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Understand your dog better

If you’ve seen an illustrated chart with a dog’s body language, it’s likely that Lili Chin made the artwork. Shelters, veterinarians, law enforcement training programs, the World Health Organization, the Dog Decoder mobile app, and even the Swiss Fire Department have all used their work to help people understand what dogs are telling them so that everyone can stay safe. Now she has a decade of experience on this important subject in her new book, Doggie Language. In this Q&A we go into the details.

Bark: Why is it important that people can understand “dog” and speak?

Lili Chin: As an artist who lives with a dog and has worked for professional canine behaviorists, I feel it is important to understand “dog” so that humans and dogs can have better relationships. Knowing about the dog’s body language can help people avoid being bitten and are less likely to inadvertently harm dogs due to misinterpretation of what they are seeing.

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Over the years I have illustrated various infographics for preventing dog bites. A key message is that dogs don’t bite out of the blue. However, if their (silent) space requirements are ignored or misinterpreted, they are more likely to escalate into aggressive behaviors such as growling or biting. Learning the dog’s body language is therefore also important for human safety. Not all tail fronds are friendly, and neither is everyone eye contact.

Knowing how to listen to dogs can help them when they are stressed. We can change what we do or arrange things to make them feel safe. We can know if they enjoy an experience, hate it, or are confused by it. Basically, I believe that learning dog body language is essential to the health and wellbeing of dogs.

Bark: Were there any artistic challenges in depicting the behavior of dogs in drawings, especially since a large part of a dog’s communication is through physical expression?

Lili Chin: I have been a professional artist since the 1990s and have a background in hand drawn animation[Anmerkung des Herausgebers: Lili war Mitschöpferin der erfolgreichen Zeichentrickserie Mucha Lucha der Warner Brothers]therefore, I have a lot of experience drawing characters in different poses using different expressions to show changes in movement. I also drew a lot of dog body language diagrams for dog trainers and charities, which brought me a lot of visual reference materials. I also have my own dog – Boogie, a Boston Terrier – as a model.[Editor’snote:Liliwasco-creatoroftheWarnerBrothers’hitanimatedseriesMuchaLucha)soIhaveagoodamountofexperiencedrawingcharactersindifferentposeswithdifferentexpressionstoshowchangesinmovementIhavealsodrawnmanydogofbodylanguagePlotedvisualizations[Editor’snote:Liliwasco-creatoroftheWarnerBrothers’hitanimatedseriesMuchaLucha)soIhaveagoodamountofexperiencedrawingcharactersindifferentposeswithdifferentexpressionstoshowchangesinmovementIhavealsodrawnmanydogbodylanguagechartsfordogtrainersandwelfareorganizationswhichhasexposedmetolotsofvisualreferencematerialPlusIhavemyowndog—BoogieaBostonTerrier—asamodel

I think the biggest challenge is learning to spot nuances and details so that I can accurately represent them in a simple (and not photorealistic) style. I search for photos and get feedback from professionals to make sure I’m getting it right.

Bark: How did you learn to read a dog’s behavior?

Lili Chin: The first step is seeing. There was a time when I did not notice many of the little behaviors listed in this book. I’ve seen the big behaviors, but not the small ones. For example, when I saw my first “lip leak” and learned that it was a sign of discomfort or concern, I could no longer see lip leaks.

I really like this quote from dog trainer Steve White: “Look for changes in movement and position instead of just assigning absolute meanings to one aspect of a dog’s body language.”

The second step is to look at the entire body in context. What has changed in the environment? How have the dog’s posture, eyes, ears, tail, and mouth changed in response to this change?

It also requires knowing dogs as individuals – age, breed, health, unique experiences. For example, Boogie, who is now 16, may be deaf and blind, have a brain tumor, and stop moving as he used to. He often looks stiff and moves more slowly, and his rounded backend makes him look like he’s scared or about to be number two, but I know this is actually due to his age and neurological issues.

Bark: Which experts influenced you?

Lili Chin: Here are the people who had the greatest influence on my education and work, but there were so many! I feel like I am still learning.

  • Turid Rugaas. I was first introduced to the calming signals of Turid Rugaas by our trainer Sarah Owings. That was around 2009. According to Rugaas, signals such as lip licking, head turning, blinking, and shaking off are natural behaviors between dogs to prevent and resolve social conflict and to communicate peacefully. This was my introduction to dog body language and life changing for me. By then, all I knew about dog behavior was the exposed “dominant-submissive” stuff I saw on TV.
  • Sophia Yin, DVM, MS. I’ve been a fan of Dr. Sophia Yin. I worked as an illustrator for Dr. Yin, learned operant conditioning (the science of behavior and positive reinforcement-based training) and also illustrated many posters on how to deal with dogs in ways that do not burden them. Dr. Yin’s “Dog Bite Prevention” and “Low-Stress Handling” PSAs emphasized identifying signs of fear and stress in dogs.
  • Grisha Stewart, MA, CPDT-KA. I had a reactive dog that bit humans, so learning and illustrating her book from Grisha Stewart’s Humane BAT Protocol for Reactivity, Aggression, and Frustration in Dogs was a big deal. I’ve learned the importance of seeing the subtle changes in a dog’s body language – from relaxed to curious to tense – when they’re near a trigger so that we can help them stay relaxed throughout the training process stay. These subtle changes in body language are important in any type of rehab where we’re helping change our dog’s feelings from negative to positive.
  • Amy Cook, PhD. Earlier this year, I attended one of Dr. Cook presented the Play Way workshop on the use of social play in therapy for reactive / aggressive dogs. My biggest takeaway from this event was how to play with our dogs without toys or food. What Dr. Cook calls “social play” is a dialogue with body language, which means that it is very important to be sensitive to our dog’s body language, adjust his energy level, respond to breaks, and so on. I also learned the name for a certain “play face” and that dogs laugh.

Bark: What do you base your drawings on – photos, real dogs, your own dog?

Lili Chin: When I draw my own dog, I look at it or draw from memory because I know it so well. Some of the Boston Terrier drawings in the book were inspired by Boogie.

When drawing another dog, I prefer to look at photos for reference or inspiration. My reference material was basically what I had on my bookshelf – photos in Brenda Aloff’s Canine Body Language and Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behavior – and the internet. I have also seen a lot of videos on YouTube and friends have sent me photos of their dogs doing different things in different situations.

One of the challenges for me was drawing floppy-eared dogs and different types of tails. Since Boogie doesn’t have floppy ears or a big tail, I requested photos of dog trainers on a private Facebook group, and people have been very generous in sharing photos of their own floppy ears and various body types. That was very helpful.

I hope this book will raise awareness of dog body language and help people see what they may not have noticed. I hope it makes speaking and learning about this topic interesting and fun too. (Please check the links at doggielanguagebook.com/resources for a deeper dive.)

Artwork by Lili Chin of Doggie Language © Lili Chin, 2020. Used with permission.

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