I hope you got a chance to watch the video I posted last week from trainer Aki Yamaguchi (thanks so much!). I greatly enjoyed reading the comments; some of you did a fantastic job providing detailed descriptions of the behavior of all three dogs. My goal in posting the video (beyond the fact that it is a great video of dog behavior) was to 1) emphasize how much behavior can occur in a very short period of time, and 2) how difficult it can be to separate out descriptions of what you saw from interpretations of what you think the behavior represented.
First off, here are a couple of tips that all budding ethologists are given when asked to describe behavior, especially when viewing multiple animals:
1) Learn to identify each animal as an individual. This was easy here but when watching wild animals (or a litter of Golden Retriever puppies) it can take a long time. When I first began working with Cotton-Top Tamarins it took me many hours of observing to be able to sort out each individual by sight. But we are lucky here because the dogs are so easy to identify. If the animals you are watching are hard to ID, then do what you need to do to be able to identify them instantly, either through practice or marks on their bodies.
2) Give each animal a short hand designation (as many of you did, good for you). Let’s say that in this case, the seemingly younger and whiter Border Collie is W (for Whiter BC), the seemingly more mature, darker Border Collie is B (for Blacker BC) and the other dog is G for Golden Brown dog. You could also use numbers, but unless there are too many animals I prefer names if you have a data sheet or program you are using, or letters if you have to write down long hand who is doing what.
3) Begin observations with an already established “ethogram,” a list of categorized and detailed descriptions of every possible behavior seen in the species. Part of my training in ethology as an undergraduate was creating a ethogram of a particular species. I worked with a band of ponies owned by the university, and froze my fingers off sitting and watching them, recording notes and diagrams of what I was seeing. After many hours, I converted my notes into an organized list of behaviors, categorized loosely by function (if known), ie: gustatory (feeding), grooming, social interactions, etc.
You might think that there would be a plethora of ethograms of dog behavior, but alas, familiarity breeds contempt, and there are relatively few. A great source is the website EthoSearch, in which you can type in any species once you have registered (it is free, yeah for that). I registered and typed in “domestic dog,” and 14 entries came up.
If you do the same you’ll see tremendous variation, from a list of behaviors as broad as “play,” to as fine grained as “Chin over: W places chin over L’s back, usually right behind the neck or near L’s shoulders, W’s chin may or may not touch L but W’s chin must be at or near a 90-degree angle in relation to the plane of L’s spine. (Bauer & Smuts 2007). How detailed a description is necessary is, in part, driven by what the researchers are investigating. Do they want to know how much time an individual animal played versus how much time it spent sleeping? Then there is no reason to be much more specific (as long as they define play itself very carefully–not always an easy thing to do.) But what if one is trying to sort out the relationship between two individuals? Then “play” is going to be a useless category, while “full play-bow” and “turn to face” are going to be much more meaningful.
If you have the time and inclination to join EthoSearch, you’ll find that it lists published articles that include full or partial ethograms of any particular species. You’ll note that some of them are problematic, either in that they are indeed a tad vague or ascribe too much function to what should merely be an observation. Of the 14 listed, in my opinion the best partial ethograms on domestic dogs are Bauer/Smuts 20xx, Fargo/Pongranz 2010 & Ward/Trisko 2009.
Other good sources of canine ethograms are Sue Sternberg’s article in Chronicle of the Dog, An Ethogram of the Shelter Dog, and Barbara Handelman’s book, Canine Behavior, A Photo Illustrated Handbook.
Almost all of the behaviors recorded in wolves are also seen in dogs, so although dogs are very different in many ways than wolves, each of their movements, postures and expressions are derived from that of wolves, so wolf ethograms are an important source/ (or perhaps I should say that the other way around).
4) Record Your Observations. The hardest way to do this is to do what we all did: try to write down as fast as possible what we saw, then rewind, start again, and continue writing and refining. Actually, that’s not the hardest way. The hardest way is to do it in real time; video are a great luxury in the world of behavior. Because things happen so fast, anything you can do to facilitate record keeping is helpful.
Use data sheets or event recorders: Serious researchers know that they can’t record everything, so they learn enough about the subject and their area of interest and record only certain behavior. They might have a list of the particular behaviors they are interested in, or certain individuals they are focused on. Having a list of behaviors written down or coded into an event recorder (for example, you’d tap key 1 for a tongue flick) makes recording much faster and more accurate. There are also a variety of ways to focus your attention. I won’t go into this in detail, but one can focus on one individual animal in one session, record what one animal is doing at timed intervals, or scan the group and record if you see any individual doing X.
