Please Go Away: Dog Body Language Study

They really do get along! Honest!

They really do get along! Honest!

One of the things I am very grateful for in my life with dogs is that my current three get along. They don’t adore each other, but two of them, Clara and Zani, actually play together and are comfortable in each other’s space bubbles. Zani helped “bring up” Clara, even though Clara got pretty obnoxious pretty fast as a pup. And both of them manage to get along with Summer, who would really prefer to be the only dog in the world. Or at least the only female. But thank goodness they don’t hate each other.

I’ve written before that Summer is bothered by rowdy play and used to go on the attack when she thought Zani and Clara were being a bit too chaotic. I taught Summer something else to do rather than charge in snarling and snapping. I’ve shown some other clips and stills of Summer and Clara in particular vying over resources, but doing it without physical contact or a fight.

But before I ever had Clara, during Zani’s first several months in the household, Summer and Zani played almost constantly. So Summer does know how to play. I’ve always kept a close eye when she did, since her play often has a little edge to it.

Nowadays, every once in a while Summer seems to invite the others to play, or something. Usually she play-bows to Zani, then follows it up very quickly with an attempt to hump her. Often Zani will come leap in my lap when Summer tries that. Sometimes Clara gets between Summer and Zani. Typically, Clara and Zani both get visibly anxious when Summer initiates…whatever it is she initiates.

The Movie

In today’s movie, it didn’t play out quite like that, but I think it’s very interesting. Summer appeared to invite the others to play, and they weren’t having any of it. Zani wasn’t nervous enough to flee, and instead was quite assertive. Clara was her usual blunt self. But even though the other two ganged up on her, Summer remained remarkably calm and unbothered.

The most interesting thing to me was Zani’s extensive nosing of Summer’s ear and mouth, followed by Clara doing something similar. Some people who have seen the movie have speculated that Summer might have something medically wrong that the others were picking up on. But I can say with near certainty that the nosing was not curiosity of any sort (and that there’s nothing wrong with Summer’s mouth or ears). Zani’s automatic, normal response to either of the other dogs coming to get attention from me is to stick her nose persistently into private places–butts, ears, or mouths usually. She can almost always get Summer to move away by doing that. And if you look at Clara’s behavior carefully, she is doing a whole lot more poking with her nose than sniffing.

It’s easy to feel bad for Summer watching this. The other two are so obviously telling her to get lost. But my read on it was that Summer was relaxed about the whole thing. Her initial invitations were, for her, loose and friendly looking. During the whole of the intrusive nosing, she stood there wagging her tail (a nice wag–slow and wide, at three quarters-mast). She had fleeting looks of concern, but mostly her mouth was loose and to me she looked quite pleased with herself. Also–Clara left the scene first. (Clara and Summer headed for two different water bowls for a drink at the end.) I score it Summer: 1; Clara and Zani: 0. Nice try, girls!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

A Note on Behavioral Function

Performing behavior analysis in situations other than training helps me understand things better. Perhaps it does for some of you, too. So I’ll bolster my hypothesis with a tiny bit of it.

The reason I think that Zani’s sniffing/nosing behavior was saying, “Go away” to Summer, is that I have seen it perform that function dozens of times. The usual behavior analysis goes like this:

  • Setting: Summer is standing near me and I am petting her and/or talking to her; Zani is close by
  • Antecedent: Zani sticks her nose in Summer’s butt or ear and presses it there for a duration of time
  • Behavior: Summer moves away
  • Consequence: Pressure from Zani’s nose is escaped
  • Prediction: Summer’s moving away when Zani’s nose is pressed into her will increase or maintain.

This is a negative reinforcement scenario. My dogs are all experts on using pressure on each other (and on me). But the interesting thing is that the prediction didn’t come true.

This time, Summer didn’t move away, even when Clara joined in with the pressure as well. So I’ll have to keep an eye on the behavior patterns in the future. Was this a rare aberration for Summer? Or is she getting desensitized to Zani’s nosiness? And if so, will Zani develop a new tactic? Zani is an expert communicator, and as the smallest dog in the household develops some interesting ways to get what she wants. I’ll report back if something interesting comes of this.

Clara and Zani on day bed

Clara and Zani are comfortable in each other’s space. Summer, not so much.

Do you have a dog who does something non-violent (but obnoxious) to get another dog to move away?

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17 Responses to Please Go Away: Dog Body Language Study

  1. Ha, multiple dogs can be a challenge. I remember back when I had my Shadow and Copper – Shadow was always bullying that poor fella. He’d come in through the dog door and sometimes she’d growl at him and he would immediately go still and hang his head to appear non-threatening. I had to tell her to relax, he LIVES there for Pete’s sake and she’d let the matter drop. But sometimes they’d play like they were the best of friends. I never once saw them sleep together though.

    I’ve never been great at reading a dog’s body language, but through this blog and others, I am slowly learning.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I’m not great either, but I think I can say I am learning as well. Being able to point stuff out on a slow motion video (which I can sometimes do) is so different from being able to have accurate perceptions in real time. I really notice when people can do that. I aspire to it. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Hi Eileen, Thanks for another great video and post! Here is a thought (and this may be completely off-base for your dogs, since you know them best of course). When I saw the video without reading the background of Zani’s history of using “nose pokes” to drive Summer away from you, my initial impression was that both Zani and, though to a lesser degree, Clara, were responding to Summer’s play bow invitation to play and that if Summer had play bowed and “gotten the sillies” again, they would have engaged in play together. Face sniffing and even licking can be preludes to play (perhaps signaling appeasement or “this is a friendly moment”?), and we often see this in both our own dogs during (usually at the start) of play and sometimes in the play groups of dogs who know each other well at our training school. That said, the same signals can mean different things in different contexts and within relationships, so if Zani typically uses personal space to stop interactions, that is certainly possible too. I completely agree with you that Summer looked relaxed and happy the entire time. Not knowing the three dogs, I would not have been concerned about this interaction at all and would not have been surprised to see a 3-way play begin if Summer had play bowed again. I did not read Zani as tense at all, but maybe saw Clara as less willing to engage (though not tense). None of the dogs seemed “still or stiff” or that they were avoiding interaction. Still, I think that knowing the dogs, understanding their individual communication signals and knowing the type of relationships they have with each other is invaluable when interpreting dog-to-dog interactions. Thanks again – keep your blogs coming!! Linda

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Thank you for this great comment! I like your ideas and I can give you a small bit of back story that would support them. It’s more of a lack, but I think it’s relevant. It’s that Summer is just not as socially adept as the others. She will make these attempts to play and then hump, which is not a good way to get others to play with her. Sometimes when Summer seems to initiate play they all stand in a circle and do these weird repeated play bows, again as if Summer really doesn’t know her next move and they are waiting to see what she will do. I think Clara does act as an inhibiting influence, and if she weren’t looming in there, Summer might “remember” some other play moves and be able to continue.

      Here’s another bit of back story–I have a lot of footage of interactions between Clara and Summer where Clara is making moves that are resource guarding but also playful. In some contexts I could certainly see those bumps and pokes as a play move. Some of it is here in this post: Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion. It seems to be Summer who keeps it on a serious level (such as around 2:20 in the movie: Clara does a move which could easily be a play bow, but Summer doesn’t respond with play).

      I’ll keep observing and wait for that moment when they all three play. It might come!

      Thanks also Linda for your observations of the demeanor of the three of them. It’s nice to get some affirmation for my sense of that.

  3. Gerry says:

    I’d guess more on that video as peacefully failed play negotiation. That Zani is not telling Summer to go away in this case, but only to change her current behavior in some manner. That interpretation also satisfies your “go away” case. When, after several tries, Summer didn’t respond in the way they wanted, the activity just faded away. If you were to watch many cases of play negotiation, you’d eventually see +R, -R, +P and -P, but there’s often no special conclusion to be drawn from that.

    They may also realize from history that Summer has an axiety threshold during intense play, and want to avoid it. Repeated play attempts like this may move back that threshold, or may not. Only experience will tell.

    But you mentioned humping, perhaps implying it was an issue. I suggest that whether any play style is an issue depends on the dogs involved. I’m watching out the window at 2 males and a female playing, with every dog getting mounted by every dog. But with the new foster on the side they’re being gentle, and some previous fosters didn’t like being mounted. So I’ll suggest the only issue is if the dog doesn’t like and cannot deal with it, or the dog performing the action doesn’t respond to the other’s signals, and that that also applies to any play style, in both dogs and people.

    On your last question, do you mean a behavior that seems obnoxious to people, or to other dogs? There’s often a big difference there. Like Zani, some dogs will develop specific behaviors that they use in many related cases. When my guy wants me to grab the soccer ball, he sits and swings a paw to get my attention. We just came from a pet food store he knows, where he stuck his front legs on the counter, and shook a paw towards the shelf of open treat bags in the back, until they gave him one.

    And, on Linda’s comment that play might have begun if Summer had play bowed again, I’ll generalize that to if Summer had replied in a way they accepted, play would have continued. But that unless you see it suceed, you cannot tell if a response play bow would be either acceptable or sufficient. I know an Aussie who always starts with a play bow, but ignores it if the other dog returns the same. He only responds if the other dog either runs for a chase, or jumps on top of him. I’ve seen other dogs spend days trying to negotiate play behavior, only to decide their interests are different and they go play with others. As Linda concluded, your only fully accurate guide is history, while taking into account that they may slowly change over time.

    Similarly, I don’t know if Summer is not as socially adept as you commented (though you have seen her play), or her anxiety interfers with some play, or both. The latter seems more likely, as you noted Clara’s inhibiting influence, which might cause some anxiety, but not likely forgetfulness.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Gerry I like your ideas about looking at a more general cause/effect going on. I think we all agree on the basics that there was a flurry of play related invitations, but no play happened. As you said, a failed negotiation. I still lean to “go away,” since I see Zani take those actions (sniffing, nose probing) so frequently with Summer. Usually when Summer is somewhere Zani wants to be, with the effect of dislodging her. On watching the movie a few more times, I noted That Zani first probes at Summer’s front end (0:15), then is moving towards probing her back end when Summer spins back around (0:16), disallowing the butt sniff. Again, that’s part of Zani’s pattern, to sniff alternately around the head and tail. Usually one or the other gets Summer to leave. And it’s actually unusual for Summer to take evasive action, as she did this time.

      Good point on catching my language about Summer “forgetting” how to play. That’s certainly not an accurate description. More likely that doesn’t have the skills to do it, (not at the level the others have), or there was a strong inhibiting influence. I should note that she has not played with Clara ever, or Zani since 2011 (when Clara arrived). When Clara first came, I kept her and Sumemr separate until Clara was about 6 months old (from concerns about Summer not granting her a puppy license). Zani and Clara formed a pretty strong bond during that time. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

  4. Marjorie says:

    Interesting video Eileen. I thought Summer was not completely relaxed. In response to the nosing from the others I observed her bring the corners of her mouth slightly forward (you had to be quick to catch it) and I thought the head shake, blink and lip lick might have been a bit of stress/ calming signals. To me it looked like she started something, wasn’t sure about the response she got and then seemed relieved/pleased in the end that all went well. My girls do the nose thing as well, they can be quite pushy with each other in regards to it and a little more polite with other dogs. When ever I see the sniffy nose thing I try and pay close attention to the rest of the body (on both dogs), sometimes if the body is more stiff and erect I think it is more like a inhibited muzzle punch and shows assertion, other times it just seems to be scent information seeking. Truth is, I’m probably way off base. They seem to be much better at reading me than I am at reading them.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I think this is a good summary: “To me it looked like she started something, wasn’t sure about the response she got and then seemed relieved/pleased in the end that all went well.” I do agree that Summer was not completely relaxed. But in that context, she was unusually so. Even for a failed negotiation. They usually don’t go that well! Oh, and Clara does employ a big range of inhibited muzzle punches; there is more forward motion to it than Zani’s typical persistent proximity. Thanks for the comments. I think it’s interesting the things that dogs who know each other well do.

  5. Laura Smith says:

    I really appreciated the slow motion. One thing I found interesting was that Summer kept looking at you. I’ve seen from some of your previous videos that you were working on that to defuse certain situations from arising. So I wonder if she didn’t feel a little conflicted about the ‘space invaders”?

