Sunday, October 17, 2010


A conversation is not the sum of its syllables.

Rottweiler owners are fond of telling those who (they presume) don't know the breed that Rotties like to "talk."

He's not growling, he's just talking.

Thing is, many Rottweilers (and some other dogs) do have a growly vocalization that is not meant to be agonistic. It is rather charming.

People who are primed to skid their knickers in the mere presence of Satan's draught dogs are difficult to convince. Even most dog lovers and, in my experience, many dogs, can misinterpret these chest-rumbling soliloquies as a statement of most sincere ill-intention.

It gives me a little start every time a dog first does it around me, just like I do a double-take when one offers me a toothy greeting grin.

The submissive or happy grinning dog is quickly distinguishable from the angry snarler.

The "talking" dog is not always so clear.

Trouble is, another thing about Rottweilers is that they also growl. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes at their owners and their owners' friends and family. The growl frequently means something such as "You want the La-Z-Boy? Try me," or "Nail trim. Yeah, I don't think so."

Rottweilers are one of the very few breeds in which a large proportion of individuals can fairly be characterized as highly dominant animals*, dogs who actually want to take over the household and run it, sometimes even when the owner is quite competent.

Most dogs are happiest -- and know they are happiest -- if a credible human handles all the important decisions. "Dominance" challenges are either garden-variety adolescent experimentation or a desperate gambit to take the empty controls of a plane that the dog perceives as plummeting into the side of Mount Doom.

But there are exceptions, and a lot of those exceptions are Rottweilers. The breed supplies a disproportionate number of those truly dominant-aggressive dogs, as well as territorial-aggressive dogs, resource-guarders, and standoffish animals with a well-developed sense of personal space.

The fact that the dog has not bitten anyone yet is not prima facie evidence that he is not growling. When a Rottweiler -- or any dog -- is making a low rumbly sound in its chest, one has to look at the entire gestalt before determining, even provisionally, that the dog is either "talking" or "growling."

First, the circumstances -- the dog who rumbles like a gravel truck when told to get off the couch may be talking, but what he's saying is unprintable, and sooner or later he's highly likely to back up the threats. The dog who makes the same sound while writhing on his back in the grass getting his chest scratched is saying something else entirely -- possibly also unprintable, but only because this is a puritanical culture that frowns on pleasure.

But far more important, the whole picture of the dog's communication -- eyes, ears, eyebrows, lips. Butt and tail**. Muscle tension in neck, legs, and torso. Breathing. Looseness v. tightness. Skin tension and hackling. Not one little pieces-part, and not an imaginary sum of the pieces-parts -- the whole damned dog. How it all hangs together. It's nice to be able to name the parts and their positions, but no more practical than diagramming a diplomat's sentences to discern whether his country is about to declare war.

Those in the thrall of the Dunning-Kruger Effect focus on one thing, some body-language shibboleth that they imagine is the secret decoder ring for what a dog says or means.

We all know the classic, man on the street with some suprise body-perforations who claims, "But he looked friendly! His tail was wagging!"

Worse are those whose cynological expertise would move them to mock that poor civilian who thought the "cute" Akita's slowly-waving vertical tail was a friendly wag. They volunteer at the shelter. They've studied a chart. And doG help us, they've gone to a workshop (or better yet, watched a video of a workshop) in which a presenter attempts to teach them to "see" a dog's communications.

Even the best instructor can only do so much. Most of the students will walk away with a half-understanding of two or three canine field marks; if they retain one for more than a week, it is noteworthy. The rest will latch onto one or two insider buzzwords that become increasingly all-purpose and divorced from anything a dog is actually saying. Because the inexpert student is looking for a one-to-one babelfish dog-English translation, he refuses to consider that a dog, like any sentient creature, may experience ambivalence, threaten and not deliver, change his mind, hide his intentions, use misdirection, or speak gibberish. But he's proud of his insider knowledge, and takes it to the streets.

A few weeks ago, my teammate Rebecca was the recipient of much helpful advice about her young, enormous, steady, good-natured dog's temperament and behavior, from students who had just finished one such seminar. We now know that Cinders is "reactive" (he looked at another dog when it was disorderly) and that he is "trying to be the boss." (Still pulls on the leash a bit when he's not on a training collar and is very excited about working.)

Dominant Cinders reacting.

