Heartwarming or Distressing Video? Interpreting Dog Body Language

Describing this interaction as “heartwarming” is way off base
By Karen B. London PhD, March 2019

In a video of a soldier’s reunion with his family, an adorable baby and an upset dog are both in the man’s lap. The soldier is clearly ecstatic to be back with his baby girl and his dog, but the dog’s emotional state leads me to feel sorry for her. The husband and wife consider the situation amusing and the title of the linked story describes the homecoming moment as “heartwarming”. I consider it disturbing because the dog is clearly so unhappy.

Though the situation is extremely upsetting for the dog, the people are not mean-spirited. They simply don’t understand the visual signals the dog is giving. In so many ways, the dog is expressing distress. She is showing a common sign of anxiety by tongue flicking. She is not calm or relaxed which is easy to see because her mouth is often closed and the muscles in her face are tense. Her fearfulness is evident in the visual signal called “whale eye” which means that there is a crescent-shaped white section of her eye showing as she looks to the side. Her ears are back, showing that she is scared or uncomfortable, which is also indicated by the furrows on her forehead that make her look worried. The final sign that she is so unhappy in the situation is her efforts—thankfully successful!—to get away.

This dog’s actions impressed me. She was extremely upset and chose to leave. (The first time I watched the video, I actually said “good dog!” out loud when she got herself out of there.) That was a wonderful decision and one possibly one that prevented trouble. Many dogs in such a negative emotional state would quite understandably lash out. They might growl, snarl, snap, bark or even bite, and that is not what anyone wants, especially around a baby.

The sad thing is that when a dog does not act in a way that seems threatening, people who are not knowledgeable about dog behavior and visual signals see no indication of any distress in the dog. Therefore, they do nothing to remove dogs from such situations or protect them from similar ones in the future. In this case, everyone seemed to find it all so cute and apparently problem-free, even joking about the baby riding the dog like a horse. The situations this dog will likely face in the future are worrisome. I certainly hope she continues to be able to refrain from taking it out on the baby (who is not to blame) and that the parents learn to recognize signs of distress in their dog and protect her from situations which cause such feelings before something bad happens.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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