Interview with Lili Chin about Doggie Language

“I hope that this book will help people see that their dogs are communicating all the time, and that they’re worth listening to.”

Lili Chin


By Zazie Todd, PhD

Lili Chin's book, Doggie Language: A Dog Lover's Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend, is a fun guide to your dog's body language that is beautifully illustrated and engagingly written. If you already love Lili's work then you know you'll love this book. I spoke to Lili about the book and how she got into illustrating dogs' body language. This page contains affiliate links.

 

Zazie: How did the book come about?

Lili: I was actually contacted by Summersdale Publishers in the UK. They do a lot of gift books. This was about 3 years ago and they had seen my Doggie Language poster starring Boogie the Boston Terrier, the one that’s been all over the internet, and they said “Would you be interested in turning this into a book?” At the time I was hesitant. I said, “I don’t really see the point of turning it into a book because it’s a free download from my website. Everybody has access to it. How would this be interesting as a book if it’s already out there on the internet?”  They said well think about it and get back to us. And I did not think about it. I just forgot about it! 



So it was a really nice surprise that they contacted me again last year and said “We’re still interested in working with you. Could you please reconsider turning Doggie Language into a book?” They requested a proposal, so with some help from friends I wrote up a formal book proposal for Doggie Language. And they really liked it and they said, “Let’s do this!” They said, “Would you consider changing it so it’s not just a Boston Terrier but different dogs, and have a variety of different dogs.” 


“I hope that this book will help people see that their dogs are communicating all the time, and that they’re worth listening to.


I thought that’s a great idea because Boogie, my dog, doesn’t have a tail. I thought it would be really good to show a variety of dogs with floppy ears and prick ears and short tails and long tails. This is a great way to present body language to the public where they can identify their own dog somewhere in this book. So that’s how it started and I already had a lot of experience drawing dog body language charts so it wasn’t a big leap for me to take on this project. 

Zazie: I did not know that’s how it came about! So are dogs more complex than we realize?

Lili: It depends on what you mean by complex. They are individuals. They are intelligent, sentient beings and no two dogs are the same. No two dogs of the same breed are the same! I feel like in the general media, like in TV shows and in mainstream articles, there’s a lot of very simplistic advice given about dogs. And we’ve heard this a lot, about dogs being dominant or stubborn. People seem to expect dogs to be like robots, that they have to behave, they have to be obedient. That seems to be what a lot of people expect of dogs, when they have so much more to say, to communicate with us than just obeying. As in your wonderful article about how joy is more important than obedience… I totally agree with that. I hope that this book will help people see that their dogs are communicating all the time, and that they’re worth listening to. 

Zazie: How did your own experiences with your dog Boogie feed into the book?

Lili: When I adopted Boogie, it was over 10 years ago and he was about 3 or 4. A few months after I adopted him, he bit somebody. This happened to be my building manager, so my whole life was a disaster. I was threatened with eviction. I was given an ultimatum, either get rid of the dog or you move out. I was so desperate that I said I’ll do anything if you’ll let me stay and keep my dog. And one of the things the manager said to me was, maybe you should get on the Dog Whisperer show. At the time, that was all I knew about dog training and dogs, the Dog Whisperer show. This was a long time ago. And I did find a trainer who believed in dominance and who put a prong collar on Boogie. He had to be tethered to me at all times with his prong collar, and if he so much as looked at another dog or another person I was to correct him and yank on this leash. And Boogie would squeal and cry. 

The dog trainer said to me, “It doesn’t hurt. He’s just being a drama queen. You need to be more dominant. You need to correct harder.” And what I saw was that he became worse. He became more terrified, he became more reactive, more aggressive. He didn’t trust anybody. He was no longer happy and he seemed really down and depressed. And I should also mention that I took him to a boot camp with this trainer where we were in a field full of other dogs. Any time he looked at another dog I had to correct him, so it was just a constant torture. And I didn’t know any better at the time, because this was the stuff that was on TV and on the internet. 


“I thought it would be really good to show a variety of dogs with floppy ears and prick ears and short tails and long tails.”


When I did learn that there were other ways to train a dog and that this way of training a dog was just cruel, one thing I learned was body language. My new trainer, Sarah Owings, introduced me to the work of Turid Rugaas. I watched the DVD, I read the book, and I was blown away. It blew my mind that, why isn’t this information out there? Why don’t we know about this? Why don’t we know that dogs have all these calming signals like lip licking, head turns? Why don’t we know any of this? 