As Rebecca -- I love her, she's so diplomatic -- said, after I regaled the room† with my impression of Cinders trying to be the boss, "Everyone here is so friendly! And they all want to share what they know, whether or not it's right."

Combine such shallow "expertise" with a pig-headed commitment to interpret a dog's behavior as a "special" -- generally a breed-specific "specialness" -- and the sum can be a spectacular failure of common sense.

Consider two Rottweilers that, according to their owners, "purr," another term that rottie owners will apply to their dogs' actual or imagined "talking."

No cheating now. View each clip first with your speakers muted.

First this one:

And then this one:

Edit: Sorry folks. The person who posted video #2 has designated it "private." I don't think it was my readers, who are far too classy to harass a stranger on YouTube; it has been zipping around Facebook for a little while now, and I am guessing that some of the attention it was getting was not what the poster had in mind. It's also certainly possible that there was, shall we say, an "outcome" involving this dog that makes this video seem like not such a good idea in retrospect.

Disclaimer: I don't know either of these dogs, or the women shown with them. I don't know their histories, or what either of them might or might not have done since the videos were recorded and posted.


Are both dogs happy? Are both dogs enjoying the hugging and handling? Is either woman in any danger of being bitten, either immediately or at some future time? What do you see as the differences, if any, in what the dogs are communicating?

Now watch the clips with the sound on. Does it change your opinion?

Is either dog's non-vocal gestalt at odds with his vocalization? Or does the vocalization mean something different depending on the silent communication that accompanies it?

What would it take for you to believe a stranger when he tells you that his dog is "just talking" or "purring?"


* I am well aware that the latest fad among the Clinique Calls That Burning set is to declare that (mix 'n' match):

There is no such thing as a canine dominance hierarchy because dogs aren't cooperative hunters / dogs aren't even predators / packs are families, and everyone knows that non-pack predators / families don't have vertical development in their social structures / don't have social structures at all, and that therefore there is no such thing as a dominant dog, and also, dominance is not a temperament / character / personality trait so ipso facto no animal can have more or less of a predisposition towards social climbing, it's all the same, like minnows in a giant school, or slime molds. And also, anyone who says otherwise is a dog abuser. He kicked that dog! There, in the slow motion replay, see that, didn't you see it, that was a kick!

I don't care.

** Yeah, this is more difficult to assess when you have cut off the dog's fucking tail.

† The audience consisted of Rebecca and three dogs, mind you, but it was the crowd most qualified to appreciate the irony.


  1. I'm no Rottie expert, but I would say that Dog A is happy but Dog B is kind of nervous. And look at the scars on B!

  2. I almost couldn't watch video 2, with or without sound, because the dog's eyes were freaking me out. I was sure that any second he was going to unleash on the woman's face. Based on her reaction, though, this is typical for this particular dog.

    Video one, though - I couldn't get over the sounds the woman was making! Positively pornographic! The dog was clearly into it, however.

  3. I already saw video B on Facebook, which I suspect is cheating (by way of Janeen, doubly so). But the dog's posture is pretty stiff.

    Romeo has a greeting grin that I've been trying to photograph for a week or more unsuccessfully, because even on a sunny day I only ever seem to get it in the darkest part of the house.

  4. The woman in Video 2 is lucky she still has a face. Amazing display of restraint on the part of the dog, who clearly wasn't having fun yet. The eyes had it.

  5. Dog 2 made the hair stand up on the back of my neck - both without, and then with, sound. I actually couldn't finish watching it with sound - that is one scary dog, and the women...well, proof again that their are special angels for some...

    Dog #1 was relaxed and expressing joy.

    Wendy Roller

  6. Dog expert I am not, but the first dog had a loose body, and when the woman stopped petting, he curled up into her body. The second dog had a tense body, eyes went sort of whaley, even, when she STUCK HER FINGER in his MOUTH. I'm shocked the second dog didn't turn and rip her face off to be honest. the first dog is a lot like my ridgie mix that makes all kinds of noises, but I watch the REST of him to tell if those are happy/angry noises.
    :) Brooke

  7. Oh my goodness. I was a little iffy about the first dog for a few seconds even without sound, but the more I watched the more I saw the lack of tension in the face and body and the relaxed open smiling mouth. Some black-and-tan broad-headed dogs just look a little wonky in the face sometimes, as if they're a trifle nervous when they aren't - must be an optical illusion caused by those brow markings. My own black-and-tan dog is the same way. The way Dog 1 snuggled closer for more of the petting sealed the deal - yep, that was happiness.

