria which resolves their “dispute”? I will add my interpretation shortly from the perspective of an immediate-moment lens, as well as contrasting this to the calming signal theory and the dominance manner of interpretation.

Read the follow-up post here.



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Published December 28, 2012 by Kevin Behan

15 responses to “Canine Body Language”

  1. Alex Susman says:

    Aren’t they in fact “pushing” each other, without a source for energy to ground into? If there was some prey type object, including a real being, there energy would turn social and so they wouldn’t be frineldy or “aggressive” with each other. (I know this isn’t agression, i’m just using the term like it’s commonly misused on purpose).

    Most imporatantly, there is no source to ground to, for their natural attraction to prey as predators, so it combust on each other like magnets. Only in this case, they are not truly either fully positive or fully negeative, they are both, which is why you get the barking and stress. Eventually the energy becomes one, but this is the process some misinterpret as “aggression” or for the totality of one being “dominant” and one being “submissive”, when actually they are the same energy or at least, that’s what they are working on trying to be, for the purposes of hunting successfully.

    I hope I got some of this right…..?!?!?!?!?

  2. kbehan says:

    Excellent work. To my eyes the seminal moment came when Rhodesian Ridgeback paused at head height, and then it went down and surged forward into the Mal and this resistance was too much for their emotional connection. I can’t tell which dog was growling but I suspect it was the RR since there’s no hair standing on the Mal’s back. Every emotional transaction is predicated on the same dynamic by which momentum is transferred. And since they weren’t differentiated (flip/flop) or aligned around a common object of attraction, they were each blocked by the other, no transfer possible and hence the eruption. The noise and the aggression is the friction between them since emotion isn’t moving. Much more to say later but good job.

  3. Alex Susman says:

    I’m happy my understanding flows with someone who has been doing this for way longer. I just have to mature into the way I explain it. you explain it with greater clarity.

  4. wetnosewarmhearts says:

    Might their mouths be agape in order to taste or ingest the essence of one another, that is, saliva exchange? Although there was a growl, in looking at this short video I did not feel fearful that one would actually bite the other. To me the exchange appeared more rough and tumble in a young dog manner. Because they were left alone (no external energy added), they could work the relationship out.

  5. kbehan says:

    Yes exactly, both dogs are open to the other which is why their jaws are agape, but they are also paralyzed by the “mirror effect” i.e. the other dog is reflecting right back at it. This is why every move is matched by the other, whatever they do, it’s blocked by the same in the other. (In the very beginning however the RR was absorbing the Mal’s momentum, but it was getting more and more aroused and then began to move its deeper stress which is what swamped the Mal and is probably why the RR was growling, if indeed it was the one doing so.) They then jousted with their teeth, and emotionally this is exactly akin to two bucks fighting with their horns during the rut. The Mal’s emotional capacity is higher than the RR’s and so at the end when the RR was experiencing a mini-collapse and shrinking, the Mal’s tail began to wag and it looks away, it was reliving the feeling of flow from early litter experiences and feeling a magnetic-like deflection from the RR’s eyes. I suspect that they get along in general very well, but they’re not moving their DIS, that last .01% and so in a compressed, high intensity situation, I wouldn’t want to see them together. The RR is left holding the charge, he absorbed the Mal’s momentum, but not able to process it smoothly, as in flipping and flopping. If the Mal’s emotional capacity was higher, it would have flipped polarity to the RR’s increase of resistance and tried to tune him out if he persisted. I wouldn’t be surprised if the RR is food defensive, or place defensive and the Mal can feel this held back surge and so wasn’t willing to absorb that forward thrust of body contact.

  6. kbehan says:

    We’ll keep breaking down this interaction so that the template becomes more visible and then ease of application from context to context will increase. We’ll also see the simple formula whereby individual emotional momentums combine and are deflected onto a common object-of-attention that can absorb and satisfy that combined momentum as a template for complex interactions. The important variables are degree of resistance (R), upward thrust in shoulders (^) so that dog can maintain equilibrium as well as sustain its forward momentum (->), the emotional ground (+), the source of pressure (-), and most importantly a direction of flow { (-) —–> (+) } So there was no direction of flow for these dogs in that particular frame of reference. They didn’t work anything out, they were able to feel that it didn’t feel good to commit more forward thrust to the other, and so the charge remains latent but more likely to be deflected onto a common object-of-attention once it becomes apparent. I find it interesting that the Mal had a heavy duty harness so I suspect he gets bite work and thus able to calm himself down since his prey drive probably gets more gratification than the RR.

  7. Alex Susman says:

    Your work is the work that is excellent Kevin, and as good as a job i did, i still am confused about some particulars. Like you said, there is still more work to do……

    Why is it so easy for some dogs to flip polarity with humans but not with other dogs, that confuses the hell out of me.

  8. john says:

    what i have trouble with in these cases is, are some dogs born with a lesser temperament or a restricted ability to interact with other dogs by their very nature, guarding dogs, terriers etc or is it all down to emotional capacity or is it that their prey drive issue is never addressed in some highly driven dogs

    i can see in this clip the lip licking first by the mali seems to signify the change in atmosphere between the two, so if the mali got swamped was it not able to absorb the momentum , the ridge just at the start looked like he was in a position to absorb by almost play bowing

    another detail which catches me is the mali reliving feeling of flow from its litter stage and feeling a magnetic like deflection from the eyes what exactly is going on there

    would spending more time together and long walks not also help in a situation like this is fear an element that can worked on together in each others company

  9. kbehan says:

    Emotional capacity is a function of being attuned to the surroundings, so the stronger the dog’s nature, and since emotion flows from the predatory pole to the preyful pole, we can see why the prey-making/oral urge is the most powerful conduit to conduct emotion and is thus how an animal can feel attuned to its surroundings. But behavior is circles within circles, so there is a process of elaboration (the predatory aspect of another being triggers physical memories of flow, which is what happened in the Mal at the end of the tape) and in this way the prey drive evolves into sensuality and then attuning can come through a feeling of sensuality as opposed to having to use the jaws. This is why terriers often can’t elaborate to as high a level as the herding breeds, can’t put as many circles around circles, and so their attraction collapses into the prey instinct and they exhibit a diminished capacity to take direction or respond in the moment to nuance. Prey drive on the other hand can keep elaborating and a more complex relationship (heightened state of attunement) can conduct more emotion than the prey instinct. Thus we find that even a low-prey threshold dog, such as the bird hunting breeds, can nonetheless hunt all day and irrespective of getting a bird as a reinforcement. This is a function of high emotional capacity as well, simply tuned to the low flight threshold (low resistance) of a particular prey species. But the need to overcome high resistance is still present, which is why the dog wants to work all day.
    The lip licking in the Mal was the reliving of litter experiences and this helped generate sensuality in response to the pressure of the RR, in other words, he was becoming aroused more so than he was sensing disequilibrium, physical memories of flow were coming forward to sustain its feeling of connection to the RR. This sensuality caused him to deflect his gaze since the RR’s predatory aspect didn’t feel good when under the influence of the hunger circuitry. Whereas if he was processing the pressure of the RR through the balance circuitry, he would have had to either attack or flee. Definitely long walks together are therapeutic, but this clip also shows how the purpose of play is to align and sync up for the hunt. Play by itself is inherently frustrating, and when dogs have strong natures and no common “ground” then their mutual state of attraction will generate intense friction. So while the RR was at first absorbing the momentum of the Mal, when he got stimulated to enough intensity, his DIS began to move up and he relived a pain memory and so he started growling and this triggered the DIS of the Mal. So play doesn’t move DIS, it’s purpose is to differentiate the group into the spectrum of arousal relative to balance, therefore they can align and sync and project their DIS onto a common object-of-attention.

  10. kbehan says:

    Good question. Each species of being has a specific Resistance value and this is assayed by an observer by way of their balance relative to hunger circuitry. So if a dog has a kink in its dynamic, and has enjoyed success with a human, it makes it more difficult to flip with a dog. And it works the same in reverse as well. This kind of orientation speaks more to the overall organizing effect of “The Charge” more than it does to individual choice making. If two dogs see the same thing, one will orient from the balance side of the spectrum, the other from the hunger. One focuses on the predatory aspect, one on the preyful aspect. This allows them to align and synchronize with each other in terms of this common object-of-attention. So if a dog is inhibited by a human, it may feel freer with another dog, and vice versa.

  11. Jennifer Wheeler says:

    That’s really interesting, Kevin. These interactions happen SO quickly that to have a video like this is amazing! I watched it frame by frame. Fascinating. I also am amazed at how many emotions it brings up in ME! Just a few seconds of action can be so rich.

    I notice that the Ridgeback licks his lips at seconds 8 & 9. Why does he do that at that point?

  12. kbehan says:

    You can see at that point in the video that the dogs are at an impasse, both are up on their hind legs and they are face-to-face. Therefore they are both reflecting the other back to itself (the “mirror effect”), and this resistance activates physical memories from the past. They are licking their lips as the physical memories of flow in the litter, these flow memories are what mollify their aggression. We can also see that there is differentiation in their facial expressions, the RR (softened expressions) is the equal/opposite of the Malinois (sharp focused expression). This differentiation by way of the little-brain-in-the-gut is what saves the day. I also have to wonder if there is the influence of electronic collars in any of this. I will also return to the question as to why they go high, from best I can tell, the inability of the RR to get above the Mal is what prompted him to growl and this made the Mal unable to absorb his forward momentum and so he reciprocated in kind, but with a metered bark rather than the incoherent stream coming from the RR.

  13. […] that’s in play during the interaction between the Rhodesian Ridgeback seen on the left in the video from the previous post, and the Malinois on the right. The interaction has to be understood as an emotional transaction, […]

  14. cliff says:

    Can’t quite tell, but the Mal seems to be an intact male. Does this play into the interaction?

  15. kbehan says:

    The people that can be heard in the background seem to be talking in German so there’s a good chance that the Mal isn’t neutered, and perhaps the RR as well given Europe’s much lower rates of neutering. I think that helps to keep them soft. I suspect that these dogs are good with other dogs as the owner felt comfortable just filming. So there is a charge building, but the positive harbinger is that both dogs are manifesting a state of vulnerability rather than defensiveness, and this is the source of their differentiation and deflection from increasing the level of intensity. They are left feeling a frustrated state of arousal, and this speaks to the neutering question because when an individual feels sensual, they are internally motivated and guided to self-regulate which causes them to absorb the other individuals momentum and this increases the sensual quotient of their partner.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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