A couple of weeks ago I published a post: “Body Language Study: Fear and What Else?”. It featured the short video clip embedded below. (You can watch the video now if you didn’t already.) In the post I solicited comments about Summer’s behavior. I noted that I saw fear and caution and something else, and asked folks what all they saw.
I got a great response, with people seeing both the stuff I was angling for, and also a whole other category of behavior that I had not noticed.
What I saw but didn’t mention, and was trying to find out whether others saw it, was predation. Plenty of other people did. Deena Lavine, Melinda Schneider, Meghan Smith, and Susan Hatzen all mentioned prey drive in the comments, and others did on Facebook.
I wasn’t sure how obvious it would be to those who haven’t seen Summer’s behavior over time. She is a serious predator. And she has a special interest in reptiles, including turtles, toads, and snakes.
What was notable to me in the interaction in the video was that she kept re-approaching the area where the reptile was. Fear often results in distance-increasing or escape behavior. This is often flight, although a cornered animal will sometimes freeze or attack a threat in self-preservation. (Dr. Susan Friedman classifies this type of attack as escape behavior as well, because the goal is to remove the threat.) In the clip, Summer was obviously nervous about the lizard that she sensed in the hose reel area, but she was also exhibiting distance-decreasing behavior repeatedly. She had ample opportunity to get away from the reptile. Instead, she returned again and again.
I noted the most basic of analyses: she kept moving her body, carefully, back towards the hose reel and what was hiding inside it. Then she would jump back when she thought the “thing” might be interested in having a go at her.
I think she thought the lizard was a snake. It certainly looked like one–glass lizards have no legs. Perhaps it smelled like one too, because before she ever seemed to get a good look at it, she was exhibiting the same behavior she does when she thinks there is a snake present.
I have witnessed it plenty of times before. When she thinks there is a snake in the grass, she will approach with great care, ready to jump backwards at a second’s notice. She obviously learned the hard way that snakes strike, but with snakes as well she still keeps returning. When she used to go to doggie day care, they told me that she had cornered a large snake once. I have never seen her do that at home and would actively intervene if I did. But I have seen that cautious approach when she thinks there is something hidden in the grass. She does something similar with stinging insects, which she also has a hard time leaving alone. She really wants to kill them, though she has been stung in the attempt before.
Some viewers mentioned that Summer was curious, and I absolutely agree with that. But I’ll go a step further, both from her behavior and what I know of her history. She wanted to investigate and kill the lizard.
If you’d like to see Summer’s reptile obsession, check out the video “Summer and the Turtle,” where she tries to bite and claw her way through a chain length fence to get a terrapin on the other side. Or this blog post: Summer’s Turtle Diary, which features a video where she digs her way under two fences over the course of several days in order to get to a terrapin on the other side. (Sorry about the terminology mashup. I regularly misuse the word turtle to mean shelled reptiles on land, but technically what I am discussing are terrapins. Turtles are aquatic.)
What I missed in my original examination of the video, but agree absolutely was there, now that others have mentioned it, was resource guarding. When Summer grabs the Styrofoam container and lifts it out and backs up, she is not trying to get away from the reptile. Nor was she doing what a human might do: moving something and backing up to see the results. Upon consideration, I think she pretty clearly believes she has the reptile in the Styrofoam, and is likely trying to get the whole thing away from Clara, the other dog. (If I leave the snake theory aside for a moment, she may even think the Styrofoam-with-reptile-odor-inside is a new and weird type of turtle!)
Many people mentioned the angle of her body with regard to Clara, and the direction of her glance. She thinks she has the prize and is getting it away. She didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom of the container.
Ellen Barry asked in the comments whether my dogs regularly guard things from each other. Oh yeah! They do, but generally at a very low level. It is what I would classify as normal resource guarding, and they work things out without violence. My movie “Resource Guarding in Slow Motion” shows many such interactions between my dogs. In most interactions between those Clara and Summer, Clara keeps or wins the access to the resource. But she knows when to back off. Clara acts like a big lug a lot of the time but her sense of dog social cues is very finely tuned. In the last interaction in the resource guarding movie she wisely allows Summer to keep a toy with only a small but significant glance from Summer, and she generally stays well away when Summer is guarding a reptile or other varmint. I think she knows Summer is willing to go well beyond a dirty look to keep such a thing. Clara, with all her pushy behavior, is actually quite a peaceable dog.
Summer, not so much. Below is an old photo of her giving Cricket a very hard look–while pushing into her space–for coming too close while Summer is after a turtle. This is from the Summer and the Turtle video I mentioned above, at 0:30. See that very dirty look?
Clara can read that type of look very well. So when Summer said, “MY critter,” Clara wisely stayed away. Ironic that she was the one who got the closeup of the lizard. (And she startled too, did you see!) But lucky for the lizard that it was Clara!
Thank you to everyone who viewed and commented on the video. I’m so glad that others are interested in this stuff. Oh, and to Meghan, who noticed Summer’s low tail set in the video. Yes, I noticed that too and it was definitely atypical. Usually Summer’s tail is curled up over her back like a husky’s when she is aroused and going after something. My best theory is that the fear and caution were keeping it down in the lizard interaction.
More comments are welcome! What do you see? What have we missed?
- Body Language Study: Fear and What Else?
- Summer’s Turtle Diary
- Contest Results and the Curse of Knowledge (this post shows many pictures of Summer’s body language)
- Dog Body Language Posts and Videos
Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson