Behavior signals interpreted with body postures

Behavior signals interpreted with body postures

May 01, 2004

No signaling or communication system in social animals is simple. The main reason this is so involves context.

Figure 1: This dog has not fully committed to the interaction. She is asking for more information. Notice the human is leaning over the dog, which signals uncertainty.
All signals are interpreted in light of other body postures and with respect to external factors occurring at the time the animal offers the signal. The congruency of all body signals indicates that the dog is relatively certain and comfortable with the signaling decision made. Clients are less aware of the importance of signals that may not be congruent (e.g., a dog that is growling and wagging her tail). Signals that are not congruent are indicative of more uncertainty and less commitment to one specific signaling outcome. Finally, the ultimate outcome of the entire interaction will depend on the integration of the internal signals with the external context. This is why a dog's reactivity can change quickly in a busy, unpredictable (from the dog's viewpoint) social context, like a child's birthday party, and why it can be so difficult for people to understand what the dog was signaling in rapidly changing circumstances.

Changing context Building on our initial discussion of facial signals, we can see how social signals - whether they are with other dogs or with people - change with a changing context. In Figures 1-3, we can see that the dogs' signals become more congruent when the humans involved are exhibiting behaviors that the dogs understand. When we examine these types of interactions, it is also important to pay attention to how congruent the human signals are.

In Figure 1, the dog is not entirely certain of what's expected. She is paying attention to the person standing in front of her, and she is curious, taking in the surroundings. We can tell that in this case her curiosity is coupled with a willingness to interact because her ears are cocked forward.

Figure 2: This dog looks eager to interact. Notice the tail is relaxed, and its mouth is displaying a deferential "grin."
However, she is standing, which gives her the option to move more quickly than were she sitting or lying down. Remember, dogs have to go through more behaviors to move away or toward something if they are lying down. If they are sitting, they have to go through more behaviors to move than were they standing, but fewer than if they were lying down.

Accordingly, the ease with which the dog offers or is convinced to sit or lie down carries a lot of information about its intent and its comfort level. Of course, such behaviors must be interpreted in light of the dog's physical state: if the dog is severely lame or arthritic, quick movement is not an option and getting up may be extremely difficult.

In such cases, you may note that very fearful dogs are reluctant to lie down because if they do so they are at extreme risk because of the effort it takes for them to become mobile.

If we look at Figure 1, we note that this dog is of a breed that has a tail which, when happy, is carried out in a relatively straight manner in the same plane as the topline. This dog's tail is not in evidence. Her tail is not tucked as would be the case in overt fear, but is just flaccid behind her. In this case this is a signal that she has not fully committed to the interaction.

Figure 3: This photography illustrates how human signaling can help dog signaling become more definite, certain and congruent.
This impression is supported by the slightly raised "eyebrows" which indicate that the dog is waiting for more information before committing to a decision. Part of the reason the dog is exhibiting these "mixed signals" involves the behavior of the human.

The human is relatively far away from the dog for optimal signaling, and she is leaning over the dog. When humans lean over dogs, they signal uncertainty, and, in fact, they are uncertain. It takes deliberation to stand up straight, a behavior that commits you to the interaction. Additionally, when dogs hunch over, they are withdrawing from the interaction, a sequelae that is also possible for humans.

In Figure 2, the human is signaling more clearly: the arm holding the lead is relaxed, she is standing up straight, and she is a good distance from the dog, were the dog to know the drill. Most dogs that are uncertain or worry become uncomfortable if the object of their worry - whether human or dog - comes within one dog length of them. When dogs are sitting or lying down, this distance may increase for the reasons discussed above.

This dog also looks eager to interact, his mouth is in a relaxed deferential "grin", he is looking at the human doing the signaling, and his tail is out.

Figure 4: Distance and body posture are very important in assessing dog-to-dog interactions. This photo is actually a snap shot of a round of play time for these two dogs.
Like the dog in Figure 1, this dog is being taught to "look" for a verbal and hand signal, and when he is relaxed and does this appropriately he will be given a treat. This boy knows what the treat is and has decided that he loves it, but he is not sure what he has to do to get the treat, and is very active and verbal. His ears are back in what was a long interaction, because he is offering behaviors, hoping to learn which one will get him the treat.

Because the ears are back, in the context of all of his other signals, indicates only that he is not sure of what he has to do. He is also not sitting directly in front of the human because he has not fully committed to the interaction. If the human moves directly in front of him and a little back, so that his head comes down a bit while he maintains eye contact, his ears will come forward.

This is largely because he has more physical and mental space to ask about what the human wants. We forget that signaling is about telling us something, but also about asking for more information. Dogs, like humans, need to be able to ask if their response is correct. If this dog is rewarded the instant his ears come forward, the next time the human asks him to "look," his ears will come forward much more quickly.