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I find Summer’s glances at me very interesting. I read them–I could be wrong–more like “Hey mom, look what I’m doing!” or just a basic checking in than, “Help me.” I do actually help her when Zani is pushing her around in a resource guarding scenario. Glad you liked the slow mo. It always helps me.

  6. Marie says:

    Yes! I absolutely have a dog who does something non-violent but obnoxious to get her way! She is a little dog but she is solid muscle, and my other dog is an elderly, rather frail little dog. So if he (or even one of the cats) is sitting somewhere she wants to sit herself, she sits down near them, then wiggles her bottom around, slowly backing into them until the force of her body makes them move away. I love her to pieces but she can be rude. The others have just sort of accepted this and give her space now, or voluntarily leave their spot when she gets close and starts settling in. Now that I’m learning so much more about canine body language, I think it’s definitely something to see if I can address somehow in a positive way.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Oh man, Clara used to do something like that. She wouldn’t back in so much as swing her butt at another dog–hard, and even press them up against the wall. She doesn’t do that much anymore; she pretty much gets the space she wants from her size (and previous behavior).

      It is really hard to intervene in these situations since dog behavior is so quick and fleeting, but I think it’s a good idea when someone is pushy. I do intervene in many situations when Zani is trying to push Summer away. It’s almost reflexive on Zani’s part by this time. I have started to cue Zani to go to a mat instead, when Summer is visiting with me and Zani starts in with her nose.

  7. Kristen Sukalac says:

    Eileen, I see something similar to TheScience Dog. Summer clearly initiates the play, but then I think she feels overwhelmed by the intensity, so she moves away. But she continues to signal willingness to engage through her open body language. And then the other two are fabulous. One-by-one they come over and show great self-restraint in nuzzling her, which I think is actually super slow-motion playing, which continues until Summer has had enough and moves away.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I agree very much with your assessment of Summer, but still see Zani and Clara’s actions as more inhibitory than inviting. I have never seen Zani do that in a play context; she is generally very overt, doing play bows or leaping at the bigger dog’s neck and shoulders. Also, her mouth is almost always open and she is noisy. Granted that this is a very small space, and smaller motions are appropriate.

      I went to look at a video of Zani’s play style and found something interesting. At the end of the video in “How My Dogs Play,”, I see Clara doing a very similar thing to Zani at the end of the clip as she did with Summer (2:12 – 2:15). Little feints toward the face, then followed by a bunch of ground sniffing as they cease the play, with one more butt sniff. I would argue that in both videos, that is an inhibiting gesture. Perhaps not so much “go away,” so much as “settle down, we are done now.” See what you think. Thank you so much for your comments!

  8. liz says:

    Love body language videos. Thanks for the opportunity to learn, observe, and note the interesting interpretations! I’ve never commented here, but thought I’d briefly add what caught my eye: the video starts with Clara in a bow-like position (maybe the initiator, to which Summer responds?), and Summer’s tail has more of a left-sided wag during the last portion of video (indicating nervousness as determined in study). Knowing the history does contribute so much, and with limited knowledge these are certainly guesses based on my experience. That said, I think that two things possibly changed how my dogs played: mat work and moving to a house with wood floors. I suspect there is some generalization between mats and small rugs, at least in the sense that it defines a space. Also changes the substrate, obviously, and can be a sort of resource in that mine appear to play a sort of king of the mountain game with rugs. With this in mind, Clara holds ground, has the best position initially and would be the winner(?) if space on the rugs was desired. After briefly “playing” (perhaps in Summer’s view) Summer leaves to meet with interaction from Zani, and the interaction begins a new phase which is slightly more uncomfortable, hence the more left-sided wag. Again, the importance of history can’t be overstated, but I thought I’d chime in since it’s just so fun to consider. Beautiful girls, and thanks again for sharing!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Great comments from everyone, and I will catch up and reply later today or as soon as possible!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Really good observations! Love your points about the mats. My house is almost entirely hard floors, and indeed the mats are little islands of comfort in several ways. I think they are very desirable, and also from previous observations, space near me is desirable. And now I will have to review the tail wagging stuff and watch the video again! Thanks so much!

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