Observations and Interpretations – Video Analysis

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:







  1. Frances says

    Very, very interesting. I suspect most of us non-ethologists only observe in order to interprete (is the oncoming dog displaying friendly/neutral/threatening signals? Is my dog relaxed/anxious/fearful?). Trouble with that, of course, is that we may too often jump to conclusions based on insufficient observation, or misinterpreting what we do see.

    And I am jumping straight to a conclusion when I say that your lovely photo of a relaxed and blissfully happy Tootsie made me smile!

  2. Laceyh says

    Yes, that is a very lovely Tootsie picture.
    I think most of us non-scientists are watching our dogs with a purpose, and learning more of the signs of feelings is very beneficial, but making us into objective observers is unlikely.

  3. Beth with the Corgis says

    I think we can describe behavior, but it’s impossible to imagine WHY the dogs do what they do without knowing them much better.

    I can show a photo of an office environment with one person sitting, and another person standing near her with her hand resting in between the seated person’s shoulders.

    It could be that the standing person is showing control/authority. Or that they two are dating and they are sneaking in some subtle physical contact. Or that the standing person is the sister or friend of the seated person, who was upset by something. Or the standing person might be socially clueless and not recognize personal space.

    Show a video of each of my dogs separately hip-checking another dog, and I can say that in all likelihood, one (the male) is probably sending an intentional message and the other (the female) is just being a bit socially clueless and once again has no idea where her body is in space, in relation to those around her.

    The puppy hip-checking the lab can be an intentional signal or a puppy being clutzy and goofy and just not showing good manners. Since we don’t know the individual dogs, it’s really hard to say.

  4. Lisa W says

    This is fascinating. It also is why most eye witness accounts are unreliable and don’t hold up under scrutiny (I’m thinking more along the lines of crimes, here). Without being well-versed in ethnology or having spent much time writing detailed observations, most of my accounts of an event are based on some assumptions and biases.

    BTW, one person did mention in the last post that she thought it might be a good idea to have the lab-type dog vet checked due to the younger dog’s interest in and response to smelling the lab’s urine. That caught my attention as a really good observation.

  5. JJ says

    Trisha: Thank you for providing this fun opportunity. I didn’t have time to participate formally, but I played the game in my head.

    Also, thanks for the Tootsie update. Loved it.

    To Anyone:
    re: The puppy licking at the end.
    I don’t know why I go off on tangents so often, but I can’t help myself again. I’ve seen other dogs (usually younger) lick my dog’s penis many times. Some of them seem to treat it like a spigot or nipple. I have often wondered if it was indicative of some kind of bladder problem with my dog. But I’ve seen it so often, I also think it might be a generally natural behavior, a meaning for which I am clueless.

    What I had never seen before, until a few days ago, was a dog fixate on my dog’s anus. This young (“teenage”) yellow lab started licking my dog’s anus. Then he fixed on it and was licking really hard. My dog kept trying to get away. I tried to intervene for quite some time. I couldn’t get the lab to back off. At one point before I could stop it, the yellow lab got in there and used his teeth a little bit, causing my dog to yelp a bit and sit down.

    (If you are wondering where the owner was during all of this: he was watching about 30 feet away. I yelled over, “Can you call your dog?” He gave me dirty look and shook his head no. I kid you not.)

    (If you are wondering what happened: After about 5-10 minutes of failing to distract that other dog despite my very best efforts of trying multiple tacks, we left the park. It was really sad because it was the last good whether day for the year. I had taken vacation from work so that I could go home early and let my dog play with the other dogs. Other than this one problem, it was a really good group of dogs, all of whom were playing nicely and having a good time.)

    The point of me bringing this up is: I wonder if the anus licking is similar to penis licking in terms of motivation, but maybe just not as common? Other times, I wonder if that dog was trying to tell me that my dog had a medical problem?

    The medical problem is not out of the questions. While very unusual for a dog who is a Great Dane, my dog has had an anal gland infection before. Also, my dog has peed blood before too (before I switched him to a vegan kibble). So, it is possible that there is a medical issue.

    I’m sure lots of people have seen dogs licking the penis of other dogs. But have you seen something like what happened to my dog?

  6. Trisha says

    I would recommend having a vet check out the dog, I have seen several cases of dogs taking an unusual interest in another’s body parts (atypically) and then discovering there was indeed something wrong. It could be as simple as impact anal glands perhaps? Certainly the dog’s interest may have nothing to do with your dog, could be some weird habit of the dog, but worth checking out I’d say. Keep us posted.

  7. JJ says

    Trisha: Thanks for your advice. Duke has his regular, annual exam in a few days. I’m going to ask the vet to look. Thanks.

  8. Alexandra says

    I usually see a male, neutered dog lick the genitals of another male, neutered dog prior to mounting the dog and humping away. I don’t know why or what it means.

    When Romeo was younger, he used to take turns doing the hump-dance with a couple of similarly sized young male buddies, but he has never enjoyed having his genitals licked and sniffed extensively by another dog.

  9. Martha says

    Moving a little bit off topic to puppy socialisation. This is an interaction between an adolescent and mature adults and I find the interaction fascinating. There are a lot of socialisation classes on offer for puppies, they seem to offer puppies socialising with puppies. I wonder how productive this is? I have always felt it is important to socialise with a mature calm adult as the adult can provide some finer details in communication, like low level signals – head turns and so on to learn from. I also feel it is important to offer supervision and support to the adult so that they are not stretched, so each party can have a positive experience. There are some great adolescents who can approach older dogs maturely and then there are some that do so in a typical clumsy manner. Just thought it might be a topic worth discussing?

  10. Frances says

    I agree Martha – I have small breed dogs, and was never happy with the idea of them socialising in a free for all of other, always larger, puppies. Even in a carefully supervised puppy class there was too much risk of them being hurt, or learning that they really needed to shout to warn other pups off. I was fortunate enough to have neighbours with wonderful Spinones – large, gentle, puppy proof, well-socialised dogs who took extreme care to self-handicap when playing with my tiny puppies, but also taught them good dog etiquette and manners. I think the absolute ideal would be an off-leash walking group of good tempered, well socialised adults and a couple of puppies of similar age and size … I don’t know how one would organise it, though! But I am certain there is a business opportunity for anyone with a dog who is really good with pups to help new owners socialise their puppies – although too much interaction may change the dog’s mind. I find it interesting that many dog trainers I know have dogs that won’t tolerate bouncy pups and adolescents – I suspect that they have met too many, and been bounced just once too often!

  11. Martina says

    When I first watched the video, I was completely surprised at the similarities with what’s currently happening at home. About 6 weeks ago we added a cavalier puppy (who btw looks like the spitting image of Tootsie, except that the white patch on his head was very thin and has completely disappeared by now), who is constantly in contact with the adult dogs (lab girl and golden boy).
    So thank you Trisha for taking the time to explain how to get to work to analyse such videos properly.

    Martha, Frances I totally agree with you. While I was and am still very attached to the school where the adult dogs went, I had to look for another school to take Mailo (the puppy) after his first session. 
    One of many reasons being that I was constantly given a bad conscience about the behaviour of my adult dogs.
    And the trainer of the other/new school says its ok to bark, pups need to learn to keep their distance from an adult dog and when they don’t understand the head signs, a bark is ok.
    Mailo comes from a litter of four, born two weeks after a litter of five, all living with four adults (in addition to the two moms), so he had to learn to keep some distance. 
    As of this week the golden grants Mailo permission to lick his face regularly 😉
    It was a lot easier between Mailo and Gina (lab girl), but even she has to tell him to back off from time to time.
    How should puppies learn all this if not from adult dogs?

  12. JJ says

    Trisha: The results are in. Duke *does* have an anal gland infection. He is on antibotics now. Thank you for encouraging me to get it checked. I might have dismissed the possibility without your encouragement.

  13. Trisha says

    JJ: Wow! Gotta thank those noses for telling us what we would never know. Good for you for acting on it, and here to a speedy recovery for Duke. Anal gland infections must be very ow-ey.

    To Martha, Frances and Martina: And I too throw my hat into the ring, arguing that the best socialization is to have a pup or two with a group of polite, well-socialized adults. I do think puppy classes can be worthwhile if run well, but if not, it’s a bit more like Lord of the Flies than “socialization.”

  14. km says

    Animals will often try to “relieve” infections in others. I once observed my dog “pinning” our cat by scruffing him in order to stand over him and lie down with his chest on the cats tail, cat facing outwards between dogs paws. Now the cat made some voiciferous argument but no move to escape so I just watched without intervening.
    Dog then proceded to remove hair from the back of the cats neck (again cat was growling but not attempting to leave where he usually was very good at defending himself) once hair was removed dog peristantly licked/nibbled and worried at the area until i saw him pull a mass of thick discharge from cats neck effectively opening and cleaning out an under running abcess that none of us had noticed. When taken to a clinic the vet was so impressed with the job dog had done that he barely needed anything other than an antibiotic jab. The vet said it was close to septic and very deep. Dog had saved cats life… 2 weeks later, cat and dog were back to waging war on each other.

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