    With the sound on, Dog 1 was pretty shocking to me. If I'd JUST heard the sound, I'd be backing the heck away! But having seen the body language first, I quickly began to hear the sound as something closer to a snore than a growl. It even sounds relaxed, almost lazy.

    I couldn't watch Dog 2 all the way. The eyes looked a whole lot more nervous than what I first thought Dog 1's eyes looked like. The body looked tense, Dog 2 was holding himself stiffly, and then I clearly saw the contraction of the skin on top of the muzzle. THAT DOG IS SNARLING, LADY, WTF. Like some other commenters, I was surprised she hadn't been bitten.

    Once I turned the sound on, I couldn't stand more than a couple seconds of Dog 2. The sound itself had a much different character, hoarser and more intense. I had to hit pause.

    I was reading Dog 2 as saying, "Lady, back off. Okay now, for real, back off. Why aren't you listening? BACK OFF. Seriously, I mean it this time, back off." For whatever reason Dog 2 seemed to be choosing not to escalate. Maybe he thought the crazy was contagious and he'd get it if he bit her?

    I have seen with my own Rottie mix Anita that some of these dogs show incredible restraint. Anita seems to know her own strength and be very reluctant to use it. When my mom's Aussie was being a pest, Anita did not snap or snarl - she flatly refused to acknowledge the Aussie's existence. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Anita to teach her some manners in a bite or two, and Anita is not a particularly submissive dog. But she chose to ignore the obnoxious dog instead.

  8. Wow, that was impressive. The difference in my perception of Dog A with the sound off, then on shocked me. I guess I've never heard a Rottie purr before, because that sound was truly impressive! But the body language was obviously relaxed, and as others have pointed out, when she stopped petting, he came in for more. Did anyone else think he wasn't too happy about camera being stuffed up his nose, though?

    Dog B was hard to watch, sound off or on. Even though I hug my dogs (within reason) I found myself wanting to shout at her "No! Don't do it! Dogs don't like being hugged!" That poor dog - the scars on his face make me think he's a rescue, so he's probably dealing with some serious baggage.

  9. Can't say the sound made any difference as far as the dogs were concerned although Woman No. 2 became infinitely more annoying. My guess is that she stands a greater chance of being bitten. Her dog's stress seemed to increase as she began shouting directly into its face and sticking her finger into its mouth, to the point where he was drooling at the end, avoiding eye contact, and seemed to be looking around for a way out. Unlike the other dog -- and my dogs, for that matter -- when she eased off the contact, he didn't go looking for more. Eva G

  10. Purposefully not reading previous comments until after I post mine (to keep this scientific!)
    I'm at work so actually can't watch with sound ON but video number 1 looks like the dog is relaxed and enjoying himself and possibly could go for a nap in 4 seconds. Seems like a mellow dog in general.
    Video number 2 I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, waiting for the human dismembering to begin. I have no idea what this woman was thinking by continuing to love on a dog who so obviously was uncomfortable with it but I'm extra baffled as to why she poked her finger in the mouth (TWICE). It seems almost as if she was trying to show the dog how he should let loose - "this part here". I'm just so thankful she didn't get et right on YouTube. I wonder if she's still among the living.

  11. Unscientific, but I read the comments first, and agree with Shirley.

    Now, we happen to share our homes with a rott X ACD who talks, and our middle ACD X Aussie talks as well, so I've been used to this behaviour for quite some time.

    That being said, even my guys don't purr as loud as Dog #1. However, the dog's posture is unmistakable. In fact, with sound off, I had to really watch to see where the growls were (talk about a loose mouth).

    Dog #2 was torture to watch. Firstly because I was waiting to watch the lower half of her face disappear into that dog's jaws. Secondly because for all the restraint and effort that dog was showing, his every action was screaming for relief. These are the kinds of situations that end up with "he just attacked out of nowhere!" and "he's never done THAT before!"

    EXCELLENT comparison, Heather.

  12. I should also add that I own and have read Brenda Aloff's book on canine body language, which makes me an expert. (Not.) But it seems to me that, even in the absence of that sort of stuff, how could you miss the dog's posture? I guess it's possible.

    I really wonder if some day this dog doesn't go after this woman.

  13. Also -- this --

    First, the circumstances -- the dog who rumbles like a gravel truck when told to get off the couch may be talking, but what he's saying is unprintable, and sooner or later he's highly likely to back up the threats.

    Maddy will sometimes grumble when told to get into a "down" or otherwise do something she'd clearly rather not do at that moment. Should I be worried? This grumbling is a well-known ES trait, from what I gather.

  14. The person in video 2 gets that reaction from every dog they meet.


  15. We have a 7 YO Rotty who is the biggest mush there is. She does that growly/purr when she
    's belly up and totally relaxed. Dog 2 scared the hell out of me!Awesome restraint not to hurt that stupid woman. Great example of canine body language. Tina

  16. Now you've got me started. I remember a young adult Chow that I was taking to the lab for a blood draw. This was in my poor, younger days at Hufford Animal Hospital in Glen Burnie, MD. He was all waggy tails and happy grin. The lab tech leaned forword and said "finally, a friendly Chow" at which point he attacked her! If I hadn't seen his tail and body go stiff right before the launch, she'd have a scar today. We quickly muzzled him and got the job done. Alot of breeds such as Akita, Shar Pei, Chow, Shiba Inu are hard to read. Tina

  17. I love instant experts.

    It's so funny to tell them that no, my dog can't visit their dog because yes, her tail is wagging, but it's also atiff and up, her head is up and she's got the whale eye going, her ears are back, her lips are sucked in, and her racing stripe is up.

    At that point we walked away, and I had to steel myself against wanting to look back at the look on her face.

    Eli, I'm interested you know this woman? Does she always act like this with dogs, in order to get that reaction all the time?

  18. before i even played the video i was uneasy with the pic of dog 2. and then when i was watching it without sound- i was on the edge of my seat! i couldn't finish it i was so uncomfortable.
    i was very startled to hear the purr in video 1- not what i was expecting at all. but there was a difference to the sound of the purr vs the growl when i heard them back to back

  19. Watched video #2 on Facebook. For 16 seconds. Holy crap.

    My first pit bull [mix] was a talker/growler. His guard-dog growl was deep and deadly serious, but his happy talk was just cute. His ears would fold back and he'd wiggle all over with happiness and snuggle against you and I get all melty remembering him. That Rottie in vid #2, though -- ay caramba [shudders].

  20. Great post Heather, and enough food for thought and elegant writing that it bore re-reading. That poor dog in video 2; the look in his eyes communicated torture.

  21. I think dog B is watching something over her shoulder. Perhaps some souls he's supposed to go steal. Or a cat or human he really really doesn't like.

    That said, it's sort of disturbing that she doesn't get that he's distracted, and showing stiff posture. Pretty laid back response to getting HUGGED by the owner, for a dog in a possibly reactive situation.

    (I think he's looking at something else, only because he doesn't give her the hard stare, but something over her shoulder, and he never stops looking at it, even with fingers in the mouth. Also, didn't snap at her to get her to let go.)

  22. Oh, and I forgot to mention in my other comment:

    No WONDER Cinders is reactive and dominant! I'll bet that his owner is helicoptering and yanking him around on that eeeevilll prong collar, and we all know that dogs trained on those are aggressive! Watch out, Cinders''s only a matter of time before he turns on you.


  23. fantastic! thanks for doing this.

  24. With the sound on for Dog #1, I heard the same sound my Lab-Rott makes, which we call 'tickle-giggle.' She did it the first time we brushed her sides, waggling her whole body and making a sound like a chainsaw in idle mode. The harder we rubbed (tickled) her sides, the louder and faster the 'revs' she made. (The 'giggle' was the sound we made, although the louder our sounds, the less she wanted to participate.) Eventually, with too much 'tickling' she would do a fast reach-around with an open mouth and just tap a hand with her muzzle, which was a clear signal that she had had enough (my little nephew sometimes puked if tickled too long, so her way was better, imo). Daisy also will 'talk' before feeding time, and in hopes of getting treats (which can be anything - that's the Lab part), but it's quite obvious that she's saying "Hey, how 'bout a little something for me here" and "So, didn't you think that was cute enough to give me something, how's this instead" and other variations on those themes.

  25. Viatecio,
    you are correct, I miss wrote.
    My comment should have read "I bet that person..."

    I watched both vid's once, without sound. I was more drawn to studying body language of dog and handler.
    The person in the second video raised the hair on the back of my neck, and I ended up watching it a second time for the express purpose of actually watching the dog.

