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Skin Deep

While genetics and life experiences certainly contribute to who dogs are, they’re not the entire story. The other part of the picture is in plain sight.

Breed standards specify required physical attributes pertaining to the tail, the ears and the coat, among other things. Most of these individual attributes, of course, appear across breeds and even in dogs in general. As a result, dog physical appearance — and its implications for how dogs communicate and how they are perceived — can be examined in its own right.

The famous Russian silver fox experiment is a clear reminder that the behaviors animals demonstrate can in some ways be linked to the way they look. In a few generations, foxes bred for docility and friendliness toward humans began to look quite different from those who were fearful of humans. As Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB and science advisor to the ASPCA, summarizes, “As the foxes became more tame, they began to develop a more ‘dog-like’ appearance, with piebald coats and floppy ears.”

Mixed Signals
How does this apply to dogs? Since dogs are the most physically diverse species on the planet, can we find a relationship between the way dogs look and the way they act?

The signals a dog has at its disposal may simply be a matter of basic equipment. As Zawistowski observes, “There are some things that are anatomically not possible for a dog to do, simply based on its anatomy. How can you tell if a Basset Hound has his ears up and forward? A Rottweiler can make a great lip pucker, but how on earth can a Bulldog pucker?” To be sure, the lack of overt behavioral signals does not suggest a dog is not feeling a particular emotion, or even that he might not adopt different strategies to convey them. But the implication is clear: The perception that Rottweilers are aggressive and Basset Hounds are laid-back could be a function of their physical features — and thus, the behaviors they can perform — rather than their mental processes.

With this in mind, could dogs’ physical appearance affect how they communicate? Or even, for that matter, how they’re treated by other members of their species? When a Great Dane comes across a French Bulldog, olfactory cues will reveal that the French Bulldog is, in fact, a dog, but does the Great Dane think to himself, “Hello my long-lost, thirty-times-removed cousin!” or “What the heck? You smell like a dog, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Here to translate for the dogs is Jim Ha, PhD, CAAB, research associate professor and staff member of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash.: “The way dogs look — their morphology — can definitely change the quality of their visual signals. Dogs who are more infantile in appearance — paedomorphic dogs like French Bulldogs, Pugs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — are nice examples of how we are handicapping the dog’s ability to signal properly. But we also find that dogs who are not paedomorphic in appearance can have trouble signaling and communicating with one another as well. Signaling difficulty is not only associated with paedomorphic dogs.”

The changes we’ve made to dogs’ physical appearance do not necessarily make it easier for dogs to communicate with one another. Ha suggests that many aggression issues stem from misuse of signals and miscommunication between dogs.

Voith has a similar assessment: “Based on clinical experience, but not tested systematically, dogs that are fuzzy or black are often attacked by other dogs. I think that is because their social signals are not easily detectable — if at all. Subsequent to being attacked, black or fuzzy dogs become defensively aggressive towards other dogs, generally on leash.”

Herman agrees. “For any dog with a lot of fur or hair, you can’t see muscle tension, and it’s harder to read stiffness. Is a Komondor having a piloerection [raised hair along the dog’s back]? I have no idea.”

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