Applied Ethology: Translations and Mis-Translations

Last week I posted a photo of Tootsie’s face that got a lot of reactions like: “She looks so angry!” “She looks mean!” That got everyone who knows Tootsie laughing, because she is about the least “angry” dog we’ve ever met. But, people who don’t know her were making reasonable assumptions, based on what ethologists call “sign stimuli,” or sights or sounds that get automatic responses. Usually we talk about these responses in non-human animals, like the famous beetles in Australia that tried to mate with orange, bumpy beer bottles that looked and felt like the backs of female beetles. In other words, if it’s orange and bumpy and you’re a male beetle, it’s got to be a girl beetle ready to mate.

As mammals, we’re not immune to this phenomenon, and I’m grateful to Tootsie for remind all of us of that. Here’s the original photo of Tootsie that, understandably, (and to our amusement) got the “grumpy dog” response:

Tootsie pet Pals

Whoa, that’s one angry dog, right? But check this out, here is the same photo modified to darken her eyebrows:

Tootsie not 'angry'

Same photo, same dog. Really. I just blacked out her eyebrows, thanks to an alert Facebook reader, Trish K, who did it herself and inspired this post. Angry? Grumpy? Can’t see it. I’d say she looks a bit uncomfortable, but that’s partly because I know that she is not always comfortable being held up in the air. (But then, how do I know that? Hummm… in part by her facial expression?)

Tootsie actually spent a surprisingly long time at her foster home after being pulled from a puppy mill. Her foster mom speculated, with good reason, that her “Andy Rooney” eyebrows were part of the problem, and tried trimming them. That was a reasonable thing to do, because the fact is, we humans are either hard wired to, or have learned to interpret eyebrows that go down at the center and up at the end as a sign of anger. Just look at these great examples of “eyebrows” as sign stimuli.

Angry BBQPet Pals outfits











Notice how you can cover up the frowning mouth, and still get an angry expression. All you really need is a circle and a line, and you have all the information you need. That’s the beauty of sign stimuli, their power is in their simplicity.

Our responses to ‘sign stimuli” are part of why we anthropomorphize inanimate objects, like the “angry” BBQ above. We just can’t help ourselves! This, obviously, can lead to problematic mis-interpretations, but just as often, this phenomenon can be to our advantage. Here’s a good example, a photo of CAAB Dan Estep and his dog Mocha, both with their lower jaws relaxed and the corners of their mouths turned upward, just like the famous smiley face. In this case, I’d argue that the sign stimuli we are responding to are accurate in both species; relaxed and happy mammals, enjoying time together on vacation.


Dan & Mocha sm220px-Smiley.svg




MEANWHILE, back on the farm. We had a great time recently  hosting the UW  Vet School’s Small Ruminant club. They came out to learn sheep ethology and to learn from Dr. Harry Momont how to use an ultrasound to check for pregnancy. That’s Dr. Momont smiling in the back, while three vet students gently use the ultrasound wand to look for signs of pregnancy. Their subject in this photo is the lovely ewe lamb, Lady Baa Baa, who I am happy to say is indeed “with lamb.” The other ewe lamb, Cupcake, came up as not pregnant, which was a bit of a disappointment.

Lady Baa Baa preg test

The lambs aren’t due until mid-April (late this year because of our trip to Europe in November), so we’ll just have to wait and see how it all works out. Cross your paws. Hooves. Fingers.  You get the idea!




  1. Milissa says

    Thanks for sharing that! I thought about suggesting a bit of dye for her eyebrows, but I really think she’s just adorable the way she is! Thanks for helping us to learn that all is not exactly as it appears!

  2. says

    I love Tootsie’s “mad genius” eyebrows! She’s adorable, really.

    Granted, I also think my Doberman is adorable, which not all people are necessarily on board with. Her eyebrows aren’t “frowny”, though.

  3. says

    I had a similar response to my Cavalier when I first got her. A coworker used to call her Eeyore because of the sullen expression on her face. Although she’s a very happy little girl, the only time she looks like she’s happy is when she’s panting.

  4. Josh W says

    On the “hardwired” part, I was always surprised why my son (then 3) would talk about the “angry cow” (google – chicago bulls poster) being angry when we visited our local Chicago hot dog restaurant. I think he was a bit nervous about the poster.

    Just showed him the pics of Tootsie separately. Original was “angry or mad” but he couldn’t explain why. In the retouched he said she looked scared – why “because of her eye’s”. Maybe reading into the white showing. A bit of perceived whale eye?

    As a behavior junkie is always amazes me how much people pick dogs on looks and not behavior and then are surprised that the shy puppy is now a dog that is scared of everything.

  5. EmilyS says

    “Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine’s face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief or desire, respectively. The footage of Mosjoukine was actually the same shot each time. Vsevolod Pudovkin (who later claimed to have been the co-creator of the experiment) described in 1929 how the audience “raved about the acting… the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”[1]”

  6. Kat says

    Years ago I had a tabby cat whose facial stripes were placed so that he always looked demonic. Temperamentally he was a bit of a demon cat but even asleep he looked crazy and mean. I wish Finna had Tootsie’s eyebrows then people might listen when she says she’s unhappy and they shouldn’t come closer.

    And now for something completely off topic that currently has me very puzzled. For the last week Ranger has been refusing to eat his breakfast until The Great Catsby samples it first. This isn’t just letting the cat have a couple bites this is waiting until the cat comes and tastes it and calling the cat if he doesn’t appear quickly. If the cat takes more than three bites Ranger barks at him to go away but Ranger will not eat until the cat has tasted it first. We’re starting to joke that Ranger thinks we’re planning to poison him and he’s using the cat as a taste tester. I have no idea why this behavior started or why it persists. Perhaps my animals are just particularly strange.

  7. Robin Murray says

    This cracks me up because it happened to me. I got my eyebrows waxed once by a new girl, and I swear, she made me look angry! I had forgotten about it until I saw your pictures of Tootsie.

  8. diane says

    Tootsie – So sweet !!! Dang eyebrows ! Thank you very much for your informative posts. I really appreciate all the information I get from your blogs and DVDs. In fact I used this when a co-worker asked me why his co-workers responded negatively to him. I suggested that he stop furrowing his eyebrows whenever he spoke to them!!!

  9. Rebecca says

    Would this be the same as large, round eyes being ‘baby’, infantile and innocent? I recall being at an HAI conference where a speaker was talking about play, and some how the topic came up. He said most cartoon characters have large, round eyes (and anime has taken it to the extreme). And baby’s do as well. Something about it being conditioned so we don’t kill them.

  10. Cat says

    Any links for sheep ethology as I will be starting my own little farm with two Icelandic pregnant ewes , Baaaabs and I -don’t – know – yet. I want to build trust right from the beginning…..thanks!

  11. says

    I’ve always laughed at people who anthropomorphize animals, especially when it comes to emotions… Terms like jealousy and envy, even aggression, are wholly human. But we’re all guilty of it in lesser or greater degrees, aren’t we? Tootsie’s photos do a grand job of proving the point 😀 Thanks for sharing!

    New follower here who’ll be back for more as often as you post it. Have a great day!
    Guilie @ Life In Dogs

  12. says

    What a difference the color of her eyebrows makes to her facial expression. Makes me wonder whether dogs themselves are bothered by it? I have a bi-eye sibe with a dark facial mask, he is a sweet guy but looks a bit fierce. Sometimes other dogs seem a bit intimidated by him, he is a male in his prime and very alert, but I sometimes wonder if other dogs read hij ‘intentions’ wrong?

