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 . . .
Alexandra W says
Oh, that video is a hoot!
Reminds me of taking a walk through the woods with my dog and coming across (no joke) a six foot tall plywood cutout in the shape of a viking!! It took me ten minutes to coax my poor beagle past it – he was whining, barking, running back and forth and generally making a fool of himself. I guess it’s because it /looked/ like a human – but it sure didn’t smell or act like one! Freaky!
Is this like my dog alerting on things that are out of the ordinary? He doesn’t alert on the UPS truck which is here several times a month. He does alert on the FedEx truck which is here a couple times a year. He doesn’t alert when my next door neighbor’s son arrives in his usual beater truck he did alert when the son showed up in a new car and sat in the car smoking and not responding to his presence. I actually had to physically draw him away with a hand on his collar that time–I have to admit I found the lack of engagement on the part of the neighbor’s son rather creepy myself (he didn’t acknowledge me or respond to me either).
hi!a few days ago, my dog ??surprised me.As we walked, my dog ??stopped and stared at a large statue of a Jesus, about 10 meters high with his hands outstretched.My dog ??had a reaction of fear and did not want to go across the street.is a strange behavior.not afraid of a tree but a statue(??)
Hooray! SNSS! I first came across this doing research on cuckoos and why birds accept foreign eggs in their nest. Then I learnt that people can recognise other people better from a caricature than a more accurate line drawing. Ever since I’ve harboured a desire to make an animal identification field guide for beginners with caricatures emphasising the identifying features. I know a lot of people that have tried to identify birds in their garden and given up out of frustration. Of course, put that to an ecologist and I get a look of utmost horror.
Sometimes I wonder how much is a super stimulus and how much is the canine version of “uncanny valley”. A shop down the road from us has a small dog doorstop that regularly fools dogs and kids. It doesn’t look particularly realistic, and for years I’ve been wondering what it is about that toy dog that everyone is responding to. My older dog tried to play with it several times before he learnt it wasn’t real. When I got my second dog I couldn’t wait to walk him past it. At 12 weeks we took him down and he took one look and his hackles went up and he growled at it. He has a very strong sense of what belongs in the world. One time he went off his nut at the television because an animated character sneezed with his eyes open and his eyeballs got stuck to a mirror. Erik thought that was a very big problem. We are endlessly fascinated by what Erik thinks is highly disturbing. The Thing when it bursts out of a dog’s back is certainly one of them! This topic is one of my favourites. I’m trying to think of a way to get someone to fund a post-doc so I can explore it. Any ideas, anyone??
Back to SNSS… I am not sure whether we have encountered any, given my previous question of whether the stimulus is actually a SNSS or some kind of uncanny valley phenomenon. I have heard that cardboard cutout people often upset dogs. Perhaps television could be a source of many SNSS, like exaggerated dog whines, growls and barks and squealy noises. Actually, squeaky toys could be a SNSS, and fluffy toys that have long bits that flap around. Tug toys with a bungee? Blankets with wolves on them? Balls thrown or kicked?? I’ve often wondered if our kangaroos are a bit of a SNSS. They make such a racket as they flounder around in the bush it’s hard to believe they are not injured.
Betsey F says
The video clip was so funny! I can just see Ms. Maddy (my Border Collie) doing the same thing–except she would’ve found a tennis ball somewhere. She just can’t stand to see someone just sitting there when they could be throwing the ball for her!
Susan G. says
Great clip. Oscar did this to a set of child-sized statues in our town center. Real people standing still is another weird thing, *especially* if they have their hands on their hips. He got used to kids waiting for the bus, but he doesn’t always know why people would just stand there (he doesn’t seem to believe me when I tell him they are “waiting for the bus” like I do with the kids). Although he’s better now, Halloween is a tricky time with the random yard decorations (we avoid the kids-in-costumes part). Last year we happened upon a decoration of a bloody head on a stick right at his eye level. He jumped straight up. At the height of his sunglass fear, my husband came home from the eye doctor once with, you guessed it, those wrap-around sunglasses; Oscar freaked out at him. Oh, any type of odd gait, limp, cane, etc. or raspy voice (sadly, easily generalized as older people). A “check it out” cue for the things like the Halloween decorations helped, but we always keep our eyes open. It can be funny at times, like the clip, but some things are just weird.
I sure hope we never come across a life-sized cardboard cutout of a viking in the woods…
Fascinating! My dog, who absolutely adores every person she’s ever met, and is always dying to meet every person she sees, is terrified of snowmen! I never thought about it, but I guess those “2 eyes made out of coal” aren’t so friendly when you’re looking at it from a dog’s perspective!
I have a story of SS in a cat.
Vizzy loved to harass Thistle, who is black and white. Then one morning Vizzy turned up reeking of skunk. I’m thinking his shortcut was that b&w+motion=Thistle and had realized his mistake just a little too late.
It was good for Thistle, his life was less pestered for a while. But Vizzy did NOT get to sleep by my head in bed for a few days….
Margaret McLaughlin says
My local library has a life-size statue of a seated woman holding a book, designed so children can climb in its (her?) lap. One of the puppies I raised for Leader Dog, a German Shepherd, licked its hand, jumped into its lap, & then licked its face. I was laughing much too hard to stop her.
Didn’t make the connection till I read your post, but that was her sequence for cooperative humans–lick hand, bounce into lap, lick face. She was 4/5 months old at the time.
Bill Obermeyer says
(slightly off topic) – I don’t want to hijack this thread on supernormal stimuli, but the video shows some behavior that I’ve noticed in a number of dogs. Bribery (anthropomorphizing: “OK. OK. Here’s a stick for you! NOW will you throw the ball?”). Our last dog did not like to “give” or retrieve – but when he seemed particularly motivated, to go out or to come with us, would bring a ball to us and drop it at our feet. I initially thought that we had inadvertently trained him to do that, but I’ve seen it in other dogs and in other circumstances. It seems common enough that, if bribery is a consequence of training/superstition, then it seems like something a dog is predisposed to learn. I don’t know that I have seen this discussed elsewhere. (sorry for the interruption)
My golden retriever once got really mad (barking, growling, running around) at a snow man in the neighbour’s garden outside the window. She actually needed nearly an hour to finally calm down. Outside she wouldn’t go near the dreaded snowman. She was really disturbed by this shape that didn’t move or go away…
I love that video. I saw it a week or two ago. I am having trouble thinking of examples of SS, except for tv. Jack watched tv as a puppy but pretty soon he figured out that the moving pictures had nothing to do with him and he outgrew it. A couple years ago we were watching an animated Christmas special with wolves and he laid on the couch and watched for a good 20 minutes. You could actually see his eyes tracking the images. The funny thing was, the woves were highly stylized, and he’s ignored actual nature programming with real dogs and critters. Something about the wolves fascinated him.
Maddie will bark when she hears dogs on tv or radio. Jack never did, though sometimes Maddie’s barking sets him off. However, I once had a show on that was Animal Cops or some other show with animals being rescued. There were some puppies in distress and crying, and I needed to change the channel because it upset him so much. So it’s as if he’s learned that tv dogs are not real, but the sound of crying brings out such a strong primal response that he can’t ignore it.
Same thing with tv door bells. He gets this real funny look on his face, like he’s trying really hard to remind himself that it’s not a real doorbell. After several seconds of trying to contain himself and looking confused, the barking begins. Not quite how he would bark if someone were actually at the door, though.
Otis once flipped out about a backhoe parked on the edge of his play field. He’d seen it the day before, fired up and excavating in a slightly different place, and completely ignored it. On the day of the flip out, it was parked in a little dip in the landscape, on the other side of a slight incline, out of sight of most of the field. Otis and a couple of his dog friends crested the slope slightly ahead of me. Otis barked, growled and puffed out his chest. His buddies gave panicky high-pitched barks, tucked tails and scampered back to our sides.
Usually, when Otis startles at something, which doesn’t happen often, I only have to touch his head gently or take a couple of confident steps toward the object and he’ll relax. This time though, he kept facing off against the backhoe-monster, woofing and growling, and making short feints toward it (from about forty yards away). I actually had to walk all the way to the backhoe, use sharp eye contact to keep him from trying to get between me and it, and touch it with my hand before he’d calm down. Once initial contact had been made, he sniffed it for a moment, gave the dog equivalent of a shrug, turned and walked off, never to react to it again. His buddies watched the proceedings from over his shoulder, then approached themselves.
I can understand why a backhoe might trigger SNSS. With its long arching neck, shiny windshield, and toothy bucket, it does look like a monster. Silence and stillness are predatory behaviors and placed as it was in prime ambush territory in the dip on the edge of the field, I can see how it might seem extra threatening. What I’d like to know, however, is why Otis did not find it even slightly concerning when it was fired up and running. Because the engine noise was familiar? Because it was making no effort at ‘stealth’? Because people were near it?
I have seen Otis bark at a billowing trash bag, but totally ignore a crew inflating a hot air balloon (in the same playfield…our park hosts a hot-air balloon festival each year and these folks were setting up a day or two early). At the time I was surprised that Otis was so nonchalant, but in retrospect, it seems to me that he generally ignores a great many large, loud, strangely behaving, weird looking objects (DPW trucks, construction equipment, etc.) when people are obviously controlling them. I’m fascinated to hear about the stimuli that trigger dogs to become fearful or defensive, but I’d also love to know about the stimuli that let dogs know that a situation is safe.
Have you noticed that one of the most common traits of the things that have set dogs off is the fact that they are are potentially replicates of something alive that is NOT MOVING. I wonder if stillness, or freezing into immobility is a SNSS. After all, it’s an indicator of attack: right before animals attack (including dogs who bite) they often go still, even if it’s just for a microsecond. Even their eyes stop the horizontal movement (nystagmus) for the briefest of moments, which is why you learn to look for “hard eye” in a dog who might be about to bite. However, perhaps it has to be learned, which would mean it is not a sign stimuli, just a very powerful predictor of trouble to come.
I love the stories (the Viking cracked me up). I am fascinated especiallyby Otis’s reaction to the immobile backhoe that had no effect on him when it was running. That does fit my ‘stillness’ hypothesis, but I”m sure there are other explanations.
This is especially interesting given a talk I had with Jill Reynolds before our radio interview for Critter Patter in Ft. Collins, CO. She has a S & R dog, Skid, who was first on the scene of two deceased hikers. Like dogs I have seen who appeared frightened of a dead body, Skid approached the corpse with clear concern, body back and forth, eyes wide. My Luke did the same thing when one of my other BCs died. He snorted, and piloerected and ran back away from her body for the longest time. I always thought he simply couldn’t figure out why his friend had become completely motionless. Especially interesting is that Jill’s Skid became protective about the body as it was loaded on to the helicopter, as if he was concerned about it and trying to take care of it.
Keep the stories coming; I’m loving them. Maybe we can find more patterns. I’m in the airport in Detroit right now, on the way to do a seminar in Pittsburgh. Come up and say hi if you read the blog!
Robin L. says
Fascinating! My fearful BC/heeler mix Slick had a reaction to a political sign in a yard next to which we stopped for a water break during a walk. He jumped, shrunk, then tried to commando crawl away. I looked at the sign and there was a photo of the politician, more than life-sized, but only from the chest up. Obviously he thought it was a very strange human. Slick was afraid of all people when he first came to me then only afraid of new people. Thankfully the sign didn’t send him back to being afraid of everyone.
I think SNSS is involved in our using a fake dog (Otto) for our behavior evaluations? The shelter I volunteer at does this for part of our evaluation then hands it to us who do play groups/socialization evaluations so we can know a little about the dog before introducing to a new dog. The thought is that Otto looks so real and most dogs think he’s real so we get an idea of how the evaluated dog will respond to real dogs he is presented with. We hope that Otto represents a real dog even though he isn’t and that we can predict how they will be. BUT, it isn’t always predictive due to other factors (length of time between intro to Otto and intro to real dog, affect of lessening cortisol levels, etc.) The more I type the less sure I am if Otto is a SNSS. Maybe I don’t quite understand what is and isn’t a SNSS.
Oh, my first Cocker Spaniel, he was so very excited when he saw us opening up a giant can of beef stew. He danced and danced and you could just tell he was thinking,”Oh boy! Hot Dog! This is the biggest can of dog food I ever did see!”
Buddy (our previous German wirehair) used to sniff the butt of the larger than life wolf statue at the park.
I’m wondering what Sophie would do with a giant clicker. She gets so excited when the clicker comes out.
My dog tends to alert to fake plastic squirrels… in the form of black plastic poop bags. Any time the ends are up, my dog reacts like it’s a squirrel ready to be chased. I wonder if she’s disappointed once we get closer and it’s not the real thing. In our neighbourhood someone also has a white rabbit statue and a cat silhouette that she’ll also get quite excited by if it’s been a while that we’ve gone down that street.
Many related incidents come to mind regarding puppies I’ve raised for a guide dog school.
One responded with excitement to a statue at an art museum. It was entitled “Dying Gaul” (google that if you want to see what it’s like) — a life size marble statue of man reclining, looking down, OBVIOUSLY wanting to give tummy rubs??? Well — okay — so that’s not what the sculptor intended. But that’s sure how my puppy reacted! His reaction was just as strong as if the statue had been a real person.
Every single dog, without exception, that I walked in our neighborhood initially freaked out at what seems to me a fairly innocuous yard ornament, shaped like a goose. Most refused to pass it at first; some barked and wanted to attack. Interesting. A short video of a typical reaction here: http://alphinisworld.blogspot.com/2010/05/afternoon-walk.html Of course, they soon figure out that it’s all right but it’s interesting that they all react so strongly to it.
Another interesting reaction involved my husband, who enjoys astronomy. To preserve night vision in their observing eye, serious astronomers put on an eye patch if they have to run back into the house for something. So here I am in bed, middle of the night, dog asleep in his crate beside me, when my husband comes in wearing an eye patch on one eye. Never mind that this sweet dog LOVES my husband — the eye patch set off a ferocious barking fit, enough to wake the neighbors! Even after husband removed eye patch and came up to him and calmed him down, you could see he was still a bit upset and didn’t quite understand the transformation!
Just another reminder of how important it is to try and understand things from the DOG’S point of view, and how different their perception is from ours!
Carol Byrnes says
My 8 month old Doberman peed all over the kitchen floor while hysterically barking because I came into the room after a shower with a towel wrapped like a turban on my head.
No amount of reassurance, “Gabe, it’s me!” was working. I took the towel off, he became giddy and appeasing. If I was anthropomorphizing, I’d say he looked embarrassed. I put the towel back on and he became hysterical again. I had to take the towel off my head to clean up the pee. Interestingly, it never happened again – why THAT day? I can only guess it was developmental. Or he had an Osama Bin Laden premonition.
I hadn’t thought in terms of super-stimulus before, but I wonder if my dog’s reaction to big round things might be explained that way. He is a German Shepherd – looks pure bred – but I have no papers, he was from an Animal Welfare group that persuaded the owners to give him up because of behavioural neglect – being tied up most of the time. I got him at about 2 3/4 years old. That autumn (fall) after being quite unflappable, being taken almost everywhere with me, we were going into in to a hay field when he was reluctant to go with me. We had been in there before several times. The difference was that the hay had been baled. Large round bales of about 6 ft diameter, with the round sides facing. I went a couple of steps ahead, closer to a bale, giving him a treat on coming to me. He quickly became desensitized – picking out treats wedged into a bale.
Some time later, we were walking though an an area of a disused (but made safe) coal mine pit-head, grown up with bushes and birch. It was just becoming twilight. He suddenly growled at something off the path and there was a concrete cylinder on its side with a round profile facing the path (about 3 ft diameter). He was much more threatening to that than to the bales (and piloerected). (The low light or the cylinder was in the buses?) He desensitized quite quickly but initially needed more convincing, trying to head me off at first, as I got a bit closer it.
Subsequently, he hasn’t reacted to bales or the concrete cylinder but has had quite strong reactions to other large things with a round profile, e.g an almost round pig shelter (end on) and a 3 ft circular garden table on its end.
I have wondered if there was some unpleasant incident before I got him with a large round object. Now I wonder if it could have triggered a reaction as if to a facing a large animal. More a bear like profile (that we won’t meet in Scotland), than cattle that we have encountered in low light with no reaction. He’s not bothered by horses either (though did bark a little when left in a sit and a horse approached, but I class that as quite different.
In keeping with Trisha’s observation about things NOT MOVING – these round things that caused a reaction – have not moved.
This conversation about stillness is really interesting. My dog is afraid of people who are lying down. They can be sitting on the floor, but as soon as they lie down he starts alarm barking. We discovered this when we took him to a small beach – and then we couldn’t get out of there fast enough! It seems that on the way it we didn’t pass anyone who was lying down, but on the way out we were “trapped” by lying bodies. I don’t think they need to be motionless for this, just lying down is enough.
He even starts barking if he watches as the person goes from the sitting position into lying down. He is fine if he figures out that this is someone he knows, but his fear is so great that he sometimes needs to get within 1m before he realizes who it is.
Oh, and he also has a history of barking at statues and stuffed dogs.
I don’t think I really understand what SNSS is, so I don’t know if my examples fit or not. I apologize if these examples are not SSNS. And of course, I always have to be the trouble-maker. My story is about moving things.
Background: My dog is quite non-vocal. When the doorbell rings, there is not a peep out of him. He leaps up and dances around for joy like any dog, but he doesn’t bark or make any verbal noise. The first time I had heard him bark was several months after I got him and I jumped several feet in the air as I wasn’t expecting it. (He saw a raccoon crawling along the top of the fence in the back yard. And even then, all the scene generated from my quivering, hair erect dog was a single, deep-throated, floor-vibrating, woooooof!)
I explain all that so that you can understand the significance of Duke making loud verbal noises. The other day, I got a relatively largish plant that was in a plastic bag – not pot. I wasn’t ready to plant it yet, so I left it in my front yard with the plastic mostly still around it. Later when I was back in my house, I heard Duke barking – more than one bark even. I went into the front room and saw him staring at the plastic bag which had a few leaves sticking out. With the wind, the plastic bag was moving. Then Duke actually started to growl!!! A deep, low growl and his body was extremely stiff. There was nothing else that he could possibly have been growling at. Everything else that we could view looked exactly the same as always.
I had a similar experience, though not quite so dramatic not too long after I got Duke. I had gotten ahold of tent-like thing that is meant to be used as a soft-sided crate for Great Danes. The internal structure of the tent/crate is PVC pipe, which I was putting together. Duke was quietly lying in front of me as I tried to put pipe A into fitting B… I had been at the task for some time when all of a sudden, I heard a small growl and looked up see Duke staring at the far end of the pipe I was holding. He looked very worried. I had been moving the pipe around. I know that Duke saw it wiggling and that he was looking at the end of the pipe. He had been fine with those pipes until that point. We spend the next half hour rejoicing over how much we loved pipes. Because after what I spent on that darn tent (which was the second crate I got for him since he didn’t like the first one), I would be damned if I was going to let Duke develop a phobia over it. Whatever bothered Duke about the pipe, he did get over it much to my relief.
As I said, I don’t know if these are examples of SSNS or not. I do know that Duke occasionally reacts to inanimate objects that are moving. Perhaps what is bothering Duke is that he knows he is seeing an inanimate and the strange part is that the object is moving. My other theory is that Duke is just not right in the head. Actually, most days, I lean toward that. But I don’t care because I love him so much.
Ironically, I was just researching dachshunds for a friend who’s getting a puppy and ran across the sad story of Marie Prevost, an actress from the early 1900’s, on Wikipedia. She passed away alone in a hotel, but her body wasn
On the regular walk route I take with my Doberman, there is very low wall around a person’s year/garden, all delightful and mossy. In that garden, there used to be a small stone statue of Little Red Riding Hood, with the wolf standing sideways behind her. We passed that garden and statue many times, until one day Elka just happened to glance in the correct direction, stopped walking, and actually backed up several steps to look at the statue. Then she looked up at me and, logically, I said “That’s Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf.” Elka looked at the statue a little longer, and then we continued on our way. She looked at that statue every time we passed it, until one day it was suddenly gone. She still stops and looks for it sometimes.
Interestingly, she’s never minded people wearing sunglasses. However, when people had rigid Snowman-on-a-stick type Christmas decorations lining front walks, she was a little skittery until she realized that they were essentially scenery.
My old girl Abby tended to break into hysterical barking at balloons, umbrellas, and trash cans on their side rocking back and forth in a stiff wind (left that way by the garbage man). However, she adored ALL people, and even developed a 5-year love affair with a scarecrow in a neighbor’s yard. It was a full-sized mannequin that the neighbor set up each spring in her garden, propped into a standing position and dressed in a variety of very fetching outfits. The reappearance of the scarecrow in the spring was a joyous event, and Abby would run over to her in a full body wiggle, ears backs and making little cooing noises. No walk in the summer was complete without a visit to the scarecrow–she would stand at her feet with tail wagging furiously, looking up and often appearing slightly puzzled about why her friend never moved a muscle. When fall arrived and the mannequin went back into storage my poor girl was pretty heartbroken; we’d stand at the end of the driveway for a moment before she could tear herself away and move on.
So the stiffness and not-quite-human look was clearly not a problem, and I can only surmise that the scarecrow’s posture, facing us with outstretched arms, was a sign of greeting to Abby.
A black tarp hanging off a neighbor’s fence and flapping in the wind caused about an hour of barking. I finally had to pull down all the shades on that side of the house. (My guess was BIGGEST BIRD EVER.)
Scarecrows either get barked at or happy wagging greetings. I haven’t figured out what makes some scary and others inviting.
Anything rabbit shaped makes him freeze and point. If I say, “That’s a pretend.” he will unfreeze and continue on his walk.
A neighbor installed a boxer-shaped topiary and it took 5 minutes to get past it. He is afraid of square headed dogs.
My favorite is his toy zebra. He got it when he was at the height of his gutting his stuffed animals stage. He grabbed the zebra, ran off with it squeaking it like mad and throwing it around as was his routine, then flipped it over to gut it and suddenly froze, started to whine, and then licked its white belly until it was sopping. Five years later the zebra is still whole, rather gray on top, but its belly is still white because every time it winds up belly up he whines and starts licking it. My guess is it is triggering something in his brain that says “puppy”.
Christine K. says
He snorted, and piloerected and ran back away from her body for the longest time.
A couple of my dogs had this reaction to a dead deer that was on the back of an ATV-type vehicle. Interestingly, the reaction was not to the scent–which had to have been strong–but to the eyes/face of the deer.
On our morning walk my Lab, Casey, and I go past the local university. Casey tends to be on-leash reactive to other dogs anyway but sometimes when we were on campus she’d break into her “Strange Dog Ahead!” bark and dance when there were no other dogs in sight. It took me awhile but I finally figured out she was reacting to people pulling those rolling book bags. The silhouette is pretty similar to someone walking a smaller dog. After I towed my own airplane carry-on around the house a few times and then had Casey meet and greet a couple of strangers with book bags, she stopped reacting to them.
I wonder if types of auditory stimulation, mostly the ones with the absence of visual stimulation, fall into the SNSS category:
I think of my dogs who are fine around horses one on one, but who want to bolt at the sound of an undetermined number of hooves beating down a side street at a holiday parade…
Or, do thunder phobias fit? (Was it the Other End of the Leash where we read of thunder as potentially being understood by dogs as something like “the big dog growling in the sky?”)
There’s some tactile stimuli I wonder about too:
I’ve seen several dogs, who at their first discovery of sand, dig passionately and for what seems to be for no other reason than for the joy of digging.
And then there’s the almost guaranteed first snow spaz out…
The possible tactile stimuli are ones I’d associate with playful responses, whereas the possible visual and auditory SNSS point more towards fearful responses. I wonder if this could tell us more about play or fear… All very interesting to think about, fantastic!
Amy W. says
I think dogs (and cats) who chase a beam of light – flashlight or laser pointer – might be an example of SNSS. I assume they think the moving beam of light is prey. Also, not sure if this is an SNSS or not, but the plastic that the dogs chase in lure coursing – reminiscent of a rabbit.
And to add a personal story – the first time my dog saw a blow-up Santa Christmas decoration in someone’s yard he had a fear reaction: piloerection, barking. From his vantage point he saw a ten foot man, swaying in the wind, arm raised (waving gesture), and he could hear the motor of the air compressor that keeps the thing inflated.
chloe De Segonzac says
Patricia: Your comment about immobility really resonated with me. My dog acts very very strangely when I become still for longer than normal say in the middle of a walk. A few minutes meditation, or sitting still watching wild-life. She will come and almost try to push me, and whine, and check in constantly which is not her MO. She is very independent. Clearly upset… I thought she was concerned about me being sick. If however I start writing or talking on the cell etc that’s just fine. So it is not a ‘herding’–move your butt kind of thing. I can feel her anxiety.
Carolyn H. says
At an agility trial we attended, each wing of one jump was in the shape of a seated Newfoundland. Nearly every dog came to an abrupt stop when approaching it. Few dogs actually took that jump.
We had owned a rescue dog for about a year when this occurred. My husband was standing with his baseball cap on glancing down at a newspaper on the table before going outside. The dog and I entered the house. As soon as the dog saw him she reacted – approaching him in a crouch with teeth bared and hackles raised. Slowly the hat came off and she was her normal happy self. Hat on – instant Cujo. We were fascinated and repeated the situation several times.
I just thought of two more common, possible SNSS, or maybe they are just SS: 1. yawning or opening one’s mouth with a dog nearby, and they try to lick inside. (Would the determination of super normal vs. regular sign stimuli occur based on whether or not our mouths were considered big by dogs? And, if so, are Kongs so successful because they bank on this ‘instinct’?) 2. The predisposition to roll in dead things. This could be a visual/smell-based SNSS?
The tricky part, to me, is that it’s tough to come up with responses that are universal. There seem to be a lot of dogs who do a lot of things as a result of certain stimuli, but pinpointing responses common to all dogs is way tricky… but fun.
My lab mix bark & charged a snowman the first time she saw one. As soon as she gotclose enough to smell it, she stopped and I would like to imagine felt slightly silly.
Nativity scene characters during the Holidays always spook my dog. Also animal figures in yards, like deer, squirrels, etc. I recall one particular incident with two nativity characters, he refused to go on the sidewalk past them. Walked a long arc around with ears back and head dipped. So, now I have to wonder if my dog is an atheist?
Becky Golatzki says
Many years ago I gave a talk at a meeting for our local groomers association that was held in a children’s bookstore after hours. I took my confident, bold as brass sheltie Andy with me. After the meeting we were having refreshments and Andy was socializing and exploring the store. All of the sudden he came hurtling out of one of the aisles like the devil was after him, barking like crazy with his “monsters” alarm bark. I could not imagine what had upset him. I walked to the end of the aisle and back in the corner was a child’s table and chairs. The chairs were made out of barrels, covered with fur and decorated to look like bears (faces and all) and meant to be sat astride like a horse. Andy was CONVINCED they were real bears, or some sort of monster at least. I had to coax him back with potato chips and convince him to do a nose touch. When he finally was brave enough to touch it, the sheepish look on his face was priceless and he totally lost all fear as well as all interest in them.
My dogs have always been weird about anything with eyes. Jack o’lanterns, dog statues, drawings. Andy’s son Cory used to have a horse buddy he would run the fence line and play with. One week we showed up and his friend was wearing one of those fly masks that covered his face and eyes. Cory was totally weirded out and wouldn’t go anywhere near him- the horse was very disappointed and couldn’t figure out why his friend wouldn’t play! And one day I took off MY glasses and laid them on the bed. My cat jumped up beside me, looked down at the glasses, and jumped about 4 feet straight up in the air- I guess he thought I had popped my eyes out!
I think I have a good one, although I could also use a little more clarity about what exactly counts as SNSS.
But I was walking Corrie on trash day several months ago and everyone’s trash cans were out on the side of the road. This wasn’t noteworthy, but we got to a trash can where the folks had been doing some home renovation and there were some chunks of torn up linoleum sticking out of the trash can. I didn’t think anything of it and kept walking. When I looked back, I saw that Corrie had frozen several feet before the trash can, hackles up, staring and low growl at the trash can. I thought maybe he had seen a raccoon or something in the trash (even though it was the middle of the day). I tried to call him off, but he wouldn’t come past the can, or move at all other than to glance at me when I called him. I finally walked back to where he was to get him. When I looked at the trashcan from where he was standing, I could see that the torn linoleum resembled a GIANT cat, with its back arched and fur erect. Corrie stayed rooted to the spot until I went over to the linoleum and turned it so that he could see it wasn’t a cat.
This one fits in with the idea of unnatural stillness also. And Corrie is also quite suspicious of people standing still. He is fine with people walking towards him down the sidewalk, but if someone is standing in the sidewalk, he will growl and act very nervous around them.
carla karr says
I had a border collie who was super sensitive to eyes on anything. She would back up and bark, raise her hackles at anything that stared at her. That included a baby doll toy in a box, a dog shaped door stop, a Minnie Mouse child’s chair, dog characters on a wall at our training center and of course any person who gave her the “evil eye”. I got very good at predicting what things she would react to.
By the way, on the human side, is this why men react the way they do to oversized breasts and bottoms? 😉
I don’t know that this qualifies but it brings up a type of SNSS that should probably be included but as humans we don’t think of. Visiting a local nursing home Ranger was exposed to an animatronic cat. The cat looked very realistic. It sounded like a real cat and some of its movements (tail swish, head turn) were pretty realistic (walking wasn’t very realistic) but it completely did not smell like a real cat. Ranger was very distressed that it smelled wrong. He kept looking for the real cat, the toy would meow and he’d glance at it then start searching under the bed. It was clear that the defining characteristic for him that meant cat was smell and that something that looked, sounded and sometimes moved like a real cat meant there should be a real cat somewhere in that room. One of the other dogs visiting that day reacted the same way. So it seems to me that there are likely smells that are SNSS. I know sometimes out for a walk we’ll pass something and it’s almost as if Ranger’s nose were caught and grabbed. He absolutely has to go examine that smell up close. Of course there is nothing observable to me so I’ve got no idea what he’s smelling.
And would motion be an SNSS. Dogs are hardwired to chase things that move. We train/teach them what things are appropriate to chase and what things are not but the response of running after movement is instinctual. We ran into that one day visiting my parents. I didn’t realize that some of their barn cats had started hanging out outside the back door of the house. I opened the door to take Ranger for a walk terrifying the cat who suddenly saw a huge dog coming out the door and resulting in Ranger flying out the door and down the steps after the fleeing cat. When he hit the end of the leash he stopped and you could almost see him come back to himself. He knows cats are not appropriate to chase but I think it all happened so fast that he hadn’t really identified what it was except motion. I totally learned my lesson and for the rest of our visit I had his attention and understanding that he was on leash and was to wait before exiting the house before I opened the door.
The comments about eyes really resonates with me. We’ve always laughed about it, but Otis targets eyes on his stuffed toys, with almost surgical precision. If a soft toy has large or googly eyes, well, let’s just say it doesn’t have them for long. Even embroidered (small and flat) eyes are the first thing he goes for when he “kills” a toy. My husband and I sometimes joke that he’s showing signs of being a serial killer, but I think that it may actually indicate a stronger-than-normal sensitivity to gaze (real or artificial) and a pronounced discomfort with fixed stares, even in inanimate objects.
We used to live and walk near a college with an art program. Many of the dogs in the neighbourhood were surprised by new statues that woud pop up in different locations around the campus. One of the biggest reactions from our girl (bomb-proof lab) was from a budha statue sitting in the trees just off one of the main paths. I basically had to hug the statue before she would believe it wasn’t really a serial killer waiting to off us both. Other statues and sculptures got reactions but that big budha freaked every dog that went by.
Our family lab as a kid would bark everytime my dad came upstairs wearing a ball cap and then sheepishly figure out who this “stranger” in the house really was.
My current dog cracked me up this past christmas. We have a santa decoration that he has seen and ignored for four years. I guess he never actually looked at it enough to notice that sometimes it was plugged in and moving (head tilts, arms open and close). Happened to notice it (loudly!) this year in the midst of christmas dinner and was quite suspicious of it from then on. Will be interesting to see what he thinks this year.
What about when you pick up an animal? One time the dogs found a dead possum in the yard and were very excited by this, but weren’t doing anything other than sniffing and mouthing. The moment I lifted it off the ground to dispose of it, both dogs’ arousal shot through the roof and they started jumping up and grabbing at it in an excited frenzy. I had to put the possum back down and take the dogs inside so I could deal with the possum without their help. It reminded me of the trouble one can encounter when picking up a small dog in a dog park. I’ve had it happen to me a few times where I have gone to life a small dog out of trouble only to have a dog – sometimes one from the other side of the park – instantly start leaping up and trying to grab the small dog. I now have a rule that if I absolutely must pick up a dog around other dogs I crouch down and gather them close to my body and then stand up with them. For some reason that doesn’t tend to trigger a reaction. There’s something about a fluffy animal suspended in the air that seems to do strange things to dogs.
I’ve known dogs to be afraid of anything that appears to float or hover in the air. Ceiling fans, helium balloons, hot air balloons… One of my dogs went through a phase where he would duck and skitter away whenever a large object was lifted about as high as a person’s chest. Below that and he’d be fine. I have often wondered why that upset them.
This is very interesting. My female Pomeranian tends to have a SNSS reaction to people in sunglasses. I’d never thought it may be because the sunglasses resembled eyes. I’m also thankful for that recommendation of a stuffed dog for reactivity work, it will be the perfect bomb-proof option for her!
Robin L. says
Slick, the dog afraid of the political sign, freaks out if the ceiling fan is on. I can’t think of a way to make it safe to him since I can’t regulate it other than off and on. He hits the deck and commando crawls then nothing can convince him to enter that room again so it is permanently off. Table fans aren’t all that scary though. I tell people Slick thinks the ceiling fan is a giant bird of prey about to swoop in and eat him. And regarding stillness, one of my other dogs is always concerned if I stop and stand completely still to think of something.
Melissa and Robin L.– I had a parakeet who would fall off his perch in a dead faint whenever a ceiling fan was turned on. My father, even though he was reminded each time he came to my house not to touch the ceiling fans, would always decide it was hot at some point, turn on the ceiling fan and BAM! my parakeet would go down.
Stosh is my 19 mo old gsd and he’s a very confident non-reactive boy, never met a dog he didn’t want to play with- until the day we went to a new groomer. They have a statue of a dog peeing on a fire hydrant by the entry and at first Stosh didn’t think much of the statue until we walked by and he saw that it was marking it’s territory. He barked, fur and tail up and refused to go past. Guess he got the message from the resident ‘dog’ that it was his place.
One time, I went to a new training facility for some obedience run-thrus with my older BC, but I had my younger BC along too. We walked in, and there were dogs all over the place, just as both of them expected. Then my younger guy noticed a life-sized FAKE black Lab standing on top of some file cabinets. He started wagging his tail at it, and even did a brief play bow before realizing it was fake. Then he gave me what I SWEAR was a sheepish grin (yep, I’m anthropomorphisizing here), like “wow, Mom, it LOOKED real!” I said in a happy voice “I thought it was real too!” and he wagged at me, then started to pay attention to the REAL dogs in the room. Very cute.
The thing about ceiling fans: When we moved to our new house, my elderly cat steadfastly refused to enter the breakfast nook, which had a ceiling fan. She would rarely walk into the adjoining kitchen, looking up at the fan suspiciously the whole time. I was saddened by this because the room in question has large windows, perfect for looking out and watching birds, and the entire time we were building the house I had a picture in my head of my sweet cat sitting in that window watching birds (obviously I was terribly attached to this cat). The windows were low too so she could have reached them even in her dotage, but no amount of coaxing would get her into the room.
My suspicion is that ceiling fans look vaguely hawk-like, and even though my house cat never encountered a hawk, kittens that are innately suspicious of shadows across the sky probably survive to adulthood much more often than kittens who are not. Since many of our cats have ferals in their not-so-distant family tree, this would seem to make sense.
My current cat harbors no such fears of the fan. The first time she sat in the window, I had a strong feeling of jealousy, thinking of my dear departed Alice who never got to enjoy the view.
Susan S. says
At one time we had an old metal lawn sprinkler mounted on a pole you stuck in the ground. It sprayed water horizontally, swinging back & forth fairly rapidly. It was the only sprinkler that drove the dogs nuts. They would dance around it & offer play bows, barking happily. We suspected they thought it was something wagging its tail.
As to stillness: I used to walk the dogs off leash before bed in a university neighborhood. They were fine with everyone who was moving, but if anyone froze, approaching or intersecting, they would plant themselves & woof. One night I had a conversation with a girl who was mildly afraid of big dogs who asked if the dog was OK, &, if so, why he was looking at her that way & woofing. I said it was because she had stopped & stood still. I asked how she would feel if, walking at night, she had to pass a sidewalk crossing where a guy stood, rooted, staring at her the way she stood watching my dog.
I’m wicked tired, just back from Pittsburgh (a wonderful group, thanks SO much) but reading your comments with great interest (and lots of smiles). I’ll add comments to these great comments tomorrow, thanks for adding to the list. Love the analogy of how would you feel if a stranger stopped, stared and didn’t move while looking at you!
Have you guys heard of the “Uncanny Valley” with reference to computer animation and our perceptions of depictions of other humans? I wonder if SNSS is really the scientific term for the Uncanny Valley, and dogs have their own version of it. Here’s a reference for anyone who hasn’t heard of it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley
Jack, my four-year-old male Corgi who loves nearly everyone and has been socialized to a ridiculous level, is not fond of teen-aged and young-adult boys, especially at night. He will bark very aggressively at them, to the point that I have asked my husband (who frequently takes the dogs out at night) not to let anyone pet him after dark unless they first say his name and then get a relaxed, waggy response from Jack.
I sometimes thought perhaps it was because teenaged boys are the group least likely to stop and pet a dog, and so he got the least amount of socializing with that particular age group (teenaged girls, on the other hand, will stop and coo and fuss). But what I really think is that as a rule, young adult men (especially in groups) are more concerned than nearly anyone else with social status, and they tend to physically posture an awful lot. Nothing says “Keep away from me” more than the body language of a group of boys walking up the street at night.
I have joked that Jack doesn’t like teenaged boys, but then again neither does nearly anyone else. 🙂 I know, I know, there are many lovely young men out there, courteous and kind and willing to cut grandma’s grass and buy Mother’s Day gifts for their mom. But put those same boys in a group of peers walking up the street at night and almost all of them will still posture fairly aggressively.
And it does not escape the notice of my dog.
Funnily enough, he also likes puppies and adult dogs but generally does not care for adolescent dogs either.
Great video 🙂
A few years back, Ronja the hound mix reacted quiet strongly when first walking by two life size copper figures of children sitting on a bench close to our local library. She jumped up and sideways away from them (she is very reactive around children) only to turn around and bark at them with her hackles up. It took her a good 10 seconds to figure out that they were not the real deal. She has completely ignored them ever since.
A couple of days ago Pixie the Pom – who is just learning to be a book store dog – was happy as usual to greet a girl of about 8 years. All of a sudden she jumped back in alarm and was clearly scared by the small (hand size) black toy dog that the girl carried. After first trying to let Pixie sniff the toy (oh no!), the very intuitive girl then sat toy dog and herself on the floor and allowed Pixie to carefully check it all out. It took her several approaches over a couple of minutes to finally decide that she was not afraid anymore. Then Pixie shoved the toy out of the way and climbed into the girls lap. It was great to watch the two of them work it out!
I think a lot of these are ‘uncanny’ examples rather than SNSS. My dog, similarly to many others, is terrified by scarecrows, and I have heard of several (UK) dogs who don’t like a particular dog puppet in a TV advert. He is anxious about anything new that appears on our daily walks (including hay bales).
I wonder if a whole bunch of triggers together counts as SNSS. Triggers for my dog include people, particularly children, strange noises, and fast movement. So a kid on a skateboard sends him into a frenzy.
Heidi Meinzer says
I love that video!
My reactive Shepherd mix, Sophie, is set off by similar things that people have mentioned, especially a dog or person stopping and staring, or a person coming over to talk with her or me. Most of my neighbors have gotten quite used to our behavior modification routine now and are patient and understanding while we do our thing on our walks.
When Sophie was having a fear period as a puppy, one thing set her off much like Luke and the knee pads. We walked past a new, shiny metal fire hydrant that had two round ends making it look like an outerspace insect with bug eyes. Sophe took one look and jumped back, and did not want to be anywhere near the thing!
Cameras. Especially a big SLR camera. My dog HATES to look at me when I’ve got my big Canon on my face, and no surprise: GIANT BIG BLACK EYE. The damn thing even blinks at her. (Or heck, “What the hell is wrong with Mom’s face?” might be enough right there.)
On the upside, despite being generally fearful aggressive to everything else, she simply avoids the camera. But it also means that unless she’s in a super good mood, I never get pictures of her looking right at me. 🙂
Great example Donna of a classic SNSS, a camera lens. SO many dogs will NOT look directly into a lens, I wish more people understood why and were more sympathetic. And I love the “fire hydrant monster” example from Heidi. That’s an interesting point about “uncanny” … things that almost look like something but not quite, like robotic humans; it does seem to fit a lot of the things that make dogs nervous. But so often it seems to me to be things that don’t move, so it’s hard to sort out what is relevant to the dog. Some of the examples suggested I suspect are less SNSS than new, unidentifiable things that make neophobic dogs nervous. (Last summer Hope was afraid of a stop sign, and there’s just nothing about it’s shape that I can relate to a relevant stimulus to a dog.) Remember that SNSS related to stimuli that are inherently meaningful to a species. The best example (and the one always taught in an Ethology class!) is from Konrad Lorenz, who was attacked by the crows he was raising when he put on a black bathing suit. It seems that things are defined as ‘crows’ by other crows if they are black blobs. And given that his suit was about 3 times the size of a normal crow, it perfectly fit into the concept of SNSS.
I’ve always resisted the term “dumb dog,” but this poor dog is so unaware of sentience, is so markedly focused on the superficial, that he can not recognize that this particular human is not the least bit interested in playing with him. I can’t even remotely imagine either of my dogs doing something similar. One of my dogs tends toward fearfulness, and she has shown definite trepidation passing statues similar to this one. In fact, in front of our local library is a bronze sitting man, just like this one, and she was quite wary of it when we passed it initially. My other confident dog passes the statue on the bench as if there’s nothing on the bench. However, when someone is sitting next to the statue, she veers to greet the person sitting next to the statue.
The dog in the video attempted to engage with the statue; there is a huge difference between a dog being fearful of something inanimate and trying to engage with it! The dog in the video either has incredibly stupid owners who never connect with the dog, so the dog has never learned about connection with humans and doesn’t yet understand the concept, or this is one of the dumbest dogs I’ve ever seen.
Erin Bessey says
I have a neophobic dog. I often say he is very sensitive to body language dogs or human. I brought him into the vet clinic where I work and my co-worker a 6′ + tall man, came out of one of the rooms, was looking out a window behind us and lean forward, cocked his head to the side and stood very still. Needless to say Scout barked at him. Even though I’ve taught him attention he is also sensitive to if someone stands very still, and stares at him or moves towards him with their body slightly forward and staring, as often people do when approaching a dog to greet.
As far as neophobia goes, he has no issue with change if he is with you when it happens but if something were to blow into the yard or fall over he charges it barking and rebounds quickly with a “Oh it’s just ____ (fill in the blank)”
Just a couple more examples of whatever we’re calling the phenomenon, if anyone’s still reading…
My dog has reacted to:
– life-size, stiff, stuffed Great Dane in a store (he stiffened and barked at it)
– plastic snowman in a yard (paused, looked concerned, checked it out from a few angles)
– wooden statue of an owl or something about 1-2 feet high – same reaction as snowman
– large round gray plastic container or basin lying along a trail – (tail down, shoulders and head ducked, kept approaching it from different angles, staying a certain distance away from it as though there were an invisible danger zone at a particular radius from the object)
– a plastic bag drifting along the ground across the park from us (he stood still, very focused and somewhat tense, even more than when he sees a squirrel)
All but one were stationary, and the moving item seemed to elicit a combination of concern and prey drive). With each object, he eventually realized it was inanimate and then dismissed it completely.
Similar objects that did not elicit a reaction:
– statue of a dog in front of a house
– fake geese
– holiday deer figurines (not lifelike, just wire frames covered with lights)
– real snowmen
Heidi Meinzer says
Here’s another video going around now, with a kitten reacting to two green apples on a bed. Even if it may not be exactly what we’re talking about, it is pretty cute and the music is perfect! Good for a chuckle, anyway!
A more complete list of the things Otis has reacted to, in addition to the parked backhoe:
Snowman (real)-frozen (tee hee)
Trash can on side-moving very slightly
Trash bag-moving in a way that mimics breathing
Small plastic dog statue on a hilltop at a park-frozen
Thomas the Tank Engine Toy—I guess it can best be described as a Chinese New Year dragon, a big tube of opaque nylon over plastic hoops, with a big caricature face on one end, held up by a couple of children concealed INSIDE it, running around the back yard and shrieking. This one was a biggie…a Large Unfamiliar Object, apparently alive, WITH a giant frozen face and somehow involving shrieking kids next door…honestly, it kind of freaked ME out. It had the added spice of being NEAR OUR HOUSE, which seems to make it much more likely that Otis (or even Sandy, who’s new) will react.
With the exception of the toy, Otis barked, investigated, and dismissed the object. With the Thomas toy, I took no chances (Following a flurry of hysterical barking and charging-I thought he was going over the fence after it, for frightened minute there), I frogmarched him into the house, closed the blinds and waited until the kids were done. He saw it another time, but that time he saw the kids pick it up. He still barked, but not nearly as severely. In that case he was able to ignore from the back yard as long as I kept his attention occupied.
Interestingly, he routinely ignores statues of people or animals. He is more likely to react if he can clearly see the silhouette of an animal or human, frozen in place, from a distance ( dog statue, snowman). Things up close (smelled first) don’t seem to have the capacity to spook him the same way.
Barb McDonald says
The other day at the dog park there was a shepherd/corgi mix that looked just like a shepherd, with short legs. Many of us could not look at the dog for long, it looked wrong. not afraid of the dog as it was nice, but wrong and hard to comprehend.
Donna in VA says
Max (sheltie) is extremely alert to things overhead – a plane in the sky, and the sound associated with a plane coming. He will chase a plane overhead the length of a football field. A spider on the ceiling or fly on the wall is equivalent to an alien invasion – barking fit and aggressively trying to help me catch the bad thing. I have to remove him from the room to squash the spider or catch the fly. Reading the history of shelties, I wonder if this is a breed trait (used to guard drying fish from thieving birds overhead?)
Max also reacts to the sound of a baby crying by howling. This can be from the TV, or live and in person. He startled some people sitting under a tree next to us at a festival. Their baby was crying and Max joined in – it was very funny. He will howl along with us if we initiate howling but the TV baby crying was the first time he ever howled spontaneously.
Dena (Izzee's Mom) says
I once brought home a large piggy bank that had been painted with black and orange tiger stripes, and a face with large, exaggerated eyes. I put it down on the floor in a corner of the dining room as a decoration. Our cat walked around the corner, to be suddenly confronted by this thing. She leaped straight up into the air, hissing, and landing with her back arched. She darted forward, smacked it on the nose, and then ran off to hide.
This is a fascinating discussion.
Can’t add any additional dog related SSNS observations to the list but definitely recognize many of the experiences described above which I had not understood until reading this.
re: human SSNS, my wife and were driving around an older neighborhood today, typical post-WWII suburb style construction originally, but now there are quite a few attractive, modest bungalows going up. With shingle siding! I suddenly wanted to abandon my nest and move there.
I think a big SSNS for my dog is riding in the car with her head out the window (bad mommy, I know). It’s such a superhighway of scents and sights- to me it’s like choosing to browse the internet over browsing the library stacks using only the Dewey Decimal System, and an old fashioned card file. She really gets a high out of windy days and rides in the car because it’s like a super-saturation of available scents. So the normal stimulus- enjoying smelling things is trumped by smelling more things in a shorter amount of time. (Supersize stimulus.) Plus it’s artificial (a car is not part of a dog’s biological experience, or ours for that matter.) Come to think of it, a car ride is SSNS for humans too…truly a great deal of the industrial age is. Fast food restaurants succeed because of it. Wired for sugar, salt, and fat, we go crazy over a large french-fry.
Probably the same with dogs preferring or loving very very smelly things, and choosing them over less smelly things.
Oh! Oh! I got one! Squeaky Toys! They squeak louder and more consistently than real prey does!
Yes, I’m watching a documentary called “Blind Spot” and it started me thinking about dog toys vs things dogs can find on their own to play with (basically, sticks, and chunks of dead animal, maybe some grass or a piece of bark.) And then, then I realized that WE are a huge SNSS to a dog. Who’s cooler: mom dog, or this crazy cool two legged animal with cars, refrigerators, bacon, hotdogs, squeaky toys? We must have been an SNSS to follower wolves during the entire evolution of wolves-to-dogs process. Normal stimulus: mom wolf barfing rabbit. Super stimulus: human giving me cooked leftovers. Normal stimulus: hunting with other wolves. Super stimulus: hunting with people who have spears! Normal stimulus: playing with other follower wolf pups. Super stimulus: playing with human children.
