Taking selfies with your dog: Spatial pressure and talking without words

It was a darn near perfect Saturday afternoon–Milo and I spent hours sauntering along the Grand River. The air was crisp and the sky sapphire blue. Male blackbird songs filled the air with advertisements of nest vacancies and promises of good parenting. I had that “my cup overfloweth” feeling and wanted to commemorate the day with a selfie.

leafless tree leaning away from blue river and across blue sky

I got Milo and me positioned so that we were in good light and had something interesting behind us. But for the love of love, I couldn’t get him to look at the phone.

german shepherd with it's back to the camera licking a short-haired woman's faceThis is not new. Taking selfies with Milo is always a trial. When I put the phone in front of us instead of giving the camera a cute head tilt, he’ll look up, look down, or turn right around. I have a disturbing number of accidental pictures of Milo’s butt.

 

I always thought it was weird that such a biddable dog worked so hard to do the opposite of what I wanted him to do.

woman with short hair and german shepherd dog looking out of the pictureAnd then it hit me. He wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, but he was doing exactly what I was telling him to do. Sometimes I forget that we don’t have a psychic connection and that Milo’s English isn’t that good.

I said, “Milo, look at the phone,” but the act of shoving the phone in his face told him to get out of there, which he did by looking or moving away. And if I stopped him from retreating while telling him to retreat, he expressed his discomfort with the tension by licking my face.

We’ve repeated this so many times that I might have taught him that the phrase ‘look at the phone’ means back up!

It’s called spatial pressure (or social pressure or body pressure), and humans use it on each other all the time. We can get each other to move without speaking and without touching. If I move into your space you will likely move away. Patrick Swayze’s character in Dirty Dancing understood this:

 

Trainers often exploit dogs’ tendencies to move when we get into their dance space as a training technique. In general, dogs (like people) prefer to turn around rather than walk backward. One standard method for teaching a dog to backup uses spatial pressure:

 

While this method might work well for you and your beloved pet, there are lots of other, and in my opinion safer, ways to teach a dog to backup. Getting into an unknown dog’s space is unpleasant for the dog, and a dog (like a person) can interpret this action as threatening. It is not difficult to teach a dog to back up without using spatial pressure.

Back to selfies.

The best we can do is wait until our dog is in a good spot and then slip in beside them and snap a few quick pics. It might help to hold a slice of cheese in the same hand as your phone, although with Milo this usually results in a phone covered with dog spit. If our dog selfies don’t turn out the way we want them to, we have to give our dogs a break.

Remember, we are always communicating with our dogs, and we often don’t realize that we are doing it or what we are saying. I actually had the thought that Milo hated having his picture taken and was stubbornly thwarting my selfie goals, when he was just responding in an entirely reasonable way to my actions.

short haired woman looking into from between a german shepherd dog's ears

With dogs, actions always speak louder than words.

4 thoughts on “Taking selfies with your dog: Spatial pressure and talking without words

  1. What is it about Tollers that makes them so freakin’ cute? The first time I ever saw one I thought, “what is that? That’s gotta be the cutest dog I’ve ever seen.” Probably wouldn’t own one personally but love to see them. Sorry, way off topic. 😉

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  2. I mean the reason I say it is because the dog in the video looked like a Toller. So I’m not just randomly going on about Tollers. XD But still. Off topic.

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  3. Excellent post :-). So many people don’t understand or aren’t aware of the spatial pressures impacts and influence. I have a game I teach dogs and people to play called the space game to help the humans learn about it and the dogs to begin to trust their human now gets it and isn’t so oblivious anymore. Lol. The humans all begin by going wow this is really hard!! It’s great to see the dogs when the owners finally grasp the finesse of it all they seem to go “wait, what you understand now human! I don’t have to do it all? Yay! Thank you!”

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