    Here are some pics from his blue eye and at the bottom just showing the brown eye, I personally feel the brown eye is ‘softer’ but the pics are taken almost at the same time, he spots another dog in the distance

  13. Trish Kirby says

    Very interesting topic. I hope some of the blog followers could speak more about anthropomorphizing dogs emotions. For instance Guilie says it’s funny that we describe dogs emotions in wholly human terms such as jealousy, envy and aggression. Sorry if this seems simple minded but we are humans and have developed a language (human) to describe things such as objects and emotions. How else would we describe a dog that clearly wants the treat or toy that another dog in the room has. Would it not be anthromorphizing if I were to say the dog really wants that bone and then it would be anthromorphizing if say the dog is envious or jealous of the other dog? Is it just the term used to describe an observed behavior? Sorry if it’s a newbie question…I am a newbie on most things dog communication and behavior .
    I also found what Rebecca said about big eyes and being conditioned not to kill it interesting and disturbing. Lol. It doesn’t really work for cows, does it? Love love love this website :-)

  14. Jackie D says

    I was thinking about something similar this morning – my spaniel was interacting with one of her doggy friends; the friend was behaving atypically and I suddenly realised that I had no idea what she was thinking – I have a collie mix and a spaniel, but the ‘friend’ is a Bearded Collie. With all that facial hair the only clue I had was the way she was wagging her tail, and it wasn’t enough for me to work out what was going on. The interesting question is whether my spaniel could understand what the Beardie was ‘saying’ – any ideas as to how that affects dog-dog interaction? Or indeed whether other dogs interpret other dog’s markings as unintended signals, like humans with Tootsie?

  15. Trisha says

    To Trish K: I agree that “anthropomorphizing” isn’t always problematic. The most useful and thoughtful discussion of this topic that I know is in Frans de Waal’s “Ape and The Sushi Master.” He distinguishes between three kinds of the big “A.” Being Anthropocentric, or assuming that animals are basically furry or feathered people, is always problematic. Being in Anthropo-denial, however, is equally problematic. In this case, one assumes that because humans can do it or have a particular quality, then animals can’t. Both perspectives are extremely common, I might add. FdW argues that we need to be “animalcentric,” or be doing all we can to understand the world through another animal’s eyes/ears, etc. Alexander Horowitz also talks about this in her writings when she states that we need to understand the umwelt of another animal, another way of doing all we can to see the world through the eyes of another species. Of course, we are greatly limited by our own perceptual system. We don’t even see a dandelion flower the same way that a bee does (to a bee it is white and red). But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. And the fact is that many of the emotions that we feel are very primitive things. The brain structure and neurophysiology of all mammals is very similar when it comes to emotions, so it is indeed reasonable to assume some similarities between our emotions and that of our dogs. But not always… don’t forget the “guilty” look of dogs that is actually one of appeasement.

  16. Trisha says

    Mireille and others: Excellent question about how do dogs perceive the eyebrows of other dogs? And does eye color matter? I can see why M says that her dog can look a bit intimidating, but why? Eyebrows? Eye color? Erect ears? Dogs seem to respond to Tootsie well (although as I’ve written, Willie does all he can to ignore her.)

    I think that Kim and Rebecca also might be on to something: Tootsie’s huge round eyes make her look ‘baby like’ and more attractive (or at least in need of nurturance) to many people, but a rounded eye, especially one exaggerated by bulging forward, is a sign of a dog that is highly aroused, and not in a good way.

    To Cat and her new sheep farm: How fun! I’m afraid I have no good ideas about a source on ovine ethology, probably best to pick up what you can from management books and the natural history of Ovis aries orientalis, or the Mouflon. Most important non-intuitive thing to remember is that sheep are prey animals who don’t like to be touched all that much. Establish trust by not trying to pet them at first until they are very, very comfortable around you. Watch them and you’ll see that they stay close together, but don’t touch each other very much, it’s just not something that brings them comfort until they are extremely relaxed around you and they learn that it feels good to have their ears scratched.

    And to Kat: Well, I’ve been mulling about this all night and I still have no good ideas for you. Only wild guesses that I can come up with are question about interactions between them. Has the cat ever bullied him? Any chance of some kind of superstitious behavior in which Ranger got scared approaching his bowl but learned if the cat ate first he’d be okay? Hummm. Still mulling!

