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Description of the behavior of dogs by experienced & inexperienced people

How people interpret dog behavior has always fascinated me (heck, how *I* interpret dog behavior fascinates me, heh).

A few years ago, I noticed a couple outside a coffee shop allowing two unknown dogs to greet on leash, nose to nose. This is what the two dogs looked like:
- Standing up on tippy-toes
- Stiff body posture
- Ears pulled forward 
- Hackles up on both dogs
- Tails flagging (waving fast, with one dog who had a still lower tail and a fast moving tip) with tail arched as high over back as physically possible (both dogs were 20lb mixed breeds).

Both were about the same size, height and body structure. I noticed that the dog closest to me appeared ready to take on the other dog, he was leaning forward more so than the other dog, was a lot more tense. Because dog fights are scary, nasty things, even if they last for three seconds, I tried to politely tell the couple they might want to distract their dogs, to avoid a fight.

Oh, but they're wagging their tails. They're just happily greeting each other!

Plus they gave me nasty looks as if I was trying to disrupt the order of things. No sooner had I shrugged my shoulders and was about to walk past them, the dog closest to me had had enough of the staring contest. He launched his teeth into the other dog. Screaming ensued, chaos! horror! END OF THE WORLD! Both owners tugged at the leashes, separating the dogs to check them over. No bite wounds, no punctures. I am always amazed at how, more often than not, dog fights are more about finding ways to shove and push and convey messages without doing bodily harm. I've seen more damage on my dogs after an intense play-wrestle bout.

It highlights how even people with dogs can be insensitive or ignorant of the signals their dogs are trying to convey. We mess things up majorly. We ignore subtle cues, goggle at overt cues as if they came out of nowhere, and we blithely confuse play behaviors with aggressive behaviors with fear behaviors. What I've wondered is what kinds of behaviors do people, both dog-savvy and dog-ignorant, easily comprehend and what behaviors do people constantly confuse.

Recently, researchers from Italy and the UK published a study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science entitled "Description of the behavior of domestic dog (Canis familiaris) by experienced and inexperienced people". This is, by no means, the end-all study on how people perceive dog behavior. It is a jumping point for further research, and the discussion includes all the ways in which this study could be improved upon or if there were possible issues with the results provided.

Regardless, the results are interesting.

The study involved nine taped video sequences between two dogs. Eight dogs* were filmed during their first contact with a "stooge dog", a mid-age female Border Collie. She was, for all intents and purposes, the "control" dog, although she was used as the "focal" dog in one interaction. The focal dog was always kept stationary, on leash, as the stooge dog approached. Filming occurred in public parks and time of taping started 10 seconds before the Border Collie entered the camera's frame until the end of the interaction. For the safety of the dogs and owners, aggressive contact interactions (as predicted by the experimenters) were not permitted. Unfortunately, no video was available, which would make reading this study a lot more provocative!

Recordings were then shown to sixty observers who were categorized as dog trainers, veterinarians, dog owners (>2 years) or non-owners (no dog ownership). The viewers saw each video twice, once without sound, once with sound. Subjects were asked to rate the behavior of the focal dog towards the stooge dog. Specifically, they were asked to rate indifference, fearfulness, confidence, friendliness, submissiveness, defensiveness, playfulness, aggression. Observers then had to choose one of the behavioral styles as the primary style and further define what behaviors made them select that particular behavior style.

Indifference, fear, friendliness and play solicitations were easily identified. Actual-play behavior, confidence and aggression were behaviors that people, especially non owners, had a difficult time correctly identifying.

For example, when both dogs were engaged in actual play, only 30% of observers correctly identified the predominant behavior as "playful". 43% identified it as aggression and 20% as confident behaviors. When viewers were showed a clip of a confident dog, only 38% correctly identified the behavior as confidence, while 43% identified it as friendliness (and the two can very well overlap, as the researchers discuss). What I found interesting is that 38% of people correctly identified aggression while 33% of the viewers, when shown the same clip, identified the behavior as friendliness and 13% as confidence.

90% correctly identified indifference (eye aversion, sniffing, sitting still, positioning body away from stooge dog), 73% correctly identified friendliness, 62% correctly identified play solicitation, 67% correctly identified fear (although 10% identified it as indifference) and 53% correctly identified defensiveness.

The researchers asked people to identify the primary body part they used to measure behavior. 23% used the tail, followed by muzzle-related cues (19%) and large body movements (18%). Tail movement, e.g. tail wagging, was used 75% of the time over position of tail and frequency of tail movement. And generally speaking, tail movement was associated with friendliness and play. Observers strongly associated barking with aggression, including when watching play behavior. People considered growling a more defensive behavior, biting was associated with aggression and play, and showing teeth was mainly described as aggression or defensiveness. Sniffing was generally associated with friendly and confident behaviors. Pulling on the lead tended to be primarily associated with aggression and confidence. Ear position was the least used cue.

When showed the actual play clip, biting, herding, piloerection, standing over/showing teeth were all considered aggressive, while an upright stance and straining at the lead indicated confidence. And when showed the aggression clip, barking, bouncing, ears erected/forward, tail wagging were read as signs of playfulness!

