A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words…But Are They the Right Ones?

Here are four photos that are probably not as they seem. I’m telling you that up front. This isn’t a trick.

The shutter speed of a typical digital (or analog) camera is far less than a second. Especially if your dog is in motion, that fraction of a second might look terrible. How many pictures of yourself do you have with your eyes half closed and you look like a zombie? (Oh, is it just me?) But all you were doing was blinking. Camera angle and lighting can do strange things as well.

There is a lesson here, and it is this: We can’t judge definitively from a still photo. We can use them to learn to observe, but because it is only a fraction of a second, our interpretations, even if based on excellent observations, could be completely wrong. We can come to much better conclusions from a video, but even then, if we don’t know context, I think being conservative in our assumptions is a wise move.

With that said, take a look!

Zani whale eye
Zani in the grass

The above photo of Zani is a video still. She looks–at least–concerned. So-called whale eye is often an indicator of fear. In my followup post (next week) I will show the surrounding frames of the video. Feel free to discuss in the comments. What other body language indicators can you see and what might they indicate?

Summer stiff still
Summer on the bed

This photo of Summer on the bed is also a video still and it is cropped. I used to use it as an avatar on social media until a friend told me it looked like Summer was having a seizure. She wasn’t, but you know, it actually does look that way. In my next post, I’ll show the photo uncropped, and some other stills from the video. Care to speculate?

Clara whale eye
Clara in the car

This is a photo I snapped of Clara in her crate in the car. Why might this whale eye not indicate stress?

Pride Naughty
Pride at Christmas

And finally, this incredible shot that my friend Marge took for her “Naughty or nice?” Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue Christmas card. How did she get this photo and why does Pride look so crafty?  The photo has had some color and lighting adjustment and some cleanup, but Pride’s face and body have not been altered.

Photos remain incredible learning opportunities. And as we are learning body language, they are one of our main tools. For example, I have made available this complete set of labelled photos of poor Clara when she was extremely stressed out. I can vouch for them. She was stressed out of her mind and there are multiple signs of that in the photos. Perhaps in general, the more indicators you see in a photo that there is stress or any particular emotional state, the more likely it may be true. (I’m thinking that one over.) But with a still photo, it can’t be a guarantee.

What do you think?

Coming up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Oh No, I Broke my Dog!
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

11 thoughts on “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words…But Are They the Right Ones?

  1. Not only is your point extremely well taken, we don’t even really know if dogs actually use certain behaviors to calm themselves or other dogs. Always better to try to evaluate behavior by seeing it live or on video, versus in still shots, which can be VERY misleading. Someone once told me my hound, in a still shot, looked as if he was frightened or in pain. LOL, he was actually just turning in a circle, as many dogs do, before lying down, and not a thing was bothering him. In fact, he was at doggie play time, which is his fave activity in the world.

    1. Good points, Anne. I agree that we get onto very shaky ground when we start attributing deliberate communication through this and that behavior. I’m not dissing dogs’ intelligence or abilities, just human hubris.

  2. hi eileen
    ok, i’ll bite.

    zani’s head, body and tail are all in alignment and tail is out. the whale eye results from looking without turning her whole body. eyebrows are lifted but eyelids lack tension and pupils are not dilated. ears lifted at base. mouth is closed but not tightly. speculation: she is focused on something ahead of her and was momentarily distracted by camera/something in direction of camera.

    i think i know the story behind summer’s photo so i will let others comment on that.

    clara’s whale eye seems to come from lifting her head to look directly at the camera without repositioning her entire body in order to look head on into camera. her body looks loose and relaxed.

    pride’s pose seems to be just that — a learned behavior put on cue.

    thanks for another great post 🙂

    1. diana, you are right on track as usual. I’ll write you privately for now with some detailed responses. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your observations.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this! The new trend online seems to be to rip apart well-meaning people’s family photos featuring pets. I am very much on board with the original purpose of calling out photos that for all appearances look extremely dangerous – in a manner intended to educate! But as it stands, its gotten so bad I scour photos of my dogs for anything “bad” before posting, and rationalize anything questionable in comments.

    Coupled with the trend of taking random photos of dogs outside in the snow and plastering “If you are cold, they are cold!! This is ABUSE!!!@!1!” all over them, which usually results in actual death threats toward the dog’s owner… I just don’t share many photos at all any more.

    1. Well put, Christine. I feel more and more like I have to make absurd qualifications when I share photos of my dogs that are less than flattering of my skills or sensitivity, even when I am deliberately showing my mistakes and regrettable occurrences (not a setup) as help for others.

  4. Synchronicity–gotta love it. I was out at the beach with the dogs yesterday on a photo shoot (love photography, love dogs, marriage made in heaven), and when I looked through them later in the evening I was thinking exactly this: a still image can, indeed, lie. Sure my dogs get shy around the camera–that Big Eye trained on them feels threatening, predatory I guess–and there’s plenty of signs of that: lip licking, ears and heads lowered in submissiveness, look-aways, trying to ignore me. But there’s also photos of instances where they weren’t aware of the camera, where the actual “action” was playful or exploratory, and yet in the photos their expressions, their body language, could easily be interpreted otherwise. I was also thinking about how much I learn from the photos I make. Canine body language, much like human, has commonalities, but it’s in our best interest–ours, humans’ & dogs’–to recognize the individualities, too. Thanks for this post!

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