Let Dog-Dog Interactions Flow

Pay attention to your pup’s parts, as they can tell you a lot about what’s going on inside that perfect little head.

Photo by Adobe Stock/imacture

If you watch a group of dogs playing at a dog park, you will quickly notice how carefully they watch one another. Dogs will look over their shoulders as they run, or they will stop and turn around so they can see what the other dogs are doing. When they do this, they’re reading body postures, gaits, tail and ear positions, facial expressions, and even watching for subtle changes in the position of another dog’s fur, such as whether another dog is showing their hackles. “Hackles” refer to the hairs along a dog’s neck and backbone, and “raised hackles” are called piloerection, an involuntary neural response to arousal mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. Dogs may also gather information by looking in a dog’s eyes, though research in this area is limited. It may be that dilated or constricted pupils communicate something about a dog’s emotional state that other dogs can decipher. In addition to this kaleidoscope of visual signals, dogs are also absorbing olfactory and auditory information, all while on the run, which is quite a remarkable feat.

It’s important for dogs to be able to read one another accurately in order for social interactions to go well. The same is true in the human realm, which is one reason that highly successful people tend to be those with high levels of emotional intelligence and well-honed social skills. One of the reasons dogs can get into sticky situations with one another is when they misread visual or other signals, and some dogs are much better at reading signals than others. Spend any time at a dog park, and you will certainly notice a few dogs who are socially awkward and don’t seem very good at interacting with other dogs. Oftentimes, these dogs have trouble finding play partners. Marc has noted that there often seems to be a relationship between the social skills of a dog, or lack thereof, and those of their human, but that’s another story.

Photo by Adobe Stock/luckybusiness

 One of the mysteries of a dog’s world is how they recognize other dogs as belonging to the category “dog.” Obviously, dogs recognize other dogs by smell, but they also seem able to recognize other dogs using only sight. A very interesting study conducted by Dominique Autier-Dérian and her colleagues found that dogs can identify other dogs using facial features alone, in the absence of other cues such as movement, scent, and sound. Dogs were very good at picking out the faces of other dogs, among human and other domestic and wild animal faces. C. Claiborne Ray, discussing this study, remarked, “Ranging in size from a tiny Maltese to a giant St. Bernard, and showing myriad differences in coats, snouts, ears, tails and bone structure, dogs might not always appear to belong to one species. Yet other dogs recognize them easily.”

We often hear dog owners say something like, “My vizsla loves other vizslas more than any other kind of dog, and she also knows they are vizslas.” Can dogs really recognize other dogs of the same breed? Nobody knows, but a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that they might. If they do, it is likely that the cues lie in the dog’s olfactory sense, and perhaps in the identification of what’s called the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC. The MHC is a set of surface proteins found on the cells of all mammals, and it is involved in immune function. It’s thought to play a role in the selection of mates who are not too closely related genetically. The MHC may present as a kind of olfactory “signature” allowing dogs to determine genetic familiarity, but there hasn’t been any research in this area. Nonetheless, many people believe their dog shows a preference for others of their same breed.



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