Space: The Language of Dog Culture Part I


Space: The Language of Dog Culture Part I

In the world of dog culture, space matters. How close. How far. How far up. How far down. All these things are language in dog culture. How quickly or slowly we approach. At what angle. With what kind of body language. These are the nuances of language, the things that bespeak personality, flavor. In the same way that people move through a party or gathering with different styles of body language each of which gives us information about that person, so too does space give information in the dog world.

Here at the ranch, both professionals and owners of dogs in training come to learn the non-verbal language of dogs. Learning how to read dogs is an essential part of the ADDR teaching process. The forty acres of space here, and the off leash training that enables all clients’ dogs to move freely through space, allow for a full range of dog social language. Teaching points out nuances in language, and response, to enable ever better and better communication. Learning to read, really read dogs is an ongoing joy of mine that brings new details every day.

When we approach a dog, we are actually engaging in a conversation. There is language in every motion of our body and how we occupy space. People are no different. Each of us prefers to be approached in a certain way. Most of us prefer something vaguely in the middle between too servile and too “hale fellow well met.” We neither appreciate bluster, nor cringing. Dogs are the same. It is not so much that they derive different meanings from body language, it’s just that theirs is an older, courtlier language than our modern day interchanges. Dogs are still a distinct culture.  Just like a business person would not presume to go to Japan or Saudi without studying what nuances of meet or greet might make friends or give offense, if we want to be really successful in the world of dogs, especially with tricky dogs, we need to slow down and pay attention to both communicating well and not giving offense.


So what is the conversation when we approach a dog? Depending on how far away we are when we start towards a dog, we move through more generalized pack space into personal space. Personal space, for dogs, like humans, begins about three feet out from the body. Personal body space is entered when we actually touch another creature. Critical distances of language occur at probably a vast infinity of divisions — the “alphabet” of space. But for purposes of this discussion we will use the following rough transition zones: 3, 6, 10, 15, 30, 50, 100, and 250′ of space. Family space might be considered to be out to 10′, pack space out to 30′, social space 50′, information 100, and threat assessment 250. (More on this in Part II.)

Just like with us, there is more latitude allowed for confusing body language between dogs when one is further away than if they are within close proximity. When someone gets close to us, we want them to behave in a certain way. When someone touches us, we especially want them to do so in a certain way, depending on what our relationship with them is. We certainly want our co-workers to touch us differently than we we do our kids or our partner. A favorite friend has far more access to our personal space than a new acquaintance. Presumptions made too soon about personal access are a sure interrupter on the path to intimacy. The same is true for dogs. Yet so often we presume to just slam on through space (language, and meaning) and PAT, PAT, PAT on the head of some poor dog. Yccgh says the dog in a million ways. Eyes scrunching. Mouth dropping open. Body going neutral, or not, depending on the level of aggression in the dog. Breathing changing. Holding the breath. Breathing more rapidly. Muscles tightening. Tail dropping. A million subtle clues.

So what might polite approach look like in the world of DOG??

Slow down
Soften your body
Angle slightly sideways
Dip your eyes
Approach at the shoulder
Closed fingers
Given permission, matter of fact, firm stroking, front to back, top to bottom.

Sort of like a courtly dance or presentation to the queen isn’t it?? Yes, dog culture is more formal than we are.

When we just walk straight up to the dog, shoulders and hips front facing, eyes front, regardless of the amount of relaxation in our body, we are still communicating a bold, (actually rude) bordering on aggressive, approach. Straight on approach signals aggression. Curved approach signals politeness. If our body is tight, we signal even higher on the aggression scale. If the dog’s body is tight, they will receive the information higher up on the aggression scale. A two way street of burgeoning negativity.

When we zoom through pack space into personal space and on into personal body space without even a pause, we are unknowingly making demands and statements about dominance and submission. We are not giving the dog an option to hang with us, we are imposing our friendship, and the fact that we are in charge of that friendship. I am not referring right now to the need to establish clear training boundaries with a dog, I am talking merely about what space and approach mean to a dog so that we can read their language correctly to get the very best response out of the dog. We can pause briefly and acknowledge a dialogue and achieve way, way more.

We probably don’t really like it if someone is looking at us with a very intent, fixed gaze, yet we do it to dogs all the time. Just because about 8/10 of the dogs that are out there will be polite when we are rude, does not mean that it wouldn’t hurt us to learn to speak their language a little better. And increasingly, we are seeing dogs who will not be polite back, dogs who do not come from a stable gene pool, who are poorly bred or merely the result of some haphazard mating, or who have not had any proper development or who lack any kind of age appropriate and breed appropriate socialization, (which does not mean taking your young pup to a dog park and letting them get pummeled by the older hooligans who are there.). That is not socialization. Socialization is a gradual process of increasing the complexity of experiences and sensory stimulation that begins at week one of a pup’s life.

Whether the dog is polite back or not, our continual obliviousness to the subtleties of spatial language, or our misunderstandings about the language of space can diminish our training results, result in confusion for the dog, result in frustration for ourselves and in its worst aspects create chaos. Simple courtesies go a long way in all cultures. The same is true of the boundary between the culture of humans and the world of DOG.

In upper level training, we use these notions of space and proximity to build and direct drive to our training objective. Space and movement become treasured pieces of the motivational puzzle. At a basic level it’s about preferences. My big shepherd likes to be part of a rugby scrum. He likes to push up against and be pushed against. So does the Rottie who’s here now for training. Approached like that, the Shibas blink in either disgust on the part of one, or confusion or an attempt to placate on the part of the other. The terriers want to come in on their terms or not at all. Each has their personal preference to space, proximity, speed, and direction. Just like us. Our job is to be aware and if we want to learn to train, or maximize our effectiveness with our pets – some basic awareness of what it all means is essential.

Resources: Turid Rugaas, Calming Signals video.


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