I’m always amazed by how well our four-legged friends adapt to us. Over time they adjust to our quirky human ways, usually learning they needn’t fear some of the seemingly scary things we do. And just like us, some things we enjoy or at least tolerate when done by a trusted friend seem threatening when done by a stranger. It’s easy to slip up and approach a new dog or cat as we would our own pets.
As your photography skills grow you’ll likely be photographing pets you don’t know, so some knowledge of animal behavior and communication will help a lot. It’ll also help you understand your pets better. Books like The Other End of The Leash and For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, both by Patricia McConnell, and On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas, are great resources.
Here’s a quick taste of a few things I’ve learned that I hope will inspire you to learn from the experts.
We humans typically greet each other face to face, look, smile, and maybe wave our hands. This likely baffles the canine student of human behavior, who might think something like . . .
“Upon first meeting humans start by preparing for battle — they face off ready to charge right at each other, staring threateningly, and showing their weapons, sometimes even waving their claws aggressively. Occasionally they do charge, wrap their claws around each other and even sometimes slam their teeth into each other. These shows of aggression are perceived to be “friendly.” They are truly a puzzling species.”
We, like many primates, seem genetically predisposed to assume many of these signals are friendly. So it can come as a surprise when some of our four-legged friends perceive them as threatening. No wonder we sometimes completely misunderstand each other.
When well-mannered dogs approach each other for the first time it seems a top priority often is to convey that they mean no harm. Rather than running head on at each other as dogs spoiling for a fight, they approach curving sideways, appearing as non-threatening as possible. If there is tension they may add more “calming signals” to indicate they mean no harm, such as looking away (“La de da, see I’m just out for a nice stroll”); yawning (“I’m so not threatening that I’m thinking of a nap”); or licking their lips.
A cool thing about these signals is we can use them too. If you’re meeting a new dog you’ll be photographing and sense he/she is cautious, try it. Turn sideways casually, look around like other things are more interesting, let the dog come to you and maybe even yawn. You can casually watch the dog out of the corner of your eye to judge whether you’re making headway or if unfortunately you should be planning a safe exit.
Most of us aren’t predators, but our four-legged friends don’t know that. So I sometimes imagine I’m a bear with sharp pointy teeth and scary claws who’s trying to convey I mean no harm. As a bear you might run into some people who have been attacked by bears before, so they’re understandably extra afraid of you. Some people, who have met lots of friendly bears, may run right up to you being super friendly. But you don’t know at first what somebody’s experience with bears has been, so when you encounter someone on the trail it’s nice to start by acting very casual, hide your claws, don’t make any scary noises, and generally try to exude that “I come in peace” vibe.
If the someone is clearly terrified you might just need to move on; some people may never trust bears and you trying too hard might sadly give them a heart attack. Don’t take it personally. Others may take a little while to warm up — it may even take running into you on the trail many times — but eventually they might decide you’re super fun and want to hang out with you. They may even eventually let you point a box at them that sometimes flashes an annoying bright light. That same box that sadly at first sight, made them think about how much it would hurt to be hit by.
The more you know the more sensitive you’ll be to the signals they’re giving, and the better chance you’ll be able to reply with signals that reduce fear and maybe even turn you into best friends. You’ll get much better photos of your best friend than of someone terrified that you’re about to turn them into lunch.
This month’s assignment is to study behavior, whether it’s picking up a book, watching animals interacting, or anything else that helps you better communicate. The next photo assignment will coincide with the release of Spot’s website, coming soon!