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Why Do Dogs Lick Our Faces?

Why Do Dogs Lick Our Faces?

Dogs like to lick our faces, a behavior that seems disturbing for many dog owners and particularly non-dog owners. However, this behavior shows friendliness, a pacifying gesture, a hand (though not literally) reaching for peace. It is a compliment in dog language: “I like you; you can be my friend.”

The behavior originates in the neonatal and juvenile periods. Newborn mammals suckle and lick. Pups lick everything as a way of gathering information about their world. Licking our faces may give our dogs details about who we are and how we feel.

Pups lick one another, a behavior which seems to make both donor and recipient relax because it is an undemanding activity. Grooming and self-grooming, licking included, are pleasant social and bonding practices.

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Roger Abrantes and wolf at the Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. Licking is one of the many behaviors dogs and wolves have in common. It signals friendship (picture by Monty Sloan).

Canine mothers lick their pups to keep them clean and to stimulate their urination, defecation, and digestion.

When the pups become a little older and eat solid food, it is common for them to lick the lips of the adults, which may elicit their regurgitation of recently consumed food, an excellent source of nutrition for the youngsters. Even though not as widespread as when Canis lupus familiaris were hunters, regurgitation behavior is not uncommon among our more scavenger like domestic dogs, if we give them the opportunity to live an independent dog life to a certain extent.

The initial function of behaviors associated with pacifying behavior is to assist in the immediate survival and well-being of the organism. Subsequently, though keeping the same function, they show in different areas and with distinctive outcomes. For example, the licking, which initially produced food regurgitation, will produce friendly behavior later on, thus becoming a pacifying gesture.

Next time a dog licks your face, you need not be too terrified or disgusted. Just close your eyes, yawn, and turn your head away. That shows, in dog language, that you accept its offer of friendship.

By the way, don’t be too afraid either of the germs you may get when your dog licks you—they are not worse than those we get from kissing one another.

Featured image: When a dog tries to lick your face, the best you can do is to close your eyes, yawn and turn your head away. This shows in dog language that you accept its offer of friendship.

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The Importance of Confidence in Animal Training

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The importance of confidence, in animal training, is greater than you might think. Confidence comes with success and success comes when you are confident—believe in yourself.

More often than you might realize, your animal training, independently of species, does not succeed because you don’t believe it will. Doubting yourself, your abilities, or the outcome of your behavior has an impact on those with whom you communicate. Therefore, do not neglect the importance of confidence and self-confidence.

Dogs, horses, cats, guinea pigs, to mention a few, are experts in reading your body language. They will detect the slightest hint of doubt. If you don’t know or aren’t sure of what you want or what you’re doing, how do you want the animal to feel safe by following your instructions?

Here’s your plan of action: work it all out first and then do it firmly believing that you will succeed. Don’t worry about the animal. Control yourself and your emotions. If you’re good, it will end up good.

“What if I don’t succeed, anyway?” you may now ask.

Tough luck, sometimes it does not work! In that case, return to square one, re-think your plan and go for it once more—and, as always, believing in yourself and that you’ll succeed. Failure only strengthens the importance of confidence, next time out.

Enjoy your training—but, first and foremost, enjoy spending time with another living creature.

 

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Featured image: “Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself” from the movie “The Importance of Self-Confidence in Animal Training” by Roger Abrantes.

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Can Animals of Different Species Bond like They Were Conspecifics?

One winter morning, when I still lived up north, I looked out of the window and saw a white duck right in the middle of the yard. I almost missed it, so well his white plumage faded into the snowy environment.

Daniel, a teenager at the time, got very excited. “He’s freezing, Daddy, we have to help him,” he exclaimed.

We got warmly dressed, and even before considering eating breakfast, out we went to tend to this stranger in distress. Our presence didn’t frighten the duck, not even when we came closer. He didn’t show either any particular appreciation for the arrival of our rescue party. He must have been tired and terribly cold after having spent the whole night roaming around the frozen fields, and we didn’t hold his lack of courtesy against him.

We found a wooden crate, duck sized, grabbed some straw from the horse’s stall and made him a comfortable refuge near the old water pump. He seemed to like it right away, went inside, tidied it up a bit and lay down like all ducks do with his beak on his back. We offered him food and water, which he didn’t touch and so we left him to recover.

“Fine, so now we can grab some breakfast, don’t you think?” I asked Daniel.

The long and the short of it is that the duck stayed day after day without showing any intention of wanting to leave. We gave him a name, Anders. I don’t know if he also gave us names. The other animals on the farm, horse, cat, dog, took it as it was. No one bothered him and didn’t show much interest either.

I thought he might die when I first saw him, so miserable he looked, but he was a tough duck. Not only did he survive, but he looked healthier and stronger for every day that passed. He also became increasingly assertive.

If we had any apprehensions about whether the other animals would give him a hard time, our doubts quickly dissipated. In fact, it was the other way around. Anders became the king of the farm. He ate everything—horse, cat and dog food equally—and he took what he wanted when he fancied it. He would approach Katarina, the cat, from behind, would peck at her tail and, when she moved away, he would feast on cat food as he pleased.

Indy, the horse, didn’t escape his majesty’s moods either. King Anders would peck at Indy’s hooves until he moved away giving up his horsey pellets for yet a ducky feast.

He would walk around tending to his businesses, whatever businesses ducks have, unconcernedly and much matter-of-factly. The only concern he seemed to have were birds of prey. He would stand very quiet, looking up, holding his head sideways, one eye facing the sky until he rested assured that the bird wouldn’t dive down on him.

It didn’t take long, though, before we all got accustomed to Anders and him to us. I can’t say that he ever bonded particularly with anyone. He was his own. He wasn’t needy either. At the farm, we were supportive of one another if necessary, but we didn’t intrude on the others’ lives, and we weren’t over-protective either. Milou, the dog, would charge out of the door, furiously growling, if she heard that Katarina was in trouble, which she was regularly because the neighborhood tomcats apparently found her too hot and worth risking a sortie into unknown territory. Sometimes, at night, the fox would venture too close and Katarina would be the first to detect her, creating some commotion. Anders would quack and shed feathers all the way up to his safe spot, and Milou would charge forth furiously as the defender of the kingdom, barking and growling, not exactly knowing why, just in case. Indy, the horse, on the other hand, always kept his cool thru out all ordeals. Daniel and I would come last from our rooms on each end of the house, armed with our hockey sticks, more than once meeting one another in the yard only wearing our boxers. I’m happy we lived out in the sticks where nobody could witness our antics!

We had a good life. We didn’t bother one another, shared the space and the resources we had, and we put up with one anothers’ peculiarities. That was what served us all best, I think we all agreed, but I can’t know what the others thought. We were a family, a herd, a clowder, a pack and a brace.

We belonged to different species, but for all intents, except reproduction, we functioned as any well-functioning group of animals of the same species. Thus, if you would ask me whether animals of different species can create relationships and bonds similar to those they have with their own conspecifics, I wouldn’t hesitate in answering yes (all going down to definitions). Did we have any hierarchy? Oh yes, just ask Anders, and it wasn’t in any way unsettling for any of us. It even felt natural and reassuring, I dare say. As long as we all knew what we were supposed to do and not to do, all was good.

I got the habit every morning, right after I got up, to look out of the window and be greeted by Anders. He would invariably be there in the middle of the yard looking at my window, always at the right time. It became a ritual, a reassuring one, I guess, for both of us.

One morning, Anders was nowhere. I knew immediately what had happened. The fox had finally got the better of Anders, the king.

Featured image: If you would ask me whether animals of different species can create relationships and bonds similar to those they have with their own conspecifics, I wouldn’t hesitate in answering yes.

Animal Training—When Doing Nothing is Doing Right

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Years ago, my friends in the US asked me to go with them and see a horse they were considering buying for their daughter.

A couple of hours drive thru Illinois countryside, roads surrounded by never-ending cornfields, took us to a nice, clean and modern kind of an equestrian center where we found the horse and met the owner.

I liked the horse right away, a young, paint, quarter mare. The American quarter horse got its name from being particularly fast on distances up to a quarter mile. Paint horses are white with spots of black, brown or reddish. The American Paint is now a breed of its own. Most paints are levelheaded, versatile and friendly horses. This mare was no exception. She had the looks of being approachable and curious, eager to learn. I don’t remember exactly how old she was, but she couldn’t have been more than three years old. She looked young to me to carry a rider on her back, and I remember asking the owner if they had trained her to it.

“Oh, yes, she is broken to ride, all right,” she answered.

That was not what I asked, but I reckoned I couldn’t get a better answer. What I wanted to know was whether the horse had gone thru any particular groundwork to develop the right muscles and movements necessary to carry the extra weight of a rider. By the way, I don”t know about you, but I dislike immensely the term “horse breaking.” If you really break the horse, you shouldn’t even come close to a horse, and that’s my opinion. If you don’t, but instead train it stepwise, wisely and patiently, you should consider using another term all together—and that’s again my opinion about that.

The young mare was beautiful, but then again I might have been terribly biased, for my heart always beats a tad faster when I see a gentle, paint quarter (or a friendly English cocker spaniel). These are things of the heart that I can’t explain, and don’t feel I need to either.

The owner proceeded to give us a demonstration of the horse’s abilities under saddle. It was a sad showing. The mare trotted and cantered all right, and turned right and left, and stopped and continued, but she looked miserable.

After having finished, the owner invited my friends’ daughter to go for a ride, but she declined, showing the typical shyness of a teenager of her age.

“You go, Roger, take a ride and tell us what you think,” her mum said to me.

“Yes, uncle Roger, please do it,” my niece begged me with that “horsey” expression only teenagers who have been long around horses can give you. I couldn’t refuse her.

And so, I went for a ride, even though, in my opinion, she was a bit too young and untrained. We trotted and cantered right away and, then, we did figure eights and turns. The young mare was entirely different from earlier. She had regained her spirit, and if not completely, then closer to the spirit of her ancestors, the proud horses roaming the plains of the new world.

“Wow,” my friends said almost in a choir, “that was impressing.”

“What did you do?” they asked me, “She behaved totally different with you! It was like a different horse altogether.” The owner pretended not to hear that.

“I did nothing,” I answered, and I was entirely honest. After mounting, I started by having a long talk with the horse, a silent one, that is, for horses don’t understand English and what I had to say was as much to her, the mare, as to myself.

“Ok, horsey, here we are the two of us. I’m sorry, we haven’t even been introduced properly,” I said, “Just do what you feel like doing. I’ll try to be as imperceptible as I possibly can.” And she ran, she trotted and cantered, and I did nothing besides trying not to be a burden, just syncing my movements with hers.

“Go for it, honey,” I thought, “run as much as you fancy, turn whenever you like. You lead, I’ll follow.” And she ran and turned, ears forward one moment, back the next, her mane flying in the wind. “Go, baby, go,” I thought, and she went faster and freer.

After a while, I began “leading the dance,” never used the reins, only changed, slightly, my position on the saddle. I looked left, and she turned left, I looked right, and she turned right, her ears for a moment turning back to me like asking, “Am I doing well?”

Sometimes, doing more does less, doing less does more, and doing nothing does right—and I suspect this is true more often than we reckon.

Featured image: To earn the trust of a horse is the first step toward a good relationship. It takes time to earn it and only one moment to lose it.

Do You Know What the Dog’s Twist Behavior Means?

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Canine twist behavior — the puppy twists as a pacifying response to the adult’s growling (illustration by Alice Rasmussen from “Dog Language” by Roger Abrantes)

 

The canine twist behavior is a curious behavior that few dog owners recognize, let alone know what it means.

It is a characteristic behavior shown by any canine, (wolf, dog, African wild dog, and dingo at least) when it twists one hind leg out to the side. Most frequently, the dog shows it from a sitting position, but it can also do it from a standing position. In cases where the dog appears very insecure, a half roll culminating with the dog lying on its back and showing its belly may succeed the twist. Laid-back ears, semi-closed eyes, champing (at times with the tongue protruding out of the mouth) and paw lifting (or vacuum pawing) in various degrees depending on the situation and the level of insecurity, usually follow the twist. It’s a fairly common behavior mostly seen in puppies and youngsters, but insecure adults can also display it.

The function of the twist is to pacify an opponent. As always, behavior happens by chance (or reflex), and if it (the phenotype) proves to have a beneficial function, it will tend to spread in the population, transmitted from one generation to the next (via its genotype).

The origin of the twist is most certainly related to the typical canine maternal behavior of the female overturning her puppy by pressing her nose against its groin, forcing one of the puppy’s hind legs to the side. The puppy will then fall on its back, and the mother will lick its belly and genital area facilitating the puppy’s urination and defecation. To start with, this appears to be a rather unpleasant experience for the puppy but becomes pleasurable once it rests on its back and its mother’s licking achieves its function.

Later on, the puppy will perform the same twist movement in the absence of any physical contact with the mother or any other adult. It will do it when it feels threatened or insecure and with the function to pacify both itself and its opponent, rather than to invite to belly licking.

The transition from urination/defecation to pacifying is a classic of the development of behavior. It happens almost exclusively via a classic conditioning process. In the beginning, being overturned is unpleasant but lying on its back, belly up, becomes pleasant (due to the puppy relieving itself). After some repetitions, the puppy will associate lying on its back with ending discomfort and will readily display this behavior whenever necessary.

The strength of the twist behavior (a general characteristic of pacifying behavior) is its double effect of pacifying both parties. The puppy relaxes by doing something which has produced desirable results earlier. The threatening adult relaxes by being met with behavior that it recognizes as infantile behavior.

I first described this behavior in the original edition of my book “Dog Language” in 1987. The behavior had no name at the time. I coined it the twist behavior thinking of the famous dance of the sixties, very popular in my teen years. “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles* immortalized it. The Twist, the dance, featured a particular step, where the dancer’s legs made a twisting movement reminiscent of the puppy’s pacifying behavior.

 

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* “Twist and Shout” was written by Phil Medley and Bert Russell and first released in 1961 featuring the Top Notes. However, it achieved its fame first when The Beatles performed it in 1963 with John Lennon in the lead vocals.

Learn more in our course Ethology. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. It is fundamental knowledge for the dedicated student of animal behavior as well as for any competent animal trainer. Roger Abrantes wrote the textbook included in the online course as a beautiful flip page book. Learn ethology from a leading ethologist.

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