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I recently read a comment on one of the ethograms, where the author says that an explanation is missing on what happens before and after the described behavior and for this reason it is not possible to understand the interaction. The writer also affirms that ethograms are nothing more than a collection of videos and definitions that you can easily find searching on the internet.

The video contains a short interaction between two familiar dogs, Kobi and Easy, both Argentine Dogos.  Kobi takes charge and leaps forward with front feet wide open with open mouth display, Easy bows and moves laterally, Kobi hurtles on Easy. Easy moves away and leaps forward with her front feet wide open, Kobi leaps forward with his front feet wide open and with inhibited bite to the leg, Easy moves laterally and shows inhibited bite to the head, Kobi hurtles with inhibited bite to the leg, hugs with open mouth display and Easy falls down.

I spent years filming dogs and months choosing the videos where the behaviors were visible and I described them. I selected, lined and described all the observable behaviors. Before getting to this point, I collected all the issued ethograms of both dog and wolf and I put together all the scientific ambit known dog’s social behaviors. I’m not sure you can easily find all this on the internet, but on one thing the author is correct: I chose intentionally not to explain the interaction.

I chose not to explain the interactions, nor what happened afterwards, because I didn’t want to leave room for subjective interpretation  of what dogs do and say.

If my idea was to explain the interaction, I should have edited all of the videos of all the dogs interactions, and it wouldn’t be enough anyways. I should have showed the previous interactions of the same two dogs and of those two dogs with other dogs or with their owners. You can’t explain someone’s behavior just considering here and now and ignoring the influence of elements such as personality, experiences, relations, physiological circumstances… If  I had even published every video I had, the explanation would be based on my awareness and on my personal construction. My goal with the ethograms is to give anyone  the instruments to see and understand dogs, and is something completely different than an opinion expressed by an expert (real or assumed to be so).

In this video I collected the elements of the whole observation of the two dogs. You can see Kobi approaching the group of people and showing greeting, Easy (pink harness) gets close to Kobi and exhibits a ride up on him. Kobi and Easy are on the lake bank, Kobