After the Webinar: Canine Communications in the Field and Shelter. Q&A with the Presenters

Webinar presenters Trish McMillan and Dr. Diana Rayment answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Canine Communication in the Field and Shelter. Here are just a few of their responses.


Audience Question: Can you explain the difference between front hackles and rear hackles? And if there’s a difference in how we should interpret them or what they mean? 

Trish McMillan: That’s so funny, we talked about that when we were putting this together, and I think you had the best answer. So, I’m going to throw it back to you.

Dr. Diana Rayment: Okay. Hackles are a physiological response rather than a behavioural one. So, a lot of what we actually see on the dog depends on how they are physically built, so their conformation and how aroused they are. If you think of yourself, you know sometimes it’s just that your hair stands up automatically. Sometimes you get it on your arms, sometimes you get it on the back of your neck, and sometimes you just feel this electricity over your whole body. And so, for dogs, that can show the full array so it happens all the way from their neck, down onto the top of their tail. Those are dogs who can do it, and sometimes you’ll see a relationship between how aroused they are, how many hackles they show. And some dogs just show everything (all hackles) all at once. So, my boy Reggie does it, I think Trish’s girl Kenya did too. She was probably the same as Reggie with her hackles – when they come up, then they all came up. There is some talk in the training and working dog worlds about the position of hackles indicating the motivation behind the hackles, but that’s not evidence-based. It’s really a lot to do with the way the dogs are built and how stressed out at a time. So, there’s not really decent science on this topic, because, whenever I talk to other scientist friends, they’re like, ‘it’s just physiology’.

Trish McMillan: That’s a Master’s thesis in the making for somebody. Yeah, I know the working dog people have firm ideas about what each of them means, but there doesn’t seem to be any science around it yet.



Audience Question: So, basically, our hackles always a go-to in terms of trying to interpret a dog’s behavior or mental state then? 

Trish McMillan: They’re definitely something I always keep an eye on. It is a sign of physiological arousal, but for example, Kenya, my dog, that I showed you the giant hackles two inches wide, all the way down her back. She put every one of those hackles up when she saw any living animal, whether it was a dog or a cat or a squirrel, for the entire 14 years I had her. So, it was not a great predictor of how things were going to go because if it was a squirrel, she was going to eat it. But if it was another dog, they (hackles) could all go back down and she could go, “Okay, you’re in the club,” or it could become aggression. So, it is something to watch. It means the dog is aroused. It’s not necessarily predictive of what happens next.



Audience Question: You used the phrase, secure attachment, could you re-explain that term again? 

Dr. Diana Rayment: I can. So, this actually comes across from the human research literature from work done with children, but basically, what it means is that the dog in this case has a safety attachment to that person. So essentially, that person to them is somebody that they trust and is an indicator that they are safe in that particular environment, for whatever reason, as long as they’ve got that person there. So, if they have that attachment bond with that person, they tend to behave in one way, and then if you remove the person when everything else stays the same way, then they tend to respond differently. There’s a whole bunch of research in people but not a lot in dogs. An Australian lady called Dr. Tammie King, who’s over in the UK now, actually did her whole Ph.D. .thesis looking at attachment bonds in dogs and how they help us to predict whether or not dogs friendly and sociable towards strangers. But essentially, it’s a type of relationship where, within that relationship they have a bond between the person and the dog, and that bond signals safety to that animal.

NOTE: You can read more about Dr Tammie King here and Tammie’s work using a modified Ainsworth Strange Situation Test to assess ‘Amicability’ in dogs here.



Audience Question: Can you talk about secure attachment with dogs who have come from domestically, violent home? And what the situation might be there?

Dr Diana Rayment: Okay, so there’s probably a whole bunch that could be spoken about on that topic, and the answer really depends on what the person asking the question is trying to get out of it. But, highly likely, depending on the person the dog has a relationship with and how they’re interacting with the dog, they may have a form of a conflicted attachment if it’s somebody who’s in the home, who they have a relationship with where they are sometimes safe and sometimes not. Dogs are really good at predicting based on a person’s behaviour, whether they’re in a good state or a bad state. Sometimes, it’s a very similar type of thing as with kids, so, you can have all sorts of attachments that are not necessarily secure, or a good indicator of safety for that animal. But, by and large, the work that’s been done in dogs shows that if the dog has a secure bond with the person and it’s somebody that’s providing for that dog, they are considered a ‘bonded person’. And where it’s reported by that person that they have a good relationship with the dog, their presence can have an influence on whether or not the dog shows aggression (towards other people). So, take the person away they’re more likely to show fear behaviour and less likely to bite, bring them back in and the opposite happens.

