A wagging tail means your dog is happy to see you. Digging? Fido's trying to hide something. And tucking his tail between his legs means something is scaring him.
Right? As it turns out, maybe not. Two researchers in Memorial University's canine research unit say that we know less about the reasons for animal behaviours than we tend to believe we do.
After all, humans have lived side by side with domestic animals like dogs and cats for thousands of years. "We have a sense that we know what they're doing really well," said Carolyn Walsh, an associate professor of psychology at MUN who works with the unit.
The belief that we understand our beloved pets has led humans to build up a lot of stories around certain animal behaviours or body language — for example, what you can tell by how a cat holds its tail.
A bit of skepticism about the accuracy of these stories is warranted, Walsh said.
"We're scientists and researchers and we're skeptical too," she said. A lot of the interpretations of feline and canine behaviour have more to do with our own baggage around them than they do with what the animals are actually feeling.
'It has to be the dog's story'
And often, we just don't know what the animals are actually feeling. That's what the canine research unit is trying to figure out, by looking at recordings of dogs in various situations — for example, at a dog park — and looking for patterns in their displayed behaviour and in physiological indicators like levels of cortisone.
Using these videos of normal, healthy animals interacting, the scientists can focus on individual behaviours and relate them to other behaviours and to changes in their bodies that can be measured, said Rita Anderson, an honorary research professor of psychology at MUN who also works with the unit.
A lot of this research, at MUN and elsewhere, is limited thus far, the two professors said, but there are some things we do know.
For example, animals do experience anxiety and depression, and it can have some things in common with the same conditions in humans.
In other ways, it can be different — for example, a dog with separation anxiety might chew the walls when her owner is gone all day.
The human baggage comes in when we assume our dog gnawed on the drywall out of spite, to get back at us for leaving her home when we went to work. But the motivator was really the anxiety, Walsh said, not a desire to teach us a lesson.
Similarly, those fun photos of guilty-looking dogs probably just show dogs that feel frightened by their owners' negative responses to their action, not pets with a healthy sense of shame.
The research has also found some patterns that can be tied to specific situations, like anxiety at the dog park.
"Dogs that are stressed in a dog park situation actually do show some particular behaviours," Walsh said. They may have a lowered posture or tuck their tail between their legs, she said. What's more, dogs who showed those behaviours also had higher levels of stress hormones in their saliva, she said, and dogs who were less familiar with the dog park were more likely to have those elevated hormones.
"This is still really early days in terms of all the research," Walsh said. There are things that an animal's behaviour can indicate about its feelings, but those feelings are not the same as the ones humans have.
"We can begin to piece together a story," Anderson said, "but it has to be the dog's story."