  17. Scott Baggett says

    Very interesting topic, personally I think every dog has the ability to understand all the body language going on from the moment they set eyes on another dog. I have often wondered how would I read a bearded collie, sheep dog, or any breed that the eyes are covered. I think just like dogs we will tend to observe the body language first.
    Although dogs do have a sense of smell that we do not and that could be a factor as well.

  18. HFR says

    I remember years and years ago when a friend of mine told me that her Jack Russell was driving her crazy because every time she started packing to go out of town, the dog would jump on the bed and pee because she knew she was going to be left soon. My friend was beside herself about how to solve this problem. I distinctly remember lecturing her about over-anthropomorphizing and insisted dogs do not have the emotional intelligence to determine that a) she was leaving and b) how they felt about it. To this day, I still feel so terrible about that lecture. Now I know how wrong I was.

    I figure we can’t go wrong as a society if we err on the side of attributing too many feelings to living things.

    Also, I think I read somewhere that Dobes and Rotties were bred to have those eyebrow markings above their eyes to help them look more fierce. I just think they’re cute tho and so is Tootsie. I’ve never met a Cav that wasn’t the sweetest thing in the world, so I think her eyebrows remind me more of Wilfred Brimley than Andy Rooney.

  19. LisaW says

    Many religions have a strong aversion to anthropomorphizing so that their god or religious deity stand apart from and above humans. Early Christians didn’t like it because it gave too much credence to the natural world, which was thought to be full of evil. I wonder if we have vestiges of this leftover in terms of our negative connotations to anthropomorphizing. I understand the idea of not looking at things strictly through a human perspective, but often it is a matter of language or noticing similar responses as ours. Sometimes it allows us to more fully understand and empathize. Plus, I don’t know how else you’d describe Tootsie’s eyebrows other than invoking Andy Rooney :-)

    @Kat: I wonder if your cat is leaving something behind in the food bowl that Ranger finds yummy or if Ranger thinks your cat is adding to his dinner in some way. We call it priming the pump — every once in a while our total chow hound will decide she won’t eat her dinner unless we add a bit of something “special.” What that something is almost doesn’t matter, it’s the idea that counts. Just a thought.

  20. Ben says

    As always, excellent blog post after excellent blog post. Usually I don’t have time to add anything, or anything I’ve thought to add has been covered by others. Sometimes I’m tempted to just post ‘awesome’ because yeah, always makes the day better to read a new post / new comments.

    Is it possible that Ranger actually is testing for food safety?

  21. Kat says

    Animals and their interactions are fascinating aren’t they? I’d say that Ranger and The Great Catsby have a pretty solid relationship where they each have areas where they are the boss. Catsby does tend to be more bossy about food and if it was strictly the cat eats some if he’s there I would have just regarded it as par for the course but the waiting for the cat to arrive and calling for him if he’s slow doesn’t really fit in that context. It’s not causing any problems it’s just a very odd thing about their relationship. Both are very socially secure animals who have excellent cross species communication skills. The only other clue I’ve thought of is that the onset of this sharing/taste testing was after a couple weeks of my daughter, whose job it is to feed the cats, being very erratic about feeding them–they always got fed but not necessarily in a timely fashion. Maybe Ranger is making sure his buddy Catsby gets fed although daughter has her act together again and the cats are back to getting fed on a more regular schedule.

    Food and sharing of food does seem to be a theme in Catsby’s life. For the first few months after we adopted Finna Catsby was leaving a lick of food in his bowl for her. Since we didn’t trust Finna to leave the cats alone when they were eating and Catsby was eating all of his food and most of Meowzart’s as well we started feeding Catsby on the basement stairs behind a closed door. He’d eat his meal and meow to come out and there would be a lick of food in the bowl which Finna would eat. After a couple months when she was feeling more secure he stopped leaving any food for her. Meowzart was fed elsewhere in another room and he wasn’t interested in leaving anything for anyone else.

    Finna and Catsby and sometimes Catsby and Ranger “hunt” together. If a bag of treats gets left on the counter Catsby will knock it down and Finna will tear it open and the two of them will share the treats. But if only one of them “hunts” it then they don’t share. The day Catsby (who will not learn to stay off the counters) knocked a jar of peanut butter onto the floor and the lid came off Ranger had a lovely snack and the next time Catsby got outside Ranger let him spend quite a bit of time in the yard rather than doing as he usually does and herding the cat back inside. If I were anthropomorphizing I’d say that Ranger was paying Catsby for the peanut butter.

    I spend countless hours just watching them all and wondering what prompts some of their behavioral interactions. I often wish I could read their minds.

  22. Trish Kirby says

    Thank you Trisha for the info on FdW, the book is on it’s way to my house. Ha ha The big “A” (thank you for that) is a fascinating subject that I’m going to focus on for a while, that and training up my pups. They will be 1yr. old in April and we have some work to do. I did just get the ebook version of Family Friendly Dog Training so March 1st we’ll begin.
    @Kat…I agree animals and their interaction are fascinating and I have also spent a few months just watching my dogs interactions, mostly play. I had Simon at 10 wks. Old and got Bella when she was about 4 or 5 months. I spent a great deal of one on one time with Simon three months befor Bell came along. After a short introductory period they just play play play eat sleep play play play and Play. So I would find myself just watching for hours how they play and get along not looking for anything in particular because I didn’t know what to look for or what I was really looking at, just dogs playing.. Then I started reading about play and calming signals. But before that the one thing that stood out to me was how aware of every part their body they are and it’s seemed also the space their body was in such as the size of the room or object they needed to avoid while playing. How their reflexes are so quick! When they are In the ultra focused PLAY ZONE their heads and mouths can be less than an inch away from each other moving fast with out making contact. My sweet Bella can jump on the couch back legs first half sideways with such grace.HaHa A fact that I’m not proud of right now but it’s awesome to watch…um the couch jungle gym experiences is why we start training ASAP ! They are scary smart but need some house manners…
    I also was just thinking wouldn’t it be nice if they could just speak English (for me) for a day and or read their minds. Then we wouldn’t anthropomorphize as much or maybe we would but would aware we were doing it.

  23. diane says

    To Kat: I keep thinking I should not blog and just read…such is my inexperience. But your observations are quite fascinating. I agree that we need to be very careful about interjecting our primate perceptions…. but doesn’t it seem like payback? Thanks for the peanut butter! or, since I got the peanut butter because of your behavior – you go first….maybe more peanut butter will arrive?! It would be great if we could be like Spock on Star Trek and mind meld (or melt…whatever).

  24. says

    Totally off-topic, I have an idea for a blog post or maybe a thesis: “Differences in the Degree of Puppy Socialization in Summer vs. (this) Winter in Wisconsin.”

  25. diane says

    You mentioned that sign stimuli is powerful in its simplicity. Is sign stimuli a simple association between a sign and a good or bad feeling? If so, can more complicated stimuli result in associations that become part of memory, but because of their complexity the resulting behavior is difficult to explain?

    I am not saying this is true for Kat’s taste testing cat (I certainly do not know the peanut butter circumstances)…but on speculation, let’s say the timing with the peanut butter was perfect and her dog did associate all the circumstances together – the cat who knocked the jar of peanut butter, the presence of peanut butter in close proximity to the food bowl, the yummy treat – really good feeling, etc. So now he associates the cat with peanut butter when his food arrives, so he looks for the cat….when we observe it seems like unexplained behavior. Again – just speculation. I am not saying this is what is happening!

    This happens with my dog. He received some food treats from our neighbor because her dog could not eat them. This was approx. 5 years ago. I put them in a different part of the kitchen than I usually keep his treats and doled them out as part of his treat routine and they were gone within a year. He doesn’t do it all the time, maybe three or four times a year, but to this day he will still stand in the kitchen and look at the place where I kept those cookies when he wants a treat – even though they have been gone for years now and there are no treats in that corner. I wonder if I do something that triggers an associative memory and he looks for the cookies that used to be there.
    Or if I am making it too complicated and he is simply responding to some type of conditioned response.

    I tried to read about memory and association – but the articles that seemed to apply were way over my head.
    Is there any merit to this, or am I barking up the wrong tree?

  26. says

    Hello Diane, I think it makes sense that dogs do have memories that link certain places to certain memories. i once fell over with my bicycle when cycling wth my previous siberian, Janouk. For weeks, when we walked (!) past that place he would walk behind me. The place scared him because of the scare he got, but he did NOT link it with the bicycle – fortunately, he still loved to go cycling with me – or – unfortunately – with his own action that caused me to fall over (yup, we fell over a couple of times, always because he either did a u-turn or tried to pass in front of the front wheel of the bike). So yes, there was an association but not one we humans would make. Janouk was a masterof unintended links and associations, he once hit an electric fence while chasing a ball, which caused him to become terrified from that particular ball. In our view not the smartest of dogs, we nicknamed him ‘the three braincell dog’ but then he lived with ‘professor Chenak the masterthief’ so perhaps we were not enterily fair on him 😉 He was a sweety though… Sorry, going wildly off topic, I fear…

  27. em says


    What a gorgeous boy! He certainly does have an alert and focused look about him. I don’t know whether I might be off base on this, but we know several huskies and malamutes from the park (all lovely) and I have often observed that they get a somewhat guarded and uncertain reaction from new dogs, regardless of eye or mask color. One friendly malamute actually scared the bejeezus out of ME one day. I just looked up and there he was, out of nowhere (he didn’t sneak up on us, he is just a quiet mover and colored like the winter landscape). He’s a gorgeous dog, but he was just standing there, maybe thirty feet away, ears erect, tail high, gaze steady and focused, mouth closed, and I realized I couldn’t get a ‘read’ on him. It didn’t help that he is HUGE- marginally smaller than Otis the great dane, who was also eyeballing him uncertainly. It turns out that as well as being one of the most beautiful dogs I’ve ever seen, he’s a lovely, friendly, playful boy, but seeing him there suddenly, looking like a giant wolf, was startling to say the least.

    Anyhow, looking at this dog, I think I put my finger on what seems so different to me about the body language of huskies and mals. Not only do their ears and tails stand, but when standing still or trotting along, they carry a certain straightness and stiffness in their backs (their backs seem shorter proportionally-presumably this is a structural advantage when pulling loads) when compared to many other dogs. Some terriers have the same sort of carriage and often get the same sort of reception.

    I know I’ve seen my own dogs tend to give new huskies and mals careful looks (despite knowing several well and never having encountered an unfriendly one- I think we have had better luck with them than with any other breed type). I get the sense that in all but the most obviously submissive of these dogs, their natural body carriage tends to muddle their signals so that they are harder to read.

    I’ve also noticed that many huskies (especially young ones) show very exaggerated submission and appeasement signals when they approach other dogs, and I wonder if they haven’t learned to compensate a bit for their natural carriage.

  28. diane says

    Thanks Mirielle
    I have noticed such associations and unless you know the dog and circumstances, their behavior would seem weird to anyone else.
    Your stories were great to read….I’ve managed to fall off bikes several times without the help of my dog (best investigate the 3 brain cell theory on myself!)

  29. Stacey says

    My little mix breed Moose is always wary of dogs who either present as overly stimulated (Pugs, Frenchies etc – bulging eyes, straining forward and lots of heavy breathing) or those who are hard to read the body language of (Chow Chow’s and Standard Poodles in show clips).

    He isn’t initially aggressive but he does definitely do the “Hi, I’m happy to meet you but if you turn out to be a jerk I’m prepared” which for him is relaxed mouth, wagging tail and hackles up 😉

    I think dogs are perceptive of appearance but not in the way we are hard wired to

  30. says

    This is also true for human face recognition. If a person’s eyebrows originally, naturally look that way, if it is asked to many people what that person feels, they will say s/he is angry according to Paul Eckman’s mini lectures. Is this antromorphism,too?

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