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