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.