I was watching a TV program about how some prey animals mimic more dangerous creatures to ward off attacks from predators. Burrowing owls make their home in the ground and while mom is searching for food, her young are left alone. One defensive tactic young owls use to scare away predators is to make the same sound of a rattlesnake – an effective tactic that works every time. The scarlet kingsnake mimics the deadly warning stripes of the highly venomous coral snake to avoid predators. These defensive techniques are devised to affect a predator’s temperament, and apparently certain clothes you wear can affect dogs in the same way – namely, the pattern on your shirt.
Aposematism (ap-o-sem-a-tism) is the use of a signal, usually a visual signal, of conspicuous markings or brilliant colors by prey to evade predators by impersonating a toxic or bad tasting animal or insect. The brightly colored ladybug uses this defensive tactic to scare predators away. The idea is that a predator will leave the intended prey alone if he believes they may be toxic or not very tasty, based on past experience. However, it’s also possible that predators avoid certain colors and patterns because of instinct.
In nature, one of the most common aposematic pattern is a contrast of stripes. The North American coral snake is highly venomous. You know it’s a coral snake because wide red bands touch narrow yellow bands. The non-venomous kingsnake’s markings are similar enough to the coral snake to fool would-be predators. A skunk warns off predators with a striped coat that says he would be an unappetizing creature to eat.
Dr. Arnold Chamove from the Psychology Department at Massey University in New Zealand, was curious to see if clothing patterns that mimicked aposematic patterns affected a dog’s temperament. To find out, he recently conducted experiments to see how dogs would react. As it turns out, canine temperament can be affected by certain patterns of clothing you wear. A striped shirt can alter their temperament and cause canines to feel anxious and even skittish. Because dogs are predators, they are hardwired to avoid striped patterns in nature. It’s encoded in their DNA from their ancestors, who learned from experience that prey with stripes could potentially be poisonous or contain chemicals that made them taste bad or cause sickness if eaten.
Chamove conducted two studies. In the first one, he used 22 dogs living in an animal shelter. A male model wore black slacks and long sleeve shirts in a variety of different patterns including narrow horizontal or vertical black and white stripes, wide stripes and unequally spaced stripes. Sometimes, the man wore a plain shirt with no stripes. To test each of the dogs, the person slowly walked past each one, stopping for eight seconds in front of them. Chamove videotaped the response of each dog. They reacted in a submissive matter when the person was wearing the narrow evenly striped shirt, and didn’t show any change in temperament when he wore the plain shirt with no stripes. The narrow striped shirt seemed to make the dogs uncomfortable and anxious when they looked at it.
To verify the results of the first test, Chamove then tested 10 dogs living in an animal shelter and 15 canines in a breeding program associated with the University. This time he used a female model wearing either a narrow black and white striped shirt, a white shirt with black spots, or one with no pattern. The results were similar to the first tests, and the narrow stripes caused the dogs to react in a submissive way. The canines paid the least amount of attention to the plain shirt.
The two experiments indicate that when dogs are approached by someone they don’t know, clothing with a striped pattern can increase their level of fear and decrease their friendliness. What this suggests is that when searching for a dog to adopt, pay attention to your wardrobe and avoid stripes so you don’t unintentionally convey the wrong message to a dog.
Certain patterns of stripes on your clothing could also have an effect on your pup at the dog park or when on a walk. If your dog appears anxious when he sees someone wearing a narrowly striped shirt or jacket, take the opportunity to work on the command “watch me” and distract him by giving him some of his favorite CANIDAE treats.
Read more articles by Linda Cole