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Behavior signals interpreted with body postures


No signaling or communication system in social animals is simple. The main reason this is so involves context.

No signaling or communication system in social animals is simple. The main reason this is so involves context.

All signals are interpreted in light of other body postures and with respect to external factors occurring at the time the animal offers the signal. The congruency of all body signals indicates that the dog is relatively certain and comfortable with the signaling decision made. Clients are less aware of the importance of signals that may not be congruent (e.g., a dog that is growling and wagging her tail). Signals that are not congruent are indicative of more uncertainty and less commitment to one specific signaling outcome. Finally, the ultimate outcome of the entire interaction will depend on the integration of the internal signals with the external context. This is why a dog's reactivity can change quickly in a busy, unpredictable (from the dog's viewpoint) social context, like a child's birthday party, and why it can be so difficult for people to understand what the dog was signaling in rapidly changing circumstances.

Figure 1: This dog has not fully committed to the interaction. She is asking for more information. Notice the human is leaning over the dog, which signals uncertainty.

Changing context

Building on our initial discussion of facial signals, we can see how social signals - whether they are with other dogs or with people - change with a changing context. In Figures 1-3, we can see that the dogs' signals become more congruent when the humans involved are exhibiting behaviors that the dogs understand. When we examine these types of interactions, it is also important to pay attention to how congruent the human signals are.

In Figure 1, the dog is not entirely certain of what's expected. She is paying attention to the person standing in front of her, and she is curious, taking in the surroundings. We can tell that in this case her curiosity is coupled with a willingness to interact because her ears are cocked forward.

However, she is standing, which gives her the option to move more quickly than were she sitting or lying down. Remember, dogs have to go through more behaviors to move away or toward something if they are lying down. If they are sitting, they have to go through more behaviors to move than were they standing, but fewer than if they were lying down.

Figure 2: This dog looks eager to interact. Notice the tail is relaxed, and its mouth is displaying a deferential "grin."

Accordingly, the ease with which the dog offers or is convinced to sit or lie down carries a lot of information about its intent and its comfort level. Of course, such behaviors must be interpreted in light of the dog's physical state: if the dog is severely lame or arthritic, quick movement is not an option and getting up may be extremely difficult.

In such cases, you may note that very fearful dogs are reluctant to lie down because if they do so they are at extreme risk because of the effort it takes for them to become mobile.

If we look at Figure 1, we note that this dog is of a breed that has a tail which, when happy, is carried out in a relatively straight manner in the same plane as the topline. This dog's tail is not in evidence. Her tail is not tucked as would be the case in overt fear, but is just flaccid behind her. In this case this is a signal that she has not fully committed to the interaction.

This impression is supported by the slightly raised "eyebrows" which indicate that the dog is waiting for more information before committing to a decision. Part of the reason the dog is exhibiting these "mixed signals" involves the behavior of the human.

Figure 3: This photography illustrates how human signaling can help dog signaling become more definite, certain and congruent.

The human is relatively far away from the dog for optimal signaling, and she is leaning over the dog. When humans lean over dogs, they signal uncertainty, and, in fact, they are uncertain. It takes deliberation to stand up straight, a behavior that commits you to the interaction. Additionally, when dogs hunch over, they are withdrawing from the interaction, a sequelae that is also possible for humans.

In Figure 2, the human is signaling more clearly: the arm holding the lead is relaxed, she is standing up straight, and she is a good distance from the dog, were the dog to know the drill. Most dogs that are uncertain or worry become uncomfortable if the object of their worry - whether human or dog - comes within one dog length of them. When dogs are sitting or lying down, this distance may increase for the reasons discussed above.

This dog also looks eager to interact, his mouth is in a relaxed deferential "grin", he is looking at the human doing the signaling, and his tail is out.

Like the dog in Figure 1, this dog is being taught to "look" for a verbal and hand signal, and when he is relaxed and does this appropriately he will be given a treat. This boy knows what the treat is and has decided that he loves it, but he is not sure what he has to do to get the treat, and is very active and verbal. His ears are back in what was a long interaction, because he is offering behaviors, hoping to learn which one will get him the treat.

Figure 4: Distance and body posture are very important in assessing dog-to-dog interactions. This photo is actually a snap shot of a round of play time for these two dogs.

Because the ears are back, in the context of all of his other signals, indicates only that he is not sure of what he has to do. He is also not sitting directly in front of the human because he has not fully committed to the interaction. If the human moves directly in front of him and a little back, so that his head comes down a bit while he maintains eye contact, his ears will come forward.

This is largely because he has more physical and mental space to ask about what the human wants. We forget that signaling is about telling us something, but also about asking for more information. Dogs, like humans, need to be able to ask if their response is correct. If this dog is rewarded the instant his ears come forward, the next time the human asks him to "look," his ears will come forward much more quickly.

