body language study: worry over a novel object

In yesterday’s post, I casually mentioned that while Nala is a fairly agreeable and resilient creature, she’s also a little bit of a weirdo.

Yes: Nala is afraid of rocks.

Let’s look at that picture again:

Seriously, though–what’s wrong with it?

In real life, she was also occasionally startling back from it before going in again. But even if she hadn’t startled, I would have known she was feeling spooked.

First, take a look at that closed mouth and those furrowed eyebrows. It’s a nearly human expression of almost comical puzzlement, sure. But on Nala, furrowed eyebrows almost always mean worry. I’m lucky that her fur is so pale but for her little dark eyebrows–her face is incredibly easy to read. Without that little tell, with only her enormous ears to go by, I might have thought she was merely interested–look how sharply forward they are! Attached to a different facial expression and physical stance, I might have thought she was simply interested, or stalking prey. As it is, my conclusion based on this section of her body is that she’s feeling conflicted.

The face alone isn’t enough, but the rest of her body corroborates my diagnosis of worry, conflict, and ambivalence mingled with interest. Her weight is as much in her back legs as it possibly can be while she also cranes her neck forward. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but her tail is lower than her usual carriage for investigating a fun new place. She’s stiff, moving as little as she can while still managing to investigate the rocks.

Let’s go back in time, just a bit, to get a more complete picture:

Nala sees me across the water! Oh boy! Look at that wide mid level wag and open mouth!
Nala sees me across the water! Oh boy! Look at that wide mid level wag and open mouth!
She starts toward me. Her tail is really high now--partially to maintain her balance, but also because the fast moving water excites her. She's focusing hard on the task of keeping her footing and reaching me.
She starts toward me. Her tail is really high now–partially to maintain her balance, but also because the fast-moving water excites her. She’s focusing hard on the task of keeping her footing and reaching me.
sorry to show you looking so awkward on the internet, Nala.
Uh oh! What a weird rock! Her tail carriage plummets, and her weight rapidly shifts to her back feet.

Here’s the thing that surprises me most, though. Compare the first and last pictures. Despite her fear and worry, Nala moves closer to the scary thing! She feels conflicted and concerned, but she must investigate the weird thing more closely. She’s not satisfied with running away–she wants to figure this out.

This is a fairly typical pattern for her, and I see her act it out time and time again, approaching, retreating, and anxiously snurfling at all manner of big, weirdly shaped objects, armadillo shaped statues, and storm drains (but, more often than any of these, it’s rocks. At one point in our hike today we passed through a section of trail that consisted entirely of big, weird boulders, and Nala spooked and dug her heels in like it was a haunted house). After a careful investigation, though, Nala usually dismisses the object and does her best to stride away nonchalantly.

What about your dogs? What are their tells? Are they, like Nala, determined to face their fears head on?

very ears. wow.
Such courage!

A note: there are definitely some instances in which a dog wanting to get closer to something that worries her can be a very, very bad thing indeed. I don’t worry about letting Nala check out weird objects, but I manage her closely around animals that make her nervous (like cats) and vehicles, and actively DS/CC her to these (and I would do the same if she were afraid of people. Fortunately she is not).

For another look at a courageous dog’s body language, see this post at eileenanddogs, to which I am obviously indebted.

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