    I am no dog person, trained, educated, or otherwise, so yes, I am an expert.
    For myself, people who intentionally, purposefully impose their presence into the personal space of another make me growl.
    My impression was that this person did so with practiced ease, intentionally, and in the case of this strong dog, as though the dog had been conditioned to accept the advances.
    Furthermore, whenever I intend to rouse my little couch potato, I do so using short, jerky, unbalanced, against-the-grain strokes starting at the head and shoulders and progressing to the loins and ribs.

    That is my take on the second video, I have found the others' comments more informative.


  26. I'm really enjoying the comments here.

    It was sheer dumb luck, finding such comparable videos, down to the camera angles. Janeen McMurtrie shared #2 on Facebook, and I found #1 very quickly toodling around YouTube. Was one video inspired by the other?

    On the YouTube comments, the person portrayed in video #2 states that the dog is her sooper sweet foster dog. No idea how the dog got scarred on the face.

    Here's hoping he was quickly adopted to someone who gets the concept of "back off!"

    While this dog may or may not have "baggage," he certainly combines a dislike of being manhandled with amazing forbearance.

    R, it didn't occur to me that the dog in video #2 was looking at someone/something else. You may be right. I *think,* though, that it is just an example of the "middle-distance stare" that I often see in Rottweilers. I'm not sure that this is really a behavior; it may be the way we perceive a certain eye expression in very black-eyed dogs.

    But I can't watch again to be sure because the video poster has now made the video "private."

    Guess she was getting more attention than she bargained for.

  27. I sure wish I could have seen video 2, but it was "private" by the time I got here. Judging from the unanimity of the comments, it must have been quite something. I was sure that the dog in video 1 was a happy camper though.

    Heather, this was a fascinating post, and I agree that your writing is excellent. Where can I learn more about studying dog behavior as you describe it? This is completely new to me--not that I am an expert, even though I have read a book or two. ;)

  28. I didn't act fast enough to see dog B either, but I assure you my imagination can fill in the gap.

    Coincidentally, the subject of the Rottie 'purr' recently came up on a trainer list I'm on, as a result of a former therapy dog being stripped of its certification due to vocalizing in this manner when hugged.

    Sadly, owner did not supply video, so we'll never know if that dog more closely resembled dog A or dog B.

    I do know you have to look at the whole dog, as you say. And your post is a brilliant illustration of that bit of truth.

    I also think your overall assessment of Rotts is very accurate. And yeah, chopping off the tail doesn't aid interpretation a whole lot.

  29. It looks like video #2 was pulled by the owner. It no longer plays.

  30. BTW, I got to see a Rott with a tail at a recent speciality and all I can say is AY CARAMBA, now THAT"S a TAIL!

    he was a gorgeous dog, too

  31. Our friend Dave has an impeccably-bred working-line Rottweiler bitch, complete with tail.

    It's a beautiful tail, and a she's a beautiful bitch, with a wonderful solid temperament and a moderate build that allows her to move gracefully.

  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

  33. "Those in the thrall of the Dunning-Kruger Effect focus on one thing, some body-language shibboleth that they imagine is the secret decoder ring for what a dog says or means."

    A bit long for a t-shirt but maybe a needlepoint?

    You are wrong though, everyone can tell my issue dog as "abused" as soon as they learn she was found on the street. Really, that's why she is the way she is. But if only I would let them pet her she would luv luv luv them. If only I were more like Rebecca...

    To the video: Sharks roll their eyes back in their heads to attack, but I believe with mammals, rolling your eyes back and half-closing your eyes is a postive sign.

    Video 2 was private by the time I got here - wonder why?

  34. I've been reading the archives, I remember when you posted this or maybe I remember it on Facebook. Even now with the just the still shots available I can see the stiffened skin on #2's muzzle/lip flaps. This looks like my Heeler when she freezed immediately before disciplining an ill mannered dog crowding her. I wonder if #2 is still alive. I wonder if that stupid woman is still in one piece.

  35. My Rotty doesn't have a tail,but he can still wag it.
    He play growls all the time,but not with just petting.
    I can't see the second video,but from the screenshot of it, that is not a friendly look.


I've enabled the comments for all users; if you are posting as "anonymous" you MUST sign your comment. Anonymous unsigned comments will be deleted. Trolls, spammers, and litigants will be shot.