So I started drawing. I created a chart. It was a very simple chart at the time and I posted it on my blog. And it was of Boogie. In watching Boogie, I learned to see all these signals in him. I even watched video of myself training him with a prong collar and I saw the lip lick, the yawn, the blink, the turn away. I saw all those stress signals and it was shocking to me that I was hurting my dog so much. I realized that I can’t continue with this sort of training and I wanted to share what I was learning with the rest of world. 

So that was how I started body language drawings in relation to Boogie. And over the next few years I was approached by dog trainers who had seen my body language chart, like Grisha Stewart. She hired me to illustrate the same charts for her book. Dr. Sophia Yin also hired me to do some charts on how to identify signs of fear in dogs. That kick-started a career in drawing dog body language charts and how to identify stress signals. 

Zazie: I think that leads into my next question. Why are you so passionate about correcting misunderstandings about dogs?

Lili: When I was first approached by the publisher and I said no to the idea of doing the dog body language book, I was under the impression that this information was now already out there, that there were enough articles and books on the subject. I thought that if people wanted to find out more about dog body language they could easily find it on the internet. So at the time I thought maybe I don’t need to do this book, the information’s already out there. 

The Companion Animal Psychology logo, designed by Lili Chin
The Companion Animal Psychology logo was designed
by Lili Chin and is available on tees & hoodies.
A portion of proceeds goes to the BC SPCA Maple Ridge.

But I kept seeing internet dog memes with people describing or interpreting behaviour incorrectly, and it’s really dangerous stuff, especially little kids and dogs. Or people creating ads for their product which has nothing to do with dogs, but using dogs who are yawning or blinking and they think it’s happy or cute. So I realized that perhaps this knowledge isn’t out there enough in the mainstream and a book like this, Doggie Language, would be a good idea. There are so many other educators but I thought this would be my own contribution, and hopefully this will help the cause.

Zazie: I’m sure it will! What was your approach to all the different drawings in the book? 

Lili: I tried to think of as many different types of dogs as possible, with different ear types, eyes, and tails. The book is divided into chapters. So I look at different eyes like soft eyes, hard eyes, mouth positions, also ears and tails and overall posture. There’s a section at the end that is quite new and that I don’t think anyone has done. I compare similar looking behaviours and show that they maybe mean different things, like a dog lying on the back. Depending on all the other body language details they could be tapping out or in a state of stress or they could be wanting a belly rub or they want interaction. So I point out these differences. 

Zazie: It’s such a wonderful book! Is there any particular kind of dog that you especially like to draw, apart from Boogie of course?

Lili: I’m happy to draw any dog! I’ve drawn all kinds of dogs. So I don’t have a favourite. I had someone ask me recently, do you have a favourite animal to draw? And no, I don’t! I especially like drawing animals I haven’t drawn before. Then I get excited. I like a challenge! 

Zazie: You have that wonderful poster about all the different wild animals that are trained with rewards so you’ve drawn a lot of different animals. I’m wondering, what animals have you not drawn that you would like to?

Lili: Well, earlier this year I was contacted by a hedgehog trainer and she wanted a hedgehog body language chart. That was really exciting because hedgehogs are really cute and I got to learn something about different hedgehog body language signals and behaviours. So that was fun, because it was a whole new area.  

Zazie: Where can people find out more about you?

Lili: My website is doggiedrawings.net and I have a website for the book as well, doggielanguagebook.com. The book is available on Amazon and I welcome any reviews!

Zazie: Thank you so much for chatting with me.


Doggie Language is available in my Amazon store and from Chapters Indigo, as well as on Lili’s own website where signed copies are for sale.  And you can join over 4,000 animal lovers and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.


Lili Chin is an artist best known for her dog art. The founder of DoggieDrawings.net, she provides custom illustration and a catalog of art products for sale. Her dog behavior infographics have become a popular tool for dog training professionals, veterinarians, behaviorists, and welfare groups who advocate for humane animal training methods. Her animal artwork has also been featured in art museums, on television, and in world-wide educational media campaigns, and her "Dogs of The World" poster series has been a viral hit. She lives in Los Angeles with her muse: her rescued, blue-eyed boston terrier, Boogie.


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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