A German Shepherd may have won the Westminster Dog Show last night, but it was a different dog that won my heart: One who was letting us know that he really didn’t want to be there…
Personality was noted as one of the reasons for Rumor the German Shepherd’s win. The goal of dog shows is to find a dog that most conforms to the proportions and features that each individual breed holds as a standard. The winner gets to have a lot of puppies. You would think that, as this is essentially a beauty contest, there might be a talent section. But there isn’t really. So it’s hard to get a sense of them as individuals with distinct personalities. Sure, they run the dogs around in circles, but one dog running in a circle isn’t that different from another one. It’s not like any of them got up and played the harp.
As anyone who has ever tried online dating knows, it is really hard to discern personality by looks! You have to get to know a dog, even just a little bit. Even then, so much of what we see when we see a dog is inside of us rather than something emanating from the dog. In a sense, that means that every person has a different idea of one dog’s personality. But we take this false looks-personality shortcut with people, too. Just because both you and I might have ideas about what Brad Pitt is really like does not mean that we actually know what he is like. And even if we did, we would both be experiencing him from the unique lens of all our prior experiences. In that way, a dog or a person has as many “personalities” as people considering his personality.
But a lot of the time, people forget that. What’s more, it’s easy to forget that we don’t read dogs’ thoughts. We each interpret what a dog is doing through our individual filter of rights and wrongs and goods and bads, etc. Saying that your dog is stubborn or guilty or jealous suggests a kind of ESP that is, at best, a guess. You’ll never know exactly what a dog is thinking, just like you can never truly know the contents of another person‘s thoughts.
However, you can get clues to help make these guesses more informed by watching a dog’s body language. I was pleased to see that most of the dogs in the final round had the kind of loose body language that usually indicates a happy dog. But there was one dog who looks like he was not into it: that would be Duffy, winner of the hound group. This Norwegian Elkhound looked like she was being handled by a particularly collar-yanky lady. Here, I’ve cut together moments where she is showing displacement behaviors. These are things dogs do (we think!) to soothe themselves, or appease each other, or express excitement. They’re generally interpreted as signs of anxiety. It’s kind of like when you’re mad and you punch a wall, or jump up and down when excited. It doesn’t make sense to do that in that moment, but the feelings need some kind of outlet.
I spotted Duffy displaying several displacement behaviors, including a lot of shake offs and lip licks. She also clearly was fearful about the cameramen. She shows the whites of her eyes, leans forward, and her hackles (head and neck hairs) go up. She also barks at them. When a dog is tethered and can’t escape a perceived threat, a deep bark may be a way to try to create distance between them and the scary thing. When she barks at the cameramen while the judge is extolling her virtues, the judge notes that one of the reasons she chose Duffy is because Duffy “notices things.” Huh?! That’s kind of like getting an Oscar for nose breathing. I also thought it was funny that, when introducing Duffy, the screen flashes a caption telling us that her favorite thing is pizza. She is a dog who notices things AND likes pizza, folks.
She is also a dog who is surrounded by people who aren’t listening to what her body is actually saying.
Based on her body language, what other guesses can you make about how Duffy is feeling?