The ‘not sure what to do’ signs are displayed when the dog is in an ambivalent emotional state. It is typically displayed when:
- they are really tempted to do something that they are not allowed to do;
- they do not understand a command, or are unable to carry it out;
- they are about to be handled in a manner they find unpleasant, and there is no escape (some dogs feel that way about grooming); or
- they are in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile situation and they are not sure how to respond to it (like … when you approach them with a big camera!)
The signs are so subtle that most owners do not notice them. If you start observing them, you will uncover a whole list of situations in which you would have sworn your dog felt comfortable.
The signals of ambivalence and unease are:
- tongue flicking;
- ears pointing backwards, or in different directions to each other;
- an quizzical look in the eyes; and/or
- sniffing the ground while looking in a different direction to what they are smelling.
The action patterns I list above are note-worthy when they are used as displacement behaviours, not when they just serve their primary physiological function (e.g. yawning when tired, tongue-flicking when eating, etc.).
Please note also that these signals must be interpreted in the context of other signals. When each is taken in isolation, it may carry a different message (e.g. flattened ears are often a sign of fear; ears pointing in different directions can be a sign of curiosity).
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