So… how does all this relate to our video?
First, recall that we have dogs W, B and G. Here are some definitions for our ethogam:
Tongue Flick (tf): The tongue is extruded forward and then retracted from between the most cranial aspect of the jaws, both movements in and out usually occurring in less than a half of one second. (See Lip Lick)
Lip Lick (ll): The tongue is extruded laterally on one side of the mouth for less than one second, and then retracted. (See Tongue Flick)
Standing Over (so): One dog places its forelegs onto the dorsal surface of another dog, usually while standing at 90 degrees to the cranial/caudal plane of the lower dog.
Turns to Face (ttf): Dog rapidly turns body and head to face directly toward the line of travel of another dog who is close by (approx’ly within 2 feet), its gaze steadily directed toward the head of the other dog.
Hip Slam: Dog turns body rapidly and presses/rubs lateral side of one hip against the body of another, often directed toward the other dog’s hip also. Can be done with force, or relatively slowly and with little visible impact.
Here is the video again, so that you can reference it. I’m not going to begin describing every behavior that occurs, but here are some examples of how I would describe what I observe:
SECOND 8 to 11: B tf, moves back and faces W, bb W.
SECOND 17: W low intensity hs to G.
SECOND 12 to 28: B ttf 5 times to W.
Etc etc. One can describe what happens in each second, or list how often one action occurs in a specific time frame.
And my thoughts on all this? Oooh, such a great video of the subtle dance of social communication! I agree with many readers who suggested that these dogs all have good social skills. All signals were clear and moderated. The young dog, W, responded well to the signals of the older B. Beyond the obvious “young dog being aggressively obsequious” (that is a term I coined, although I will admit it presumes a lot) and an older dog behaving in ways to inhibit it, I find especially interesting that the older BC appears to tolerate the muzzle biting and licking of W when it is directed toward him/her in the beginning of the video. It is not until the pup switches to doing the same to the lab that B begins to behave as if to inhibit it. It takes a while for the pup to respond (5 ‘turn to faces’ as a matter of fact), but the pup does eventually perform a lot of appeasement behavior to B.
I should say here that I am indeed now making attributions of the behavior we’ve described. We must always be aware that we are just guessing about motivations, but social signals are meant to be read and interpreted, and at some point one simply has to sit back and ask ones self what it all means.
And so, why is the older BC trying to inhibit the younger one’s behavior around the lab? Possibilities include 1) It finds too much movement stressful, 2) It is trying to protect the lab from the pup, 3) It is competing for attention and wants the attention back on it. [Interesting note: Aki shared with me that a week after the video was taken, the lab was discovered to have a urinary infection. Very, very interesting, especially considering that the pup appears to actually have sampled some of the lab's urine by licking its prepuce... watch and you can see suggestions that the pup is moving its jaws at Second 38.] I’ll bet there are other hypotheses to explain motivation, I’d love to hear more!
And why is the pup so relentlessly licking/mouthing the lab? Trying to get it to play? Trying to get some social acknowledgement from it? (Note that the lab is being tolerant, but neither is it acknowledging the pup in any way). What was the hip slam/body rub about at second 17?
I could go on and on, but this is getting toooo long, and my dogs are waiting to get their dinners! I’d love to hear your thoughts about the questions I’ve raised here . . .
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. One reader gently reminded me that Tootsie hasn’t gotten much press lately. So true. Willie’s work with sheep and the new cats have been stealing the show. The good news is that Tootsie is doing really, really well. She gets to cuddle in bed every morning, goes into rapturous states of bliss at night on the couch as I rub her belly, responds to my petting Willie with desperate attempts for attention and has discovered that one never knows when one can find pieces of kibble hiding in the grass. Regrettably, she’s also discovered that one can also find cat poop hidden in the mulch in the flower beds too… sigh. We’re working on that. She’s learned to stay out of the main garden by the house, to respond to “leave it,” and that I have the best food on the farm in my pocket. That means there’s not a jacket in the house without food stains on the pockets, but then, who cares if it keeps Tootsie attending to me instead of cat poop?
Here she is in her native habitat: my lap: