This is Part Two of last week’s discussion about what visual signals can and can’t tell us about the internal state and future behavior or our dogs. I should mention right away that I had planned to add my own comments about what we could discern from the video of Misty and the photo of Gypsy at the end of last week. Ah, then, life happened. Actually, in a good way, because I was under the weather only because of my reaction to my second Covid vaccination. My gratitude for being fully vaccinated knows no bounds, but I hesitated to say anything because hearing about other’s vaccinations when one is waiting for one’s own can be challenging. But a loyal reader said she was worried about me–so kind of her–so I thought I’d fess up. I’m great now, and will be hugging some dear friends in a little more than a week. Here’s to a world where we all can do that soon.
That said, let’s get into the topic at hand–what Misty’s expression can tell us about how she was feeling internally and if that might predict her future behavior. For those of you who missed it, here it is again:
There were lots of great comments about Misty’s expressions, including the clear examples of “Whale Eye.” Coined by Sue Sternberg, whale eye occurs when a dog’s head turns one way, but the eyes don’t, thus exposing a lot of white in the side of the eye. I’ve called it the “Horror Movie Face,” in which one tries to turn away from something too scary to watch, but can’t take their eyes off of it, because, well, it’s scary and therefore dangerous. I wrote a post about it awhile back, so you can learn more about it here.
The other clear signs of distress are Misty’s “tongue flicks” or “lip licks“. This behavior is associated with distress or anxiety–so much so that one study found a fifth of dogs lip licked when presented with a photograph of an angry person. (Just a photograph! Wow.) Lip licks are believed to be a behavior derived from the appeasement behavior of puppies, but can be seen easily when dogs are mildly stressed–for example at the vet clinic, or asked to lie down when they are nervous about the environment. I’ve found it a great way to get a read on how relaxed a dog is, or isn’t, in any environment. But of course, it’s good to know a dog’s baseline. Some dogs lip lick when mildly stressed, others only when truly terrified, and others as a puppy-like appeasement behavior when you ask if they’d like their dinner.
But there was lots more going on in the video, wasn’t there? Misty’s eyes told us a lot, and not just because of whale eye. Did you notice that she blinked several times at the beginning of the video? Blinking is believed to be an appeasement signal, as in “I come in peace.” I suspect Misty was trying to communicate something similar when first approached by the Great Dane. But once the Dane circled around Misty, she was too busy trying to keep her eye on the Dane while moving her head away.
What about her mouth? First off, we all noticed right away how tightly closed her mouth was, always a good sign of the comfort level of a dog. Any dog who closes their mouth up tight is either very intent on something (“Was that a squirrel? I think I saw a squirrel!”), or very concerned about something (“I definitely saw a dog the size of a sheep and she is right in front of my face.”). Misty is clearly in the uncomfortable category here. I should add that I’ve found an open or closed mouth to be an incredibly helpful sign of a dog’s comfort level–it’s easy to see and relatively easy to interpret.
I also found Misty’s “tooth display” especially interesting. I want to categorize it as either “offensive” (commissure, or mouth corners, pulled forward) or “defensive” (commissure pulled back toward ears), but her commissure doesn’t seem to move when she lifts the front of her lips to expose her teeth. I suspect, guessing of course, that there was little intensity in her tooth display, or perhapsn that she was torn between offense and defense. Either way, I’d say the most I can glean from it is that her commissure never moved forward, so no sign of her being on offense there. You can read more about tooth displays here if you’re interested.
And, of course, Misty’s ears are pulled back in a classic sign of discomfort or appeasement. They are, however, not flattened, as they can be when a dog is truly deeply frightened. Barbara Handelman’s book Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, has great examples of ear positions, some of the best I’ve seen.
One last thing: Did you notice Misty’s whiskers when she did showed her teeth? I was interested to see if they flared forward, as they tend to do if an animal is “on offense”. Nope, as best as I can see they stay well back, a good sign that Misty was on defense, not offense.
What can we conclude? I’ll start with the obvious: Misty was frightened. But as importantly, she was 100%, or close to it, on defense. Even her tooth display, which many would call “aggressive,” had no offensive component to it that I could see. If she had been allowed freedom, I’d guess that she’d have done all she could to get away. However, and this is a big one, remember that this is the dog who attacked sheep when they faced her down but squeezing her eyes shut and leaping at their face. A reminder to us all that we can only predict so much from one situation to another. (Wish I had a video of Misty facing off sheep!)