Trish McMillan: I’d like to throw in a little comment. Sometimes, in the shelter industry, when we bring an animal in from a terrible situation, we want to blame every bad behavior on the situation they came from. And I’d like to add that behavior has a lot to do with the individual. I’ve worked with a lot of animal victims of cruelty, and one thing that strikes me the most, is how many of them are just so resilient, even coming from extreme domestic abuse situations, where they’ve seen people hurting one another, and people hurting them. There are many dogs that come out of that and go, “Oh, I’m not in that situation anymore and those people aren’t around. I am safe,” and they’re able to bond. The pit bull who was making out with me at the beginning of this call, he was raised on a chain in a forest and his old owner is still in prison for animal cruelty, yet this dog still loves everybody.



Audience Question: Holly has a Lab that occasionally has had excessive saliva, but no stress signals, and that she just does it when she’s lying around the house but only has started this recently. Are there other reasons not associated with stress that could explain that? 

Dr. Diana Rayment: See a vet! There are a lot of different things that can cause that symptom, the most common one of which is something going wrong with their gastric, something to do with the gastrointestinal tract. That could be something simple like an upset belly, it could be that they’ve got a bit of a gastrointestinal infection. It could be that there’s something else going on. It could be that there’s a low-level pain issue and they develop a sound sensitivity, and sometimes it’s the dogs just getting old and their sense of hearing changes and so they are going to react to changes in environmental pressure. And it’s one of those really early signs that the dog could be developing a little sound sensitivity.

Trish McMillan: Could also be a bad tooth! Anytime you see a sudden behavior change in an adult or senior dog, go to the vet first. There’s no amount of behavior modification that can change a medical problem, so, that’s my go-to.



Audience Question: Why do we use the term aggression, if all of these behaviors are avoidance messages to warn us? 

Trish McMillan: That’s a whole week’s worth of lecture. Aggression is usually thought of as a distance increasing behavior, so you’re trying to make the thing that’s worrying you go away. And yeah, there’s that. There’s a lot of detail we could go into in that topic.

Dr. Diana Rayment: And so, I suppose from the literature and why we use it, because, like most things in our language, somebody somewhere, way back when, probably in a scientific article said, this is the aggression and they said what it is. And then a whole bunch of people used it after that, usually in about 15 different contexts. And then it develops its own (different) meaning in common language. And so, this is why we use it! But even within the research literature, aggression means different things to different people in different contexts, so oftentimes, you read a paper and they distinctly define it in the first three sentences. They’ll go, I’m going to use it in this context. So, yeah, it’s kind of like ‘personality’, ‘temperament’, and a whole bunch of these words. You know it’s a bit tricky, but we need to make sure we’re using wording the same way so we clarify the language. When you’re interacting with somebody is always a good thing to ask ‘What does that mean?’ ‘What do you mean when you say that the dog’s behaving aggressively?’

Trish McMillan: Yeah, when I teach people, I like to teach people to use the actual language, like ‘a dog had low body posture, high facial tension, short lip, and round eyes’. That tells me more than a note from the vet saying “the dog was aggressive with me”, that doesn’t actually tell me anything – everyone has a different view of what “aggression” is.



Audience Question: When you say that a mouth is soft, does that mean that the mouth is open or what? 

Trish McMillan: It (the mouth) could be open and it kind of depends on the temperature. If you looked at that first boxer video, everything about that dog was soft. He has floppy ears, his elbows were bent a lot of the time, lots of soft, wiggly movement. But you can see he is wearing a coat and it was cold out. So, he didn’t actually open his mouth. However, the lips are soft and floppy as opposed to the dog in this second video, where the lips are closed but the face and body were super tense.

Host: Okay, So, you can’t just look at the mouth, you have to take it in context?

Trish McMillan: As with everything, you’ve got to look at it in context. We sort of go through the body parts one at a time in this webinar, but putting it all together is really the important part.



Audience Question: Do dogs pick up on their owner’s stress? And so, therefore, should we be cognizant of how stressed an owner is getting or a child that is attached to the dog, how stressed they’re getting, when we’re interacting with them?  

Dr. Diana Rayment: Yes, yes, and yes! That’s that social context idea I mentioned in the slide, and it’s super important to pay attention to the person, and to the dog, and to how they’re interacting with each other. So, I went into that in a little bit more detail in the handout and even that is like a super-abridged version and there are specific things you want to be looking for. But yes, look at the person, and then look at the dog’s impression of them, and then look at how they are reacting with each other. Because much like people, when they both get stressed they may have a different reaction to each other than they would normally. And sometimes people haven’t actually seen their dog interacting with a person in the context that you’re interacting with them in. They may say the dog is OK, then all of a sudden that interaction is very different to what the owner described because they’ve not seen the dog with a stranger in their house. Then, the owner could be getting a bit stressed themselves and the dogs going, “I don’t know what’s going on but you’re looking stressed, so I’m going to be stressed too.” So, yes, assess all three, human, dog, both at all times.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Canine Communication in the Field and Shelter


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