Willie and Tongue Flicks and What it All Means

As if any of us REALLY knows “what it all means,” right? But thank you for your interesting and thoughtful comments about the previous post’s video of Willie and the “Get Back” signal. They were great.

I’ll cut to the chase about my own interpretation. Here’s the data: Willie tongue flicks when I ask him to back away from somewhere or something he wants to go toward: the outside of the house, into the car, or toward the toy. All of these have been taught using lots and lots of reinforcement with food and play and “life rewards,” like going outside after I say “Get Back” or getting the toy as soon as he backs up (But  I don’t reinforce every single response every single time once he has a cue down pat. That would be unnecessary in my opinion, not to mention completely impractical.) But back to the tongue flicks:

The only time in the video when Willie doesn’t tongue flick after “Get Back” is he is directly facing the sheep, who are backed into a corner. Two highly relevant facts that can help us interpret his behavior are:

One, I’ve never used food to teach it in that context (sheep), I have in all the others. Is it possible that he has a classically conditioned response to the cue because it so often resulted in food? I thought that was an interesting comment from a reader. I think this bears considering, but, see # Two….

Two, (and I think in this case MUCH more relevant) Willie dislikes what is called “contact” with the sheep (not physical, think metaphysical) and is stressed by face-to-face confrontations with them. Did you see how quickly he backed away (see second 120) when I said “Get Back” in that context?  That’s because he is relieved. In this case he’d be likely to tongue flick when I said “Walk Up,” not “Get Back.”

Thus, I am inclined to agree with those who argued that Willie’s tongue flicking is displacement behavior. In all the cases in which he tongue flicked, he wanted to go forward, but couldn’t, so he did something else. What he did could be interpreted as a sign of low-level anxiety, stress or frustration, or as appeasement behavior. I experimented (have you with your own dogs yet?) and looked for tongue flicks in a variety of contexts and after a variety of cues. Lie Down and Sit all got tongue flicks. Come forward and touch my hand, pick up the toy, come to me, find the toy, and high five did not.

Willie appears to tongue flick when he wants to move forward but is asked to do the opposite. Is he stressed? I could well be wrong, but I don’t think so, at least not in the way the term is usually used. “Stressed” on Willie’s face is easy to read, and involves pinched facial muscles, ears flat and a look in his eyes somewhere between Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s The Birds and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Is he thrilled about being asked to back up? Nope.

Notice how immediately before and after the tongue flicks, Willie’s body stays loose, his mouth open and he generally has on what I call his happy face. Would he rather go forward at the door, into the car, toward his toy? Yes. Would I rather eat ALL the chocolate in the cupboard right now? Yes. Am I stressed because I am not allowing myself to do so, with some inner voice firmly saying “Trisha, Get Back?” No. That’s my interpretation. Now that we all know more, what do you think?

A few more points in relation to your comments, and a reminder of what a great exercise these videos can be for us all. Several people commented about Willie, at second 24, sliding under my legs toward Tootsie as I am about to lift her into the car. There were some interesting guesses about what is going on here, but I can tell you with confidence that Willie is taking the opportunity to sniff her butt “under the radar.” He still primarily pretends that she doesn’t exist (and vice versa). They can eat off of the same plate if offered to lick our dinner plates, and she can dance on his head when greeting us and he has no visible reaction. He is remarkably tolerant of her (and her him). But they still do not acknowledge each other, and sneak in sniffs in rare moments, only when the other’s head is busy.

Some of you also commented about Willie’s dash away from the car door after I put Tootsie inside (second 40) and interpreted it as fear. Not a chance in this case, he was running in joy to the barn. Willie has learned that unless other cues have occurred (Tootsie’s car harness on, his travel collar on), Tootsie going into the car crate means we are going to the barn to work sheep.  Even though I think he often finds it stressful, he appears to love working the woolies as much as life itself.

And one last quick comment, just by way of explanation: Willie’s Stay signal means “Stay in place (not posture) until I give you a release.” Willie’s Wait signal means “Pause momentarily and then do what you want.” If he is still not moving once I’m ready for him to move on, I’ll say “Okay” just to get the ball rolling again. But it’s his choice, Wait just means pause. If I want him to not move until I give him a release I say Stay. I find that useful, myself. You?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We began last weekend with a rough day on Friday. Willie was entered into our second “big” sheepdog trial on Friday, and did the worst he’s ever done. It was, granted another really tough trial, with a tough course, tough sheep and with wind and rain blowing into my face. Willie improved tremendously on our second run, but I did the worst I’ve ever done and made two ridiculous mistakes. Ah well. But then we gloried in a perfect fall weekend: blue sky, dry air, ideal temperature &light breeze. I’m talking calendar cover weather, here, and boy did we deserve it after such a brutal summer. I planted asters and dug weeds and cooked, Jim cut down tree-sized Ragweed to help my allergies, finished a new wagon to transport the sheep and we generally puttered and watched sports on TV and relaxed. Heaven for us all.



