Dogs and Body Pressure: A Photo Study

Jul 17, 2019 | Training

Black dog Zani is respecting the personal space of tan dog Clara

Zani and Clara and I were playing a game I call the Gravity Game. It has evolved over the years. The indoor version is as follows:

  1. Clara deliberately drops her ball
  2. It rolls
  3. Zani picks it up
  4. Zani brings it to me
  5. I trade it for a piece of kibble
  6. I toss the ball back to Clara
  7. Repeat

I have a previous post on The Gravity Game. Clara invented it, first using gravity to play a game of fetch with herself, then training Zani and me to fetch for her. Here’s the Gravity Game video.

So the other night the three of us were playing the gravity game at my friend’s house. We were playing with an old favorite Goughnuts ball of Clara’s that’s so chewed up it doesn’t even roll properly.

We were playing the game as described above, repeating it in a loop. This went on for several iterations. Then, one time when Clara dropped the ball, it rolled a couple of inches, then rolled back to her. This happened because it’s chewed up and no longer spherical. Zani trotted over to get it as usual.

Then this happened. Here’s the photo again for reference.

Zani trotted after the ball, got that far, and stopped cold. She turned her head away and curved her body away from Clara. You can even see a weight shift to the right, and that her commissures are tight. She is not standing squarely on all four feet. It’s a reasonable assumption that she is not looking at Clara. (You can also see a little spinal curvature, lordosis, that has developed after her accident.)

Zani is socially adept and has lovely doggie skills, and even though the pattern of the game is that she picks the ball up and Clara “expects” her to, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t make herself take those final two steps to enter the space right in front of Clara’s face and gaze to pick up the ball.

She froze in that position long enough for me to grab my phone and take this shot. I think afterward I even encouraged her to get the ball, but she just walked away.

Personal Space

I’ve written a bit about dogs’ sensitivity to spatial pressure. Zani is a great teacher. She is extremely careful about personal space. (Except when she is actively trying to get another dog to move by intrusively pressing her nose in their ear or butt.)

I wrote a long article for BARKS from the Guild on this topic. Turns out that personal space bubbles are a real thing and much studied.

But this post is just a mini-study on the body language during one incident. To anthropomorphize a little, Zani is being wonderfully “polite” to Clara about the ball.

Clara’s Body Language

So what part does Clara play? Does anybody want to take a stab at describing Clara’s body language in the photo of the two of them above? Mainly, is she guarding the ball? What observations do you have? (Her mouth is open because she was lightly panting after we had played ball outside.) I’ll wait and express my opinions later. What do you think?

Addendum 8/1/2018

I’ve gotten some great comments about Clara’s body language and her possible part in Zani’s reluctance to get the ball. Folks have observed the tension in her face (agreed) and her partial facing toward Zani and whether she might be guarding the bed vs. the ball.

Any of these could be having an effect. My opinion is that we are seeing Zani’s space bubble, and not necessarily any warding off by Clara. I believe Clara is looking at me because that’s where her next reinforcer is coming from. She’s waiting for me to toss the ball.  In other words, the fact that the ball is right in front of her doesn’t matter that much. She’s waiting for me to receive it and throw it.

In the video in the “You’re Too Close” post linked below, you can see Zani do the exact same thing with me. (Here’s the video.) She just can’t make herself come very close to the front of me when I’m standing up straight, admittedly not a very inviting posture.

I could be wrong. Zani is the dog body language expert, and she may well be sensing something from Clara that I am not, and that some of you are seeing. But my own guess is that it’s mostly Zani’s own space bubble. Thanks for everyone’s comments!

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Anderson, E. (2016, November). Space Invaders. BARKS from the Guild (21) 18-25

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson