Perhaps “Super Normal Sign Stimuli” is not a phrase that you often use? Ah, but it should be! It summarizes a common behavior that is relevant in both human and canine behavior. SNSS refers, first, to stimuli that elicit an inherent response in individuals of a species. Red flowers, for example, attract hummingbirds, no matter what the bird’s experience. Hummers are naturally and inherently attracted to the color red, as Orioles are attracted to the color orange. The other part of SNSS, “super normal” refers to the size or intensity of a stimulus. A good example of this is from the ethologist Tinbergen, who learned that nesting female sandpipers will sit and try to incubate anything that is egg-shaped with the appropriate size and spotted patterns that look like real eggs (even if they are made out of wood). the “super normal” part comes in when he made extra large ‘fake’ eggs, and found that the females left their own eggs to die while attempting, fruitlessly, to sit on the huge mega-eggs.
My favorite example of this is the Australian Jewel Beetle, whose males began attempting to copulate with beer bottles, because the bottles were bumpy and orange-brown. It turns out that the top of the female beetles is also orange-brown and bumpy, but the females were small and the beer bottles were HUGE and the males were absolutely helpless in their presence. (I call this the Dolly Parton effect, if you get my drift.) The males ignored the real females so frequently that the population, (according to a nature special) began to decline. I’m told that the beer company actually changed the bottles so that the males went back to the females. (Any Aussies want to chime in here?)
And what does this have to do with dogs? Ah, watch this! This may not be an example of a truly “super normal” sign stimulus, but it’s a great example of how certain features are perceived by dogs as meaning something they are not:
The fact is that our dogs are responding to Sign Stimuli and SNSS all the time. A common example of SNSS is a pair of sunglasses. If you work with fearful or aggressive dogs, you learn fast to take off your sunglasses when approaching the dog. Big black flat circles? Ooooh, a perfect SNSS of a round eye with a fully dilated pupil–a sign of a dog in high arousal and one who is potentially about to be aggressive.There’s a great example of this on the Reading Dogs video: an Eskie who barks wild-eyed at a man with sunglasses on, makes friends with him with the glasses off, and goes back to defensive, panicked barking when the glasses go back on.
My Luke ran into SNSS squared one day when we were doing live radio and a workman stopped at the glass window to watch. Luke was lying quietly under my feet, at least until he burst up, barking in a way I’d never heard (did I mention we were live on radio?). I was completely confused until I realized that the man was wearing knee protectors: HUGE round black circles at eye level.
This phenomenon is both a blessing and a curse. We respond to SS and SNSS when we come home and our dogs have squinty, happy eyes and an upcurved line on their lips. There it is, the happy face of two round circles with a crescent line underneath. Turns out we smile in response to that just weeks after birth. And there it is on our dog’s faces! We can do the same thing when we adopt a loose body and wag our butts back and forth (yup, I do that). Dogs love it.
The curse comes in, however, when dogs respond to things like statues not by barking but by being frightened, or to sunglasses or stiff-bodied stuffed dogs (a great way to work with dogs who are nervous around other dogs by the way!)
So here’s a question for you all: let’s develop a list of SNSS and SS that relates to our relationship with dogs. I look forward to hearing your examples!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. The raspberries finally ripening, a new hatch of vicious mosquitoes, blooming Chickory and Wild Parsnip by the roadsides. Sushi is disgusted with me because I won’t let her out–first the barn swallow fledglings in the barn needed protection for a few days (they fall out of the nest sometimes before they can fly). They got up and running, and now the pair nesting in the garage has 5 babies close to fledgling. There are so many other birds fledging now; Chipping Sparrows, Phoebes, etc, so poor Sushi girl is house bound. I wonder if she and Willie, who is crated so much of the time now, are having conversations? I hope they’re not plotting anything . . .