What have I missed here? Don’t hesitate to jump in!
And now, it’s Gypsy’s turn! Here’s the photograph of her from last week (the dog in the middle):
When photographer Steve Dahlgren asked me what I thought was going on with the dog in the middle, I said I had only one real answer: “Intensity.” I couldn’t begin to predict what would happen next, except I agreed with a lot of your comments that I’d call the dogs away! (Always always best to move away yourself too!) But those eyes! Many comments mentioned that blue eyes appear more intense than brown ones, and I agree with that. But that direct stare toward the other dog made me nervous.
But did you notice the ear set? The closed mouth? The partially retracted commissure? Gypsy, like Misty, was also very much on defense, at least everything about her signaled that except her direct and intense stare. I’d say this is a great example of a dog in an ambivalent state, nervous but with the potential of some kind of more assertive behavior.
Gypsy’s owner Ben, who kindly gave me permission to use these photographs, told me that they obtained Gypsy from a rescue when she was an adolescent, and that she is “cautious” around other dogs at first. If a dog postures her with a playbow, she happily plays along. But if a dog trots up straight into her, she “gives the response in the photo.”
Here is another photo taken soon after the one above, in which Gypsy continues her defensive posturing, this time 100%, with flattened ears, retracted lips and body tilted away from the other dog. I’m happy to say that, reportedly, everything ended up well after these photos.
Well, that was fun! As I mentioned earlier, Barbara Handelman’s book is a fantastic resource for learning about subtle signals of internal states and predicted behavior. Even better, oh boy, there’s a fantastic book coming out sometime this year from Kynos publishers in Germany with 1,300 photographs of canine postures and expressions. I reviewed it and can not wait for it to be released here. They are working on the translation now. (German readers: Seen it yet? Comments?)
Your turn again! Anything I talked about you didn’t notice? Any disagreements with my interpretation? Did you see something I missed? Can’t wait to hear.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I got to visit the Ladies of Leisure this weekend, now well integrated into their new flock. You can see how relaxed they are–Dexter the Llama and Lady Godiva, lying down on the right, are chewing their cud, which animals only do when they are at ease.
Dexter the llama is, by all accounts, smitten by the sheep. He lost his partner llama recently, and attached himself to the Ladies in no time at all. I am not sure there is a more photogenic animal than a llama. I could have taken photos of him all day.
And I was fascinated by his feet. Which really are feet, because llamas stand on two toes with long nails, not hooves.
I had a fun excursion into llama land on Wikipedia after meeting Dexter. You may know that llamas, as well as donkeys, are often used to protect sheep from coyotes. The Ladies now live with three donkeys and a llama who adores them, so I think they’re good.
The girls still on the farm got sheared this weekend. You can see the difference in the photo below, taken during the process. I was busy when the shearer was here, and neglected to annoint the girls with perfume to avoid any aggression once they are let out, shorn and no longer smelling like themselves. I figured that, in the time-honored tradition of busy people, it’ll “be fine” this time. Yeah, no. I went to check on them once they were let out of the barn, only to find Snow White busy trying to kill Spot. I’m barely exaggerating. She backed up a good 20+ feet, and rammed into her with as much force as she could manage. Our very own National Geographic special in our backyard. It was so dramatic that another ewe was trotting around bleating like a lost lamb, occasionally attempting to help her friend Spot, but being beaten off by Snow White aka the Evil Witch. I ran into the house and grabbed some room deoderizer in a rush. Maggie rounded the girls back into the barn for me, I carefully sprayed their heads so that they all smelled the same, and all aggression stopped instantly. Sort of a miracle really. If only we could use that on people…
Now that the sheep are shorn, it’s supposed to snow 3-5 inches today, ending with freezing rain. Of course it is! I say that literally, because, hey, it’s March in Wisconsin. No worries, I’ll put the girls in the barn and they’ll be just fine.
This volunteer mini Iris (Iris reticulata perhaps? suggests friend Donna), came up in a place I’d never planted any. There is a small patch on the other side of the house . . . how did this sweet, tiny thing make it over here? Buried and forgotten by a small mammal? That’s my only guess.
And finally, with apologies to the dogs this week, here’s a photo of Polly lounging in the sun. That’s not gonna happen for awhile anymore, but the snow/ice will melt soon, and the hardy bulbs like Snowdrops and Iris will be fine if it’s snow, not too happy if it’s ice. But, again, it’s March, so we get what we get.
Here’s hoping that what you get this week is all good.