How well do you understand your dog’s body language?
You may think you’ve got a pretty good read on your canine companion, spotting telltale signs that they’re feeling happy or excited.
However, there are many occasions when you may confuse your dog’s smiling face for happiness when they in fact feel overwhelmed or suffocated.
I was given the chance to read Doggie Language by Lili Chin.
If you’re a dog owner like me, there’s a good chance you may have previously encountered some of Lili’s illustrations about dog body language.
Her Doggie Language poster with illustrations of her Boston Terrier Boogie went viral a couple of years ago and you can easily find it on Google Images.
Lili has created an accessible, illustrated guide to understanding visual cues our dogs use to communicate with us.
Having read the book, I have a better understanding of my two dogs and I’ve learned that I have been misinterpreting some of their body language cues for years.
I spoke to Lili to learn more about her new book Doggie Language, her journey as a creator and a dog owner as well as some great tips for pet parents.
You can pick up your copy of Doggie Language on Amazon by clicking here.
1) How did you get into dog/pet illustration?
I got into pet illustration almost by accident. Back in 2007 I was working in animation, and fostering Boston Terriers for Boston Buddies Rescue.
I was posting my Boston Terrier drawings on the internet and was receiving so many requests for drawings of other people’s dogs that I started doing pet portraits as a hobby fundraiser for Boston Buddies. I was unprepared for how busy this would make me. My animation-related work had slowed down, so I turned Doggie Drawings into a small business.
Shortly after I adopted Boogie my Boston Terrier, he bit someone. This event turned my life upside down as I struggled to not get evicted from my home or have him taken away from me. I hired my first dog trainer and started learning about dog behavior.
My educational journey led me from some outdated punitive training ideas, to more humane methods for changing behavior. I connected with experts like the late Dr Sophia Yin (veterinary behaviorist) whom I worked for as an illustrator for 3 years, creating infographics on how to recognize fear and stress in dogs to prevent dog bites, low-stress handling, and positive reinforcement-based training.
Everything that I was learning was so interesting to me that I was sharing it all online via illustrations and then was hired to create more educational infographics for dog trainers, veterinarians, and welfare groups including the APBC and RSPCA. This is in addition to creating and selling my own art online.
2) What inspired you to create your new book?
I created a poster back in around 2011 called “Doggie Language” that features Boogie my Boston Terrier. I was inspired by the works of Turid Rugaas and Brenda Aloff, and also what I was learning by observing Boogie. My poster went viral on the internet and led to many dog body language professional illustration projects.
A few years ago Summersdale Publishers saw my “Doggie Language” poster and asked if I would be interested in turning this into a small book. Instead of having Boogie the Boston Terrier be the featured dog, they requested drawings of many different dog breeds. I am so glad they asked me to do this as it’s wonderful opportunity to present dog body language knowledge to a wider audience where I could expand on the information in the poster, and get into more nuances and distinctions. The small gift book format is so cute and perfect.
3) How important is it to educate pet owners about dog body language?
Speaking as a dog owner and as an artist who has worked for professional dog behavior consultants to promote this knowledge to the world, I feel it is very important to educate pet owners about dog body language. This knowledge would enhance relationships between people and their dogs. People can avoid getting bitten by dogs, and also not unintentionally stress out their dogs due to misinterpreting their dog’s body language.
A key reminder in many “Dog Bite Prevention” campaigns I have worked on is that dogs don’t bite out of the blue. It is when their silent requests for space are ignored (by the human or the other dog) that a dog is more likely to escalate to aggressive behaviors like growling or biting. So learning dog body language is very important for the safety of pet owners and especially children who might be more touchy-feely and grabby around dogs. Not all tail wags are “friendly” and neither is all eye-contact.
If we know how to “listen” to a dog, we can help them when they are stressed. We can change what we are doing or arrange things so they feel safe. We can know if they are enjoying an experience or hating it or confused by it. We know if our dog wants to be petted or if they want to be left alone right now. So frequently, people punish their dogs because they misinterpret stress signals. There is a great meme (I don’t know who started it) that accompanies a photo of a reactive barking lunging dog: “Your dog is not giving you a hard time. They are having a hard time”. Learning dog body language is respect for dogs, and essential to a pet dog’s health and welfare.
4) What have you learned along your journey about dog body language that you didn’t know before you started illustrating?
What I have learned about dog body language over the years:
• Dogs use non-vocal behaviors to communicate peacefully with each other. These visual signals are how they prevent and resolve social conflicts. Soft eyes, play breaks, shake-offs, head turns, etc. (They are not out to dominate each other.)