The researchers then discuss some of the limitations of the study (you can purchase the study and read for yourself).

So how do we get non owners and novice dog owners (with little education on behavior) to understand cues better? People still rely on highly generalized behaviors to identify behavior; e.g. a wagging tail indicates a friendly dog; hackles = aggression; barking = dangerous, etc.  I find it a little disconcerting that people (novice dog owners included) mistake aggressive behaviors for friendliness.

For fun, tell me what you see in this pictures:

Pic A (Click for larger, result from "barking dog")
Photo by: v i p e z
Pic B (click for larger, result from "dog play")
Photo by Lou Musacchio

 Pic C (click for larger, result from "dog play")

 Pic D (click for larger, result from "dog fight")
Pic E (Should be obvious!)

 * Cross breed, Greyhound, Boxer, Labrador Retriever, Springer Spaniel, German Shepherd, Border Collie, Cross breed



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 19th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
This sounds really interesting! I am sure that there are times when I am misinterpreting my dogs' cues, but I try to pay good attention and I think I am getting better at it. The public as a whole, though... no. My dog does not want you to still try to pet him when he is hiding under a park bench from you!!!!
Oct. 19th, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC)
Ok, I'll play!
Pic A - I'd guess yellow dog just offended brown dog, who is either fearful or defensive (both?). Brown dog gives strong warning. Yellow dog seems startled and moves away but also appears to be responding to warning.

Pic B - Play that may be getting out of hand, i.e. too aroused. Dobe appears to be displaying appeasing/calming behaviors. Maybe Dobe isn't comfortable with black dog, or that particular moment of play/play style. The owners do not appear concerned.

Pic C - Stressful or frenzied play. I think the arousal level was quite possibly off the charts. Pit's face shows tension. Don't think the pit liked what was going on that moment. I feel like pit is fixing to give warning or something.

Pic D - Yellow dog looks really ticked off. Brown dog appears to be avoiding the scuffle (head not directed at yellow, body movement is away--wish I could see face) rather than diving in. I'd wager brown dog ignored subtler cues from yellow dog that ---- was about to go down and may be socially unaware (but my view of this may be coloured by encounters between past dogs, one of which WAS socially clueless and the other was hyper sensitive to social pressures and had a hairline trigger). I'm not convinced yellow dog wanted to connect any blows, though. Looks like big nasty display. Silly, too. Big movement, but doesn't look like it's AT brown dog. Ear position is forward but also down--looks like he was moving backward. Weird.

Pic E - PLAY BOW YAY! Bowing dog looks more serious that I would have expected.

I don't know how "right" I am, really, but there you go. I'd probably miss most of what I'm looking at if that stuff went down in front of me. Not easy to read facial cues in the midst of a scuffle, for example. (Or it isn't for me).
Oct. 19th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't say I could correctly predict another dog's behavior, but after 10+ years I do know my own dog's cues pretty well. I can tell when she's playful, nervous, or aggressive. Or mopey... or trying to trot out the guilt trip...

I'm not going to guess on the pictures, because a single snapshot can be not at all indicative of what's really going on. Look at people who've been snapped in the middle of laughing who look angry, or sick... or crazy... And I know that a lot of my cues for my dog are in how she moves and what she says, and I've taken some pretty funky pictures of her, too.
Oct. 20th, 2009 01:55 am (UTC)
I can't tell you how much going to the dog park with you in the early months with George helped me . I was ready to drop kick every dog that snarled at my baby and you showed me the light. Grazie. I'm not an expert, obviously, but the difference between "bat-shit-crazy-omg-blood-bath-time!!!!@!!!W#$%#@$TQ#$!" and "rarrr let's play noooow!!" is a little clearer to me now.

The middle dog in Pic C cracks me up. "Imma gunna keeeel youuuu! (not really)"
Oct. 20th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
this was a very interesting post; thank you.

in A it looks to me like the dog on the left is acting submissive, tail down, shoulder down.

in B it looks the same, although the dog on the left appears less submissive and more "wtf, dude."

in C these dogs appear to be playing.

in D the dog whose face we can see sure does look snarly. without context i would have to say that this is an aggressive action.

and in E that dog is doing yoga.
Oct. 21st, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC)
A. Brown dog upset, warned yellow dog, who seems to be responding appropriately.

B. Looks like my dogs playing, which always unnerves people who don't know them. Sprockets sounds like she's going to EATCHOO, but she's not and can snap back to calm instantly. Anyway, without knowing the dogs in the picture, that would be my guess.

C. More play, but the dogs don't look as comfortable with each other. Dog park,maybe?

D. A case of actual I will EATCHOO, or more like the brown dog did not respond appropriately to warnings.

E. Play bow.
Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:33 am (UTC)
I find dog behaviour and psychology fasinating and I can't get enough of it!

But, it still baffles me how dog owners can never tell when their dog is about to growl, or when their dog is about to attack, or when their dog is tense etc etc....

I thought when one bought a dog one was interested in dogs...but obviously not.

A dog snapped at a lady in my vicinity the other day after ten minutes of her patting him whilst he had his head down, eyes up, body tense, ears back.....classic "back away" behaviour and she got so upset. Most of the time, you just can't tell people!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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