I run socialization classes since 2007.
It’s nothing like nice and friendly dogs happily interacting with other dogs. Most of the time I have to deal with dogs that can be reactive, aggressive, scared, lacking in emotional and social skills. The good news is that I had to learn how to use dog’s behaviors to make predictions about the interactions.
To open the gate or not to open the gate?
That’s how and why I started to observe and analyze behaviors. I was able to publish the Ethogram of behaviors of the dog thanks to all the videos and the pictures we took during these experiences in the field.
In the beginning I had the feeling I could see and understand only few behaviors. It was like “blank... lateral posture... blank blank blank.. arched back... blank...”. It went better and better, as I started to increase the number of behaviors I could recognize, name, and associate with an emotional state, a motivation, or a consequence.
The only way to build this knowledge was to observe dogs like I had never seen them before. Dogs had to be same as wild gorillas, to me. As a side effect of this approach, I was not relying on previous descriptions and explanations, not even for the most familiar behaviors, like the upright posture (“dominance”), hackles (“aggressiveness”), and, the bow (“play”).
I can still remember the first time I thought “the play bow isn’t - just - about play, it is used in a competitive-imposing communication”.
It was years ago, I was in Tuscany for a two day socialization classes event. There was a three months old bullmastiff pup in the field, with an adult female border collie. The collie was nice and sociable. The puppy was displaying the bow during the interaction, repeatedly. At some point, the female border collie was standing along the fence, as the puppy was sitting in the middle of the field, watching her. I thought “the puppy has taken control over the space, and pushed her to the border”. That’s not play, no fun.
From that moment, I started to focus on the bow, trying to gather more information about it: contexts, emotions, motivations, outcomes...
There is much more than “play”, in a bow.
I translate now the bow in 4 different meanings: run, chase me, displace, stop.
Even if I am more confident now in the interpretation of this signal, I have never stopped observing and analyzing it.
To cut a long story short, a few days ago we had a “bitework” training day. I finally had the chance to take pictures. In the evening, as I was deleting the bad ones, I saw pictures of different dogs displaying the bow in a new context: possession.
As you can see in the pictures, dog are using the mouth, the front paws, and the body weight to control and possess the toy/sleeve. This is a sheer predatory behavior, the catch of the prey. The dog is probably displaying the bow, rather then lying on the ground, to be able to start the chase if the prey flees.
This bow is a strategy to catch and hold the prey, but it can disclose new perspectives in our understanding of dog behavior and communication.
Text and photos Alexa Capra 4 april 2018
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