Ask me about my childhood dog Brandy, and I hope you have at least an hour to spare. The story of how she came into my life (told here) is entertaining enough (and to hold your attention, I would play up the parts about the mother-daughter conflict that preceded visiting the shelter, as well as the black adolescent Lab who did not become the Chosen One probably because of the massive amount of urine he shared with my pants). You would learn that Brandy, the Chihuahua Dachshund (we think), was happy-go-lucky, beloved around the neighborhood, and without the yappiness so commonly associated with small dogs. You would see my eyes well up just a tad as I describe how her back legs gave out for a short while due to a bad back, and how I was lucky enough to spend her final week by her side before her kidneys suddenly gave out.

But ask me specific questions about her actual behavior, and I find myself slowing down. Some things are easy to recall, like her famous jump-spins when running around the backyard. And of course there were the rare occasions when she would sound-off and bark at another small dog at the end of another leash. And who can forget how she would roll on her back when the two neighborhood Basset Hounds came by, and then they would all run around in circles.

I could go on and on about Brandy, but across the board, the details are missing: Were her ears back or forward as she lunged toward other small dogs? Was her tail high and stiff or high and wagging? Was she prone to tongue flicking or lip licking?

When I think back about Brandy, I find that her actual behaviors are lost on me, a combination of time having passed and memories having faded. But if I am to be a bit more honest, it’s really that I never noticed her actual behaviors in the first place. I loved her, and everything about her, and that was the beginning and end of the story, at least according to me. Looking back, I realize I didn’t exactly know what the story was for her.

~ ~ ~

Fast forward 10 years. Brandy is long gone, and I am now a PhD student in Animal Behavior preoccupied with the actual behavior of animals. A good portion of my mental energy is spent defining, observing, and attending to dog behavior (the remainder of my mental energy is devoted to funny dog and cat videos, action movies, trying to remember grammar rules, and friends and family).

To study animal behavior is to focus on the doings of animals and then ask specific questions about what the behaviors mean. We might ask questions about how a behavior is performed, the triggers for a behavior, how the behavior enhances an animals’ survival, or how the behavior develops during an animal’s lifetime.

An animal behavior researcher might work in the desert, the tropics, a lab or even your living room. Their observations are equally varied: a researcher might investigate the evolution of vocalization behaviors in tropical frogs in Panama or how male spotted hyenas cope when they leave their group early in life to disperse into the unknown (volunteer research opportunities in both areas are listed on the Animal Behavior Society website). An applied animal behavior researcher might explore what the ‘tail up’ behavior means for cats. As for the last one, studies find it is generally associated with greeting behavior, as it is typically performed at the beginning of a positive interaction (read more from Cat Sense author, John Bradshaw, @petsandus)

You can’t Observe Behavior without enlisting help from its best friend, Defining Behavior. Definitions create a common language and shared meaning. They allow others to observe behaviors and make similar observations. For example, ‘lip licking’ has been defined as, “part of tongue is shown and moved along the upper lip.” With this definition, lip licking cannot be confused with say, a tongue simply hanging out of the mouth as dog tongues are also known to do. Equipped with a definition, you and I should be able to observe a dog and agree when a lip lick has occured.

Like the gym, Crunch, definitions are all about No Judgments. The definition of lip licking does not include inferred, interpreted or subjective language. Terms like "stress," “calming signals,” and "anxiety" are not part of the behavioral definition of lip licking because they don't assist in observing the presence or absence of actual behavior. While lip licking can certainly be explored in relation to stress or anxiety, the behavior itself should not be defined in those terms.

Observe That Behavior

If observing behavior seems like a serious matter, I have seriously messed up the tone of this post. Observing behavior is not just for animal behavior researchers setting their sights on a peer reviewed publication. It is for anyone who lives with an animal, and it has real applications for companion animals, their welfare, and their human companions.

A recent study by Simmona Cannas and colleagues published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior investigated whether the antidepressant clomipramine (Clomicalm) would improve the well-being of dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is not a walk in the park for dogs or their owners. It is commonly associated with dogs displaying anxiety-related behaviors when left alone, including “freezing, pacing, panting, restlessness, trembling, or body language compatible with anxiety (ears pulled back, repeated lip licking, repeated yawning, raised forepaw)…” Separation anxiety could also be marked by dogs eliminating, salivating, or being destructive in the home. It is hard on owners, and it is also clearly hard on dogs.

Many studies of anxiety-reducing techniques tend to assess improvement by relying on owner report, typically by way of questionnaires. Cannas and colleagues, by contrast, wanted to look at dogs’ actual behavior in the home. The researchers installed video cameras and monitored the dogs’ behavior when home alone prior to treatment and after one and two weeks on the medication. Dogs on clomipramine showed a decrease in separation anxiety-related behaviors including barking, whining, panting and locomotion (defined as walking or running around without exploring the environment, i.e., pacing). Dogs also showed an increase in desirable home-alone behaviors like resting and sleeping. Not all behaviors changed after treatment, and there was not a decrease in yawning or front-paw lifting, although they had been displayed at relatively low frequencies even prior to treatment. Lip licking also did not decrease after treatment, but even before treatment, there was notable variation in dog presentation of lip licking. Defining and observing behavior is like getting on the dog's level. With these techniques, we get a much better sense of what the experience is like for the dog himself.

Observing Behavior: Not Rocket Science, Really

While I would hope I’d get a bit more than six months of training to go up into space a la Sandra Bullock's character in Gravity, I can assure you, learning to observe animal behavior is far less complicated. Get started learning the basics, and keep on observing! To get started:

Join Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell (Facebook) in observing dog behavior. She provides excellent tips for budding ethologists and explains how to examine dog behavior using a short video clip as an example. Do you see what she sees? Read and watch here: Observations and Interpretations – Video Analysis.

Observing animal behavior is now easily brought into the classroom via EthoSearch, put together by the Lincoln Park Zoo (@lincolnparkzoo), and my other favorite resource, Living Links Measuring Behavior (@rzsslivinglinks).

~ ~ ~

If I could go back in time and spend a few more moments in my younger shoes, I know I would choose a day where Brandy was nearby. I’d spend a few extra minutes just looking at Brandy, really looking at what she was doing.


Photo: Flickr creative commons: Jessie the Dog by JackPeasePhotography

Referenced and Recommended Reading

Cannas S., Michela Minero, Alessandro Aspesi, Riccardo Benedetti & Clara Palestrini (2014). Video analysis of dogs suffering from anxiety when left home alone and treated with clomipramine, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2) 50-57. DOI:

Hecht, J. 2012. Rockstars, Ethograms and Behavior (Problems). Do You Believe in Dog? Blog

Horowitz, A. 2014. On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. Simon and Shuster

Jacobs, D. 2009. Behavioral Medications For Fearful Dogs. Fearful Dog's Blog

McConnell. P. 2012. Observations and Interpretations – Video Analysis. The Other End of the Leash Blog