Not sure what to do

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;
  • yawning;
  • 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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Last updated April 2010