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Dogs, Wolves, Coyotes, and Other Canids: Mistakes Every Writer Makes

Okay, not EVERY writer, but seriously it's like 90%. Here's a list of common mistakes, why they're wrong, and how to get it right.

Werewolf fantasy writers, I'm looking at you, too!

Werewolves have two specific challenges: the transformation, which generally involves discussing exactly what's happening to the body, and the presence of wolf-shaped characters with human intelligence. The latter requires a great deal of description of canine body language in order for characters to communicate, so it's extra-important to know your stuff.

Let's get started.

How Canine Knees Bend

This plagues shapeshifters/werewolves writers especially.

When you look at a dog, it looks like their hind legs have backwards knees. However, that's not true! Canine knees bend the same direction as human knees. What you're looking at, that resembles a backwards knee, is actually the animal's ANKLE.

We humans are "plantigrade" animals, meaning we walk with our heels touching the ground. (Cool fact: So are bears.) The stem of the word is "plantar" meaning the sole of your foot. Canines and felines, however, are "digitigrade" which stems from "digit" meaning finger or toe. Digitigrade animals walk on their toes and the balls of their feet, with their heel rarely or never touching the ground.

Behold, a wolf skeleton! Note the ankle joint on its hind legs and how it has a little spur on it, which resembles our own human heel bone: Wolf skeleton, courtesy of Wikipedia

So, when your werewolf character transforms, please for the love of God do not say anything like "there was a grinding noise as her knees reversed direction." (This exact phrasing has appeared in multiple books I've read.) What would actually happen in a human-to-wolf transformation is, her feet would get much longer and thinner, while her shins and thighs would get shorter.

Decoding Threatening Body Language: Is It Fear Or Anger?

Canines will threaten you for a lot of reasons, but it always comes from one of two places: either the animal is frightened and is warning you that it is prepared to defend itself, or it is angry and it is threatening to attack. (One important exception is play-threat, which is a weird hybrid and I'll address it later.)

In our everyday encounters with dogs, we will see fear-threats vastly more often than anger-threats. This is because dogs know we are bigger, stronger, smarter, and generally capable of beating them into submission. Generally speaking, a dog will only express angry aggression (preparedness to immediately attack) for the following reasons:

  • if there is something seriously wrong with it psychologically, as is the case with dogs who have been trained to amplify their aggression, or "yard dogs" who spend their lives in one small spot and have become insanely territorial as a result,
  • if you are a long way away and it thinks it can get away with yelling insults at you from afar, in which case the anger-threat will transform into a fear-threat if you approach,
  • or if it believes you represent an imminent danger to someone it is protecting, like its puppies. A bitch defending pups has no fear and she will MESS YOU UP.

Fear

A fearful dog tries to look small. It's hoping you won't attack it. It doesn't want a fight, and usually it's bluffing.

The lips will lift extremely high and get all wrinkly on top, showing both teeth and gums.

The ears will be slicked back against its skull. This is the part most people get wrong!! Think about it: a fearful dog is looking SMALL so it puts its ears back to minimize its profile.

Its weight will be more on its hind legs than its front, prepared to spring away.

The eyes are wide and may show white edges.

Its vocalizations will have a shrillness to them, and it will make a lot of noise, yelling GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY at you.

Anger

An angry dog bears much resemblance to a hunting dog. It's ready to fight. It has its attention completely on its opponent. It's thinking only about how to attack, not about how to run or what else is going on.

The lips will lift, but only enough to get out of the way. It's less showy.

The ears will be pinned forward and focused on the opponent, so as to hear every sound the opponent makes perfectly.

Its weight is balanced and slightly crouched, like a boxer's stance.

The eyes are slightly narrowed.

If it vocalizes at all, it will utter deep-throated growls or, if it is threatening someone further away and needs to be loud, it will use the most booming barks it can manage, edged with snarls and/or running together into a solid roar.

Exceptions: Dominance and Play

A dog will occasionally use a stiff, formal version of anger-threat body language as a dominance assertion. In this case, the expression is more static, characterized by stiff legs and upright posture, rather than the semi-crouched, ready-to-spring posture of a dog preparing to attack. The dog will also raise its tail higher, and is less likely to lift its lips.

Playing dogs will freely blend anger and fear threats as they play. The ears will go up, then down. The tail will wave and flail about. However, if you watch, you'll see more fear than anger. The reason for this isn't because they're afraid, it's because they're letting each other know that this is play and we're all friends here. The ears will spend most of their time tilted back, the tail will rarely rise above back level (except in breeds with constantly raised tails, obvs.), and the lips will be lifted in the extra-wrinkly, ostentatious way more typical of a fear-threat.

Hope that helps!

I might add more as I have time, but these are the two big things: knee direction, and correct threat body language. Next time your wolf character threatens to bite someone, have the ears UP! Pinned-back ears means they are afraid.

Thanks for reading!

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