Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Chicken Sexing and Canine Body Language

Chicken sexing is a real thing. When chicks are born, commercial hatcheries need to know whether the chicks are male or female so they can decide what to do with them. The job of the chicken sexer is to pick up the chicks, quickly identify their gender, and divide them accordingly. The tricky part is, of course, that newly hatched chickens are virtually identical.

I've been told that the best chicken sexers hail from Japan. Starting in the 1930's, poultry breeds from around the world sent students to the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School to learn the art of vent sexing, by which an aspiring chicken sexer could learn to identify male from female quickly and efficiently by picking it up and looking at its, ahem, sexy parts. The trouble was that no one could explain exactly how to tell male chicks from female chicks by looking at them. The chicken sexing experts could pick up a chick, look at its rear, and simply know whether the chick was male for female. The chicken sexing experts where good, they were fast, and they were accurate, but they couldn't say exactly how they knew a chick was male or female. The knowledge just appeared in their brains.

Understanding canine body language is a lot like chicken sexing. The people who are really, really good at it have a hard time describing what they're seeing. Oh, there are books upon books and blogs and videos about body language, but I sincerely doubt that there are many - if any - people who are excellent at reading dogs who don't also go off what their "gut" tells them most of the time. I can tell you very quickly, efficiently, and accurately the moment when dog play flips to dog fight. But trying to explain it leaves you with a "well, the sounds change and their bodies tense and, um, the sounds change . . . " Which is probably why there are so many people who think that any noises dogs make when together are bad and should be stopped. It's what they were told.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we don't know anything about canine body language or that it's useless to try. We know a great deal about important body language cues, from tails to mouths to ear position to eye softness. I'm sure the expert chicken sexers had an idea of which visual cues were important when sexing the chicks. Vent position possibly, or size, or maybe even the sound the chick made when it was picked up.

One of the most important parts of canine body language is context. One cue is meaningless: a forehead wrinkle means nothing unless I can combine it with other cues. Quite often, additional cues are what happened in the moments before. A dog staring at me makes little sense unless I know that it has been staring at me intensely for three seconds. This is one of the reasons it's so hard to learn canine body language from pictures, books, or blogs - the context just isn't there. The chicken sexers couldn't identify male or female for their students because it was more than just a picture's worth of information. There was something else involved. Something that was difficult, if not impossible, to describe.

This doesn't mean that it's impossible to learn dog body language or that you shouldn't try. The chicken sexers were eventually able to train their students even though they didn't entirely understand the process themselves: they had the students pick up a chick, examine its backside, and pick male or female. The expert would then tell them if they were correct or not. After a few weeks of this activity, the students' brains were trained to masterful - albeit unconscious - levels.

Learning by doing is possibly the best way to learn canine body language as well. Watch YouTube videos or go to a dog park or - better yet - adopt six dogs and watch them interact. Bring a friend or someone you know who's gut is good at body language, and talk about what you're seeing together. Or let the dogs speak for themselves. I believe the majority of my knowledge comes from just watching the way my dogs act around one another - and the ways they react to each other. Dogs, I have found, are always willing to teach us as much as we are willing to learn.

Photo by Paige.

1 comment:

  1. So true! We've learned a heckuva lot about body language since we brought in a second dog. And while they are buddies now, we had to learn how to make sure it stayed that way. Through trial and error and learning from instances that the dogs were pushed too far, we know the instant that play will turn to a squabble -- and yes! it's so hard to describe! Tess's play gets...more intense. And even if that makes sense, without knowing what her body language is normally like, if you don't have CONTEXT, it really doesn't mean much.

    THanks for this post!