  1. Laceyh says

    How useful is the knowledge of the individual dog! Yes, indeed, your comments are great.

    Yes, I use “wait” and “stay” as you do, though for me “stay” is almost always used before meals to avert food competition. New fosters are strictly crated, but owned dogs and trained fosters “stay” and food isn’t put down and the release given.

  2. Parallel says

    Interesting statement about Willie being stressed with the sheep, but also enjoying it. There are different kinds of stress and I think ‘happy’ stress is certainly one of them. I love writing, but I’m often stressed during the process of it. The stress of trying to find the perfect word or description makes the ‘eureka’ moment all the sweeter.

    I wonder if dogs ever have similar feelings. We know they can lose confidence if asked to take on challenges they can’t cope with, as well as gain confidence if they given a ‘win’ at the end of training. Confidence to me is an extension of pride…so can dogs feel pride? Does Willie know when he has conquered something with the sheep that is difficult for him, thus off setting the stress?

    As for feeling stressed when being asked to back up…I know you feel he isn’t really feeling stressed and I would probably agree, but would it be a bad thing if he were? When I give my blind cat commands that he doesn’t want to follow, he is STRESSED and he lets everyone know it by pitching a fit. I still make him do what he’s told. We can lower stress for our animals and should, but momentary stress and asking them to have some self-discipline I think is just part of different creatures (or even people) cohabiting.

  3. Bonnie H. says

    After your explanation of the tongue flicks, I got a mental image of a child (pre-teen or teen) saying ‘humph’ after being told to do something they really didn’t want to do, yet still doing it.

  4. Kat says

    These are fascinating exercises. I’ve been too swamped with things to offer my interpretation but have enjoyed reading all the ideas and observations.

    I use Stay–remain in this posture in this position until released– Wait–remain in this vicinity in whatever posture you like until released–and Beep–move out of my way in whatever direction or manner you want and you’re free to do as you like as soon as you’re out of my way. At the door when you asked Willie to “Get Back” I would be asking my dogs to “Beep.” In that circumstance they respond by backing up a few steps. When I ask a dog laying in the middle of the hallway to “Beep” they get up and move out of my way generally into another room to flop down there. I’m still not sure how the cue to move out of the way became Beep. I’d planned to train “Excuse Me.” My guess is that the kids were saying beep beep to each other and it just transferred to Ranger and since it is his cue we automatically taught it to Finna when we added her to the menagerie.

  5. says

    Hah, I refrained from commenting because I thought just noticing the tongue flicks was “too easy” and there was something else. I’m always looking for the hidden meaning (though it doesn’t mean I find it)!

    Depending, there are times I get similar tongue flicks from Elka; also food anticipatory, I daresay. Other times, if she disagrees with what I’ve cued her to do, she’ll still do it, grudgingly, and mumble at me about it. We have the most interesting conversations sometimes!

  6. Trisha says

    Parallel: I absolutely agree that “stress” isn’t always a bad thing (as when I don’t let myself eat all the chocolate….). I’m thinking that the usefulness and meaning of the word “stress” would be a great topic in the future. Agree?

    And I love the Beep of Kat! Wish I’d thought of that. I also like the different cues for different contexts. One sheepdog trainer uses a different cue for “back up to the right” and “back up to the left.” I’m going to work on that this winter (although mostly Willie needs to work on the opposite!)

    And Bonnie, love the “humph.” Willie has a snort that cracks me up. I see it as HRUMPH in capital letters…..

  7. Ravana says

    My guy tongue flicks when the answer is yes, “Do you want to go to the feed store?” “Do you want to go right?” and smiles when the answer is no, “Do you want to go get a bath?” “Do you want to head home?” He started it a couple years ago when I would ask, “Do you want to go to the feed store?” He knew they handed out cookies and would do a whole Pavlov chop licking routine. I realized it had turned into “yes” on one of our walks when he stopped at an intersection and refused to move. I asked, “Do you want to go right?” and he lip licked. I spent the walk experimenting and found that if he answered yes to right (or left) and I tried to turn him left (or right) he would refuse to move. He added smiles for “no” a few months later and as time has gone on he has reduced the lip licking to a tongue flick.

    Basically he taught me a really good trick.

  8. says

    I just did a TV commercial with my dog. Watching my dog in the commercial, I saw a tongue flick when I told her to stop as she was running towards me. Then I told her down, and she laid down crossing her paws which she only does when she is content and happy. I thought it might be discomfort running towards a strange camera? When I told her down she was relieved? I then started to observe her in general in our everyday life. I have never noticed but she tongue flicks ALL the time. With the TV commercial her tongue went right up to her nose. But she does little tongue flicks even when I talk to her affectionately—my guess is mild frustration that she doesn’t know what I am saying. She even does little tongue flicks when excited for example when I asked her last night if she wanted to go for a walk. She did a few little flicks and then started dancing around with excitement. Same goes for when I ask her if she wants a Kong toy. Like always, don’t just single out and read into one single body movement, but look at the entire body in that context. Trisha taught me this–as well as my other mentor–Trish King. One interesting thing I have learned with leash reactive dogs I work with; many often tongue flick right before they lunge.

  9. Beth with the Corgis says

    Mine definitely give their noses a big lick when they anticipate a treat. Since they frequently do it while looking at me with big relaxed grins, I have trouble believing it’s anything other than anticipation of food. But even if it is stress in Willie’s case, I like your analogy of the chocolates and have used similar analogies in explaining ok stress myself. We are doing our dogs no favors if we don’t teach them that a little frustration is ok and they don’t need our help to manage it.

    In my house, “Stay” means “stay right where I am, in the position mom left me, facing the direction she left me, until she returns or tells me to come.” “Wait” means “don’t move forward til Mom says ok, and it shouldn’t be long.” The nice thing is I can holler “wait” if we are walking down a steep hill and my leashed dog starts forging. I can yell “wait” to pull my dog off a wrong obstacle in agility, or pause him if he’s ahead of me and going too fast. MY position is irrelevant, the dog knows he is meant to just stop moving forward, but I do have a release word and I also use it on start-line stays; these are longer but I’m not coming back to the dog and am expecting him to hotly anticipate my “ok”. I trained it with the supper dishes.

    Actually, that’s what those words mean to Jack. To Maddie, “Stay” means “Sit where mom told me until I forget or get distracted and wander off looking for her, which is usually the second she is out of sight or maybe even turns her back.” “Wait” means “stare drooling at the food dish until I’m told it’s ok to eat, at which point the cat will have started eating my dinner so maybe try to steal Jack’s, because I am NOT arguing with the cat….” -sigh- Ok, I trained one of my dogs really well and got lazy with the other, and the cat’s a bully.

  10. liz says

    Thanks for the fun lesson, and way to be encouraged to thoroughly consider behavior. It’s been a great reminder of how many potential explanations are out there for any given issue, and also how many factors can go into each explanation.
    Of other displacement behaviors that come to mind, tongue flicking is rather passive for “not getting one’s way.” Pacing, grabbing and shaking toys, or a range of vocalizations can occur when one of my dogs wants to be let outside and is denied. (The same could be said of many shelter dogs.) So… good boy Willie for coping gently!
    When shaping or training in general, I haven’t personally noted tongue flicks. I get signals I read as mild confusion or attempts to relieve frustration (like yawning, a quick head shake, sighs or grabbiness with treats). Knowing when to work through or when to quit has to depend on the dog, but a post on “stress” would be helpful, no doubt!

  11. Martha says

    I guess when Willie is out with the sheep not only is he responding to the cue but he is also communicating with the sheep. If he has a flock of sheep in front of him, turning side on and curving could be an appropriate calming signal to the sheep.

  12. Frances says

    Very interesting. Sophy as a pup was horribly car sick. I spent many hours with chicken, books and music before she could cope with moving even a few yards, and although she has got much beter the car is still not her favourite thing. She settles down and tolerates it because it means walks and visits and other fun things, but has never voluntarily jumped in, and has to be lifted every time. And almost every time we go through a short ritual when she wonders off in the opposite direction, I call her, she pauses, I go to get her – and she lip licks. Sometimes there is undoubtedly a note of impatience in my voice – I’m trying to get three dogs safely into the car while keeping tabs on the cats to make sure they are not underneath it – but even when I am sweetness and light that little tongue flick is there. I now wonder if it is just a residual reluctance to get into the horrible machine, and perhaps a half forgotten association with the drooling and nausea it can cause her.

    It’s made me a much better driver – but does anyone know where I can get a “Car sick dog – please pass” bumper sticker?!

  13. Mary says

    Trish – to make you feel better – I think Wisconsin’s Pro Novice rules are harder than most. I haven’t seen a huge number of trials, but even the prestigious Bluegrass trial doesn’t require a crossdrive in Pro-Novice. That would be the Ranch level. I entered my first Pro-Novice trial last weekend, and my boy didn’t know what to do the first day when I gave the outrun command, because he couldn’t see the sheep (we’ve never worked on outruns where he couldn’t actually see the sheep) and also because he knew there were sheep BEHIND us in the exhaust. After retiring because we weren’t getting anywhere, the judge kindly let me walk up to where the sheep were visible, so that he would be able to find them the next day. The next day he did a beautiful come-by outrun but then the sheep starting moving to the right before he go to the lift point and he had to run way past the center to actually lift them; then they wanted to RUN all the ways back to the exhaust – just the opposite of what you had with the sheep not wanting to move. But hey – I learned a lot and he got some experience – hopefully positive. Hopefully Willie was able to get something positive from the trial!

  14. LisaH says

    In psychology we recognize two types of stress: eustress is “good” stress such as a promotion, marriage, baby, book published, award, etc. while distress is the term for “bad” stress such as illness, job loss, divorce, or bankruptcy. And one general definition of stress is anything that requires some form of adapation.

  15. Kerry M. says

    @Frances, “[D]oes anyone know where I can get a “Car sick dog – please pass” bumper sticker?!”

    Love this! I need a “Dog refuses to lay down and is about to fall over so I am taking this turn real slow” sticker, but if I found yours, I might just snatch it up. I’ve mostly trained Turbo to lay down in the car but every now and then he stands up, and he always falls when I turn too fast. So if he jumps up, I slow down to a ridiculous pace and irritate the heck out of the drivers behind me.

  16. Jennifer says

    Frances and Mary are cracking me up! My husband calls it “dog-driving mode” because I take turns incredibly slow. Maggie likes to sit up and watch out the window, but will topple over if I turn too quickly. Hehe.

  17. says

    to readers and writers at TOEOTL , I love you all.

    you make me smile (actually it’s a grin) and so realize that to be a CDL is ‘OK”. Wish i could invite you all to dinner. and let each pup lick off the plate after and no-one would say
    “oh gross”, to be truthful i have never done that-but one day. if i ever have a dog party,
    i will!
    Patricia, your new behaviour clips are fabulous. totally enjoyable. i learn without knowing it-very cool.
    one of my pups was quite verbal- “hurrumphffff” was a favourite. and a deep blow out the nose sigh followed. hard not to laugh.

    I fail miserably at a long stay. HOWEVER each pup learned a sweet “wait” at the side door, at the debit machine, when hauling groceries into the car, in the elevator, top of the escalator,and not one would snorkle to get blueberies out of their water bowl until i gave the “go”.
    I too have done slow-mo-dog-turns.might as well have no power steering i go so slow.
    Now when they get too big for the crate (in the smaller car)- they tuck down on the passenger side floor and never ever move at all-just gaze with admiration and love as i promise to share my apple with them “later”.

    Our 3rd dog was so great at the “wait” prior to eating that the cat (now 14 years old) would slither next to the dogs food and start to chow down as the dog waited. i have had to squeeje the kitchen floor of drool. how do you spell squeeje?

    ps CAT is the boss.

    reagrding the dogs hunting wolves THAT IS JUST SICK. ‘night

  18. Mark Kessler says

    I have an Aussie (younger of 2 that I have) who tongue flicks (straight out, not licking his lips) fairly quickly with his nose held high in the air when you are scratching him in his favorite spot just above where his tail used to be on his lower back. He will walk up and put his behind just at the correct position for you to scratch him there with little effort (nice for him to do his part). I am listening to for the love of dogs and have seen expressions and intent from my Aussies that both coincide and are (for them at least opposite of thoughts in the book). Also my older Aussie has shown reasoning on his own. I am sure there are people who will say impossible but I am on the side that believes that dogs and animals at least some do think and reason and that people who say impossible are proved wrong more than those who have an open mind. I also have a series of pictures of my oldest when he was a pup one with complete joy, one with wonderment and one of contentment all within about a 30 minute car ride from the beach as he was watching the new world go by. Very nice book. i wish I had bought the book so I could see the pictures.

  19. Yevette says

    It seems that everyone describes the lip lick as a response to stress with a few acknowledging anticipation of food. I wonder … For example: we use a similar gesture with our eyebrows to show both concern and anger; a grin for sympathy and delight; a lifted eyebrow for curiosity and response to a lie. After watching the video and more critically watching my dog, it seems that context yields difference in her meaning. She does the same behavior when intimidated by another dog as she does (with brighter eyes) enticing play. One obviously fearfully the other obviously playfully. Maybe I’m just understanding the word stress incorrectly as was pointed out with good and bad stress. It seems that the whole setting has to go with the behavior analysis. You guys are teaching me lots by making me think more critically. Thanks for the video lessons!

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