• Knowing how to see stress signals in dogs will prevent dog bites. The lip licks, whale eye, freezing etc. – these are some tiny signals that tell you that a dog feels pressured and needs space. There have been many dog bite incidents where people have blamed the dog for being “bad” when all along the dog had tried to communicate how uncomfortable they were, and these signals were ignored. Veterinarians, animal care professionals, police, firefighters…. anyone who has to come into contact with unfamiliar dogs to do their job could also benefit with this knowledge.
• If you have a dog who is stressed or fearful, you don’t want to add to that stress. The process of rehabilitating “reactive/aggressive” dogs requires really sensitive observational skills. It helps to be able to see the changes in your dog’s body language – from relaxed, to curious, to concerned, etc – so that you can keep your dog feeling un-stressed (“under threshold”) throughout the whole training process.
• When dogs are playing with each other – knowing how to read dog body language will help us know if both dogs are actually having fun or if there is some sort of bullying non-consensual interaction going on. Are both dogs relaxed? Are there play breaks?
5) What are some of the most common misconceptions about dog body language?
I think people tend to anthropomorphize and overgeneralize when they don’t know how to read their dog’s body language.
For example, calling a dog “dominant/submissive”, “friendly/unfriendly” etc, instead of paying attention to observable physical signs. A head turn in Doggie Language (page 66) could mean that the dog is feeling uncertain or confused about your request, and not actively ignoring you because they are “stubborn”.
I have seen many dog photos on the internet with captions that are so wrong for what the dog is feeling. A famous one shows a dog face with squinting eyes, ears pinned back, and what looks like a very wide smile. Based on the comments, many people seem to find this photo “adorable” because this looks like how humans smile, when in reality, the dog is feeling under pressure and would like you to give them some space.
There is also the possible misconception that if a dog does one thing, it always means the same thing. In my book there are examples of similar looking behaviors that don’t all mean the same thing. We would need to look at movements in the whole body, and the context. (eg, Exposed Bellies page 112, Paw Lift, page 116)
Breed/type, age, and health conditions also impact how a dog moves. For example, my Boston Terrier is a lot stiffer and slower these days due to his being 16 years old.
6) What are the most commonly misunderstood dog body language signals?
After talking with dog trainers, these seem to be two of the most commonly misunderstood:
• Tail Wags – We have been taught that tail wags are a sign of friendliness. This is not true. The position of the tail and how the tail is wagging are all significant. A dog facing you with a stiff body and fast high-wagging tail could be ready to attack you. (Page 108)
• Calm vs Shut Down – People also think that when a dog is really still and quiet this means that they are calm and relaxed. There are numerous YouTube videos of dogs being grabbed, carried, poked and prodded at, at the vets or at the groomers, and they are actually frozen in fear or shut down.(pages 76, 118)
7) Do dogs smile?
This depends on what you mean by “smile”. A human can still smile when they are feeling angry, sad, confused, or any other emotion. 🙂
A dog’s mouth may resemble a “smile” on a human face, but as with any dog body language, in order for us to know how the dog is feeling we need to look at the whole face, whole body and context. Some “smiling” dog mouths are a sign of anxiety(page 54) or appeasement (page 60).
8) Why do dog ears go back?
Boogie my dog, has very expressive ears. When he sees someone he knows (this was before he became blind), his ears would drop down whenever he looked at someone he was familiar with. This is an appeasement behavior when he approaches that person. “Hi there, I am friendly. Are you friendly?” If he is leaning away with ears back, he does not feel so good about the interaction.
If a dog’s ears are pinned back, this is a sign of fear. (pages 84-87)
9) How can you tell if a dog is scared?
A scared dog may freeze. They may also go into flight (move away, hide, small cowering posture) or fight (hackles up, tense upright posture, hard stare, tight mouth, snarling).
A very scared dog will have a rounded lower back with a tucked tail and ears pinned back. They may also be flat on the ground, avoiding interaction, staying very still.
10) Do you have a favourite dog breed to illustrate, apart from your Boogie?
I don’t have a favourite dog breed to illustrate but prefer drawing short-haired dogs.
11) Can you share some of the feedback that you’ve had about your book?
I have been receiving lots of wonderful feedback so far. The comments that have been the most heartwarming for me are the ones about Doggie Language being very clearly-written, and very easy to understand for people of all ages, and that everybody who has ever interacted with a dog or who lives with a dog should own a copy!
You can pick up your copy of Doggie Language on Amazon by clicking here.