Overheard from follower wolf: “OMG they have thumbs! Did you see the thumbs! Did you see her throw that meat! OMG OMG OMG!”
Susan Mann says
I had a pointer that reacted to a lot of different things, but one that stands out was a large painted wooden stork in a neighbor’s yard, announcing a new baby. Interesting to think of it being a large bird because he was a pointer, but I suspect it was just the novelty of it- he also reacted to trash cans, mail boxes, parked motorcycles, moss or things bobbing the water…the list went on and on! In retrospect, I do think most if not all of the things he reacted to were still (no motion) except the moss or other things bobbing in the water.
This is such fascinating stuff! I am not a behaviorist or trainer, but a nurse / dog-Mom with a wonderful rescue Golden named Rex, who has awakened my interest in animal behavior, instilled a deeper level of partnership, and shown me the joys of catching bunnies while on-leash (not my idea). I am particularly interested in your comment about using large stuffed dogs to help with reactive fears. Rex is leash reactive and we have worked tirelessly to help him (I love your Fiesty Fido book, by the way–very, very helpful). But we still have a ways to go, and I am getting inventive trying to help him overcome his dragons. Would you be willing to share specifically how you use inanimate dogs to help with this?
Thank you for all you do; the boundless wisdom and experience you share, and your wonderful sense of humor. I hope you and Willie and working sheep in no time. Thank you!
Most of the examples with my dogs are more Uncanny Valley than SSNS – but the dogs themselves – a papillon and apricot toy poodle – are most definitely SSNS for 10 year old girls! This morning in the park they had a dozen of them down on the grass cooing and cuddling and feeding treats … I was very proud of Poppy (toy poodle) for being brave enough to stay in the midst of so many reaching hands (although the treats I doled out certainly helped!).
Yesterday Ranger was doing a stint at the library as a Tail Waggin Tutor where he listened to about eight different kids read to him. I loves this job, in fact when I spread his blanket on the floor he dove onto it grabbed a piece and pulled it over himself (all snuggled up ready to listen) although he shook it off again very quickly probably because it was too warm. As we were leaving we walked past a statue of a girl sitting on a bench reading a book. We’ve walked past it before on our way into the library and he’s never done anything other than glance at it without even breaking stride. Leaving we usually turn the other way to get back to the car (I often walk him around the building before going in) but I’d parked in a different area so we turned to walk by the statue. Ranger saw it and pulled me over so he could sniff the book and carefully smell the girl. I half expected him to jump on the bench and put his head in the statue’s lap ready to hear whatever she was reading. I’m wondering if his immediately past experiences Kids+books+petting=Very Good had him especially primed to react to a stimulus Looks like Kid with Book that he normally does not find worth attention.
When traveling for a flyball tournament, I took my dog out for a late night potty trip. We were met in the parking lot by a rolling billboard–the kind towed on a flatbed tractor trailor truck–that was overnighting in the parking lot of the hotel. On the billboard was a giant picture of the man in the “Can you hear me now?” cellphone network commercials. The huge face with its dark rimmed glasses sent her into a fit of barking. She was so frightened she refused to use that door to the parking lot again and for the rest of the weekend I had to take her out the opposite end of the hotel to do her business.
I had occasion to use a stuffed dog during an exercise with a somewhat reactive adolescent male boxer. His reaction was amusing. While the stuffed dog just “stood” there, the boxer did his typical stiffed-leg, hackles raised reaction, but as soon as I pushed the stuffed dog into a playbow and wagged its tail, the boxer’s demeanor changed completely. He reciprocated the playbow, got all wiggly and came in for a curious buttsniff!
Wow- Kat your story about Ranger is very interesting. I love the idea of a dog that listens to kids read. That’s an SNSS for me- it’s all my favorite stuff rolled together! Now if only there was a bike involved!
Ooops – got my Ss and Ns crossed somewhere!
Heidi Meinzer says
I’m taking one of our local shelter’s dogs to a Reactive Dog class, and assisting with another group taking the same class on a different day. We used a lifesized stuffed dog in class, and the reaction of each dog was really interesting — and very similar to what each owner reported to be the reaction to real dogs. My beautiful shelter dog, Jazz, (who’s actually not very reactive, but more impolite and unsocialized) waltzed up, tried to play, and also tried to hump the dog. One of the most reactive little guys went right for the jugular.
My dogs will pose for the camera. When they see it come out they sit and cock their heads, which I believe is a learned response since I give them treats for sitting still while I take their pictures. I also hardly ever take flash photos. This is what I think causes dogs to become camera shy- the flash is annoying or scary and if you take indoor photos at first they avoid the camera because they expect a flash.
About SNSS I was trying to use that the other day to fend off the barn swallows who are nesting in our barn and were dive bombing my head. I took to carrying a rake up in the air thinking it might look like a giant cat claw to them and they would avoid me. It seemed to work. I’m ready for nesting season to be over.
Wow. So interesting that reactive dogs seem to treat a stuffed dog as they would a real one. I’ll have to try to find a life sized stuffed dog to do this experiment for real, but I just can’t imagine Otis actually engaging with a stuffed dog as he would with a live one. Responding from a distance, sure, but actually getting close enough to sniff and not realizing that it isn’t real? I wonder if there is a correllation between dogs who are reactive and dogs who are more than typically reliant on visual cues, rather than smell?
we once were staying at the Big Bear Motel which had on its lawn a … big bear statue. A really really BIG bear statue. Standing upright. With its mouth open and front paws stretched out.
My “their courage is proverbial” AmStaff completely freaked out, barking and growling. When I led her up to it and knocked on its leg (trying to show her it was not real), she relaxed.
OTOH she also freaked out at the giant statue of a dinosaur at Sinclair, WY
My young SBT play bowed to a large stuffed standing Rottweiler toy.
and then there’s this…
As loathsome as dog racing is to me, its promoters have a perfect example of SNSS in the mechanical hare. The inventor of the backyard radio controlled mechanical hare, fast enough to outrun any dog on any terrain, will be a billionaire.
My little guy has more than his share of quirks, but his best example of SNSS is his reaction to any toddler being carried on an adult’s shoulders. Beware the two-headed monster person!
This is entirely random, but I’m amazed and encouraged by the level of civility and respect found here in the comments. I’ve read all your blog articles, and as well, I’ve read most of the comments. No matter if people agree or not, there is an atmosphere of open discussion that is more than admirable. Dog people are pretty intense about training etc, and words fly fast and furious. It is great to see a peaceable discussion of all sorts. Kudos!
Is the way dogs react to stuffed dogs – arcing towards them, sniffing anal/genital region and nose and/or barking at them on approach as if they are real dogs – related to the super normal sign stimuli?
Dan Cooper says
Hello, I am trying to find the video of the Eskie and sunglasses, but have not been able to locate it. Is there still a source for it?
Melissa McCue-McGrath says
I can’t find the Eskie and sunglasses video but did notice the video is missing in the normal post. I found a cached version and I *think* it’s this one:
All the videos (of dogs and statues) played for me. Hope they are all working for everyone.
Regretably the video is on a DVD that is out of print. Sorry!