It's important to know that the dogs in Figures 1 and 2 had never been taught to "look" and that the head collars that they are wearing were fitted only within the 30 minutes preceding the photos.

Figure 5: Subtleties matter: notice the similar body positions in Figure 4. This time the merle Aussie is not engaging in play, she is serious.

Figure 3 (p. 6S) illustrates how human signaling can help dog signaling become more definite, certain and congruent. This German Shepherd is sitting, her tail is relaxed, and she is totally focused on the human in front of her. That human is directly in front of the dog, about one sitting-dog-length away, and that she is signaling very calmly, quietly, and clearly helps the dog to understand what is being requested.

Although the dog is wearing a head collar, it's not attached to a lead, so there is no signaling associated with a device ongoing. Clients are usually totally unaware of how they are signaling to a dog through the lead. Unless the lead is absolutely limp, every movement, every tensing of the hand, every cringe of the shoulder is immediately telegraphed to the dog.

We need to alert clients to this aspect of signaling because they need to understand the extent to which their unconscious handling of the lead can help send the dog mixed signals. Because this dog is so sure of the rules of engagement, and so willing to engage, her ears are cocked high. This is the optimal behavior to reward in a dog you wish to encourage to attend to you. Notice that her housemate, who is sitting right next to her, is not involved in this interaction. This is an important point for people who wish to work with dogs: you cannot be mentally engaged with numerous dogs at once, especially when you are teaching them something. Also, distractions are relatively minimized by having the clients sit quietly and observe.

Distance and body posture of all participants matters in dog-to-dog interactions, too. In Figure 4, the Aussie on the right is coming to a rest after being in motion. This photo is actually a snapshot of a play bout. The Aussie on the left is leaning forward - notice that the head and neck are relatively stiff and erect and out front. Notice that the back legs are straightened as the dog leans into the posture. A normal, relaxed standing posture for this dog would involve shifting everything backwards so that the legs were well under the tail and caudal neck. The dog on the left has his ears back, but they are flaccid. His mouth is open in a deferential grin. He is signaling his intent to interact in a very intense manner - the stiffness and the forward posture of his body convey that intensity. He is also signaling that he is not a threat, hence the deferential "grin."


When dogs are upright and their ears move back, they are generally going to continue with an activity, whether or not anyone else wants them to do so. Notice the dog on the right who is still partly in motion. She is showing the side of her neck - a signal that she is vulnerable, while directly staring at the dog on the left. Instead of being a threat, in the context of the overall picture, this becomes an invitation to play. The dog on the right is also displaying a deferential grin, which further emphasizes the concept that this is about play. Note that at least two of this dog's signals - the grin and the display of the neck - convey that she is not a threat. This is important, because signals that are key or tightly coupled to survival or minimizing risk and injury are almost always redundant. The more important the information, the more likely redundancy.

For example, a large part of your DNA code is wholly redundant. Redundancy is one method used to ensure that the message is conveyed and interpreted correctly. The dog on the right also signal's her reactivity by putting her ears out and back at the same time. Compare this ear posture to that of the calmer dog on the left. These dogs have been playing. The one on the right is not ready to stop. Moments after this photo was taken, the chase resumed.

Figure 5 shows the dogs that we discussed in Figure 4 exhibiting similar, but non-identical behaviors with very different outcomes. Here is a case where subtleties matter: most of the body positions are pretty much the same, but nuance is everything. This time the merle Aussie is not engaging in play, she is serious. Notice that her ears are again out and back, but stiff. In Figure 4 the ear tips would have bobbed in the wind. Here her ears are still as her facial muscles contract as part of a sympathetic response.

Notice that, far from being deferential, her mouth is shaped into a threat posture, where only her canines are clearly visible. Her hair coat looks odd because of the angle of the photo - in actuality she is pilo-erected from her ruff to her tail. She has just lunged at the second black Aussie in front of her who had been aggressive to her while the dogs were crossing the bridge. The response of the larger dog to having the merle Aussie wheel around and berate her is to shake her head and neck - a form of disengagement. These two dogs are developing a history of struggling with each other that is caught in this snapshot.

In this case, the black Aussie aborted the forceful behavior in which she had attempted to engage on a relatively narrow bridge (yes, location matters. And, what better arena to threaten another dog than one where that dog has fewer choices?), and is signaling that she is no threat.

Note that the Aussie on the far right is looking, not at the dog that started this, but at the respondent. He is clearly signaling that he was not involved, but he is also positioned to get between the other dogs, should the need arise. In multi-cat and multi-dog households, such third-party contributions that are often used to regulate other interactions. This aspect of communication is usually under-appreciated. By watching carefully, though, clients can develop a deeper appreciation for the complexity of their household, and for how well their pets actually communicate without saying a word.

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