Sorry you’ve been disconnected

You would think that after cohabitating for 15,000 years, give or take a few thousand, that humans would be better at understanding their dogs. For as much as we claim to love them and marvel at their abilities, we sure don’t know what they are talking about much of the time.

At a conference I was attending a speaker on the uses of social media used this video clip of an interaction between two dogs to illustrate his point that even dogs can be deceptive.

It was funny to watch but I began debating with myself, should I say something or just keep my mouth shut? I didn’t want to be rude, or worse seem humorless, but the idea that the dog was trying to ‘fool’ the other dog into thinking he was dead was too much of a stretch for me. Dogs often offer behaviors similar to this, though usually with less dramatic flair, as an appeasement gesture. It doesn’t have to mean that the dog was afraid, or concerned, but it’s a behavior pattern that is common in dogs. I probably would have kept my mouth shut except for two reasons, we were at a conference for pet bloggers and the speaker asked for comments or questions.

Despite the fact that I am comfortable presenting information in front of a large audience, the thought of standing up and making an unrehearsed statement had my heart pounding and my mouth dry. But I had a third reason compelling me to speak. Earlier in the day we had been shown another video of dogs. This time it was a marketing video for a chain of doggie day cares.

As much respect as I had for the founder, overcoming tragedy and adversity to start a thriving business, I was dumbfounded by the video. In it a dog is introduced to a day care facility by other dogs. Voice-overs for the dogs express how much fun the dogs have while they’re there. The problem was that the actual behaviors of the dogs did not indicate that they were having fun at all. Perhaps dogs do have a great time but in the video I was seeing dogs visibly uncomfortable being filmed, tails were down, ears were lowered, backing away from the camera. The audience chuckled and applauded. I got up and left. Why would professionals in the animal care industry use footage of uncomfortable animals to illustrate how happy they were? It would be like making a porn film with one of the actors yawning throughout.

This was not an isolated event. All manner of professionals in the dog training and care industry are defining dog behavior and have it wrong: dogs offering appeasement behaviors are labeled as feeling ‘guilty’; fearful, snarling dogs are called ‘dominant’; confused, untrained dogs are labeled ‘stubborn’. For many dogs being misunderstood is not the end of the world, heck sometimes I feel as though no one understands me, but for fearful dogs, being misunderstood can mean the difference between being life and death. There is a disconnect between dogs and humans, one that often seems greater than the connection between us.

8 comments so far

  1. Jim Stay on

    Another great post. I don’t even think he was being submissive. I think he just got off balance in his bouncing around, and when he flopped decided to lay there for a moment.

    I think the problem is in the basic we way we are taught to “train” our dogs. It’s all a one way street. Behaviorism doesn’t have any room for mutual interaction. It takes time and focus to learn dog communication.

  2. Jen on

    I saw this video once before (Patricia McConnell discussed it on her blog), but don’t claim to know the “real” reason behind the behavior. To me, it seemed like dogs goofing around. Elka seems to “pretend” a whole lot of things, either when I’m watching or when I’m not. The fact that the “faker” dog looked at the other dog might be “are you watching” or it might be “is this okay? is this better?” The dramatic flop certainly could be an appeasement behavior; it’s not what I thought on July 30 (McConnell’s blog here:, but it’s funny what you learn and how opinions can change in a short time.

  3. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for your comments and interesting to read the comments on the blog post. I never thought of a neurological response. Lying down like that is a common behavior in dogs, whether appeasement or self-handicapping. I didn’t see McConnell’s response. Whatever the cause or reason for the behavior the belief that dogs understand ‘pretend’ is a cognitive leap I’m not ready to make with dogs.

  4. Wow… Honestly my first reaction (watching it only once, should have turned the sound off…) is a social inept dog not sure how to handle meeting another dog and trying several things. I would love to watch these two longer and see what happens. I agree with you that I’m not sure dogs “pretend”, I would assume more that the nervous need to bounce caused the dog to jump up again, since it went right back to the bouncing around. One of the best parts of working in a daycare for me was watching the dogs interact, and doing the absolute best to my human ability to make sure everyone had a fun time playing with compatible playmates. The regulars became as dear to me as my own dogs. Thanks for challenging people’s assumptions of dogs attitudes.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is a good exercise to think about what is going on isn’t it. Was the dog nervous, excited, trying all means to get the other dog to engage? I don’t know but subterfuge was not likely part of the picture. But if science one day shows us that dogs have the brain power for reasoning through deceit I’ll be among the first to embrace it. 😉

      • Animals are so honest and simple I don’t believe they are deceitful. But they are quick and learn what works before we realize they have learned it. I had no “formal” dog behavior before I started working with dogs, but watched and learned my own thoughts. So often people who teach dog behavior say to watch the dog, but you also need to watch the other dog’s reaction to the dog. It’s all a conversation.

        Have you read any of Sue Sternburg’s books? When I read the one about dog interaction my boss loaned me it was the first time I’d read anything like it. My comment to my boss was “she sees dogs the way I do, but she can write a lot better and actually explain it!”

        Another interesting outcome is I see people totally different now, which really surprised me. How I could have such a strong opinion about someone after just meeting them, only to have it proven as time went on!

  5. Lizzie on

    That was funny to watch the excited youngster goofing around, well that’s how I interpret it anyway.
    Some dogs seem to have the ability to be comedic. As for ‘faking death’ that’s ridiculous! It’s probably something that the pup has done before, maybe that’s why the owner was filming it?
    I wouldn’t over analyse an innocent playful encounter.

  6. fearfuldogs on

    You make good points. If I am not sure why a dog is doing something or what it means I look to see how other dogs respond, especially dogs who have good social skills. I am lucky to have some great trainers I can talk to who have helped me figure stuff out with my dogs.

    My cocker Annie has very bad skills when it comes to meeting new dogs. It looks like she’s upset, and there may be some of that to it for her as well, but until a friend pointed out that she thought that Annie was trying to play, but didn’t know how to do it politely, I didn’t see it. She growls and gets too nippy and ends up scaring other dogs. It makes sense in the context of her growing up with a dog who was afraid of her as a pup and so she never got to play or learn how to control her responses. Most dogs don’t want to play with her, even if she can induce them to start as she goes over the top and as a mom would say, “someone is going to end up crying.”

    I especially like Sue’s book on successful dog adoptions.

    Watching dogs is one of the best educations we can give ourselves, but there are also great resources on the ethology of dogs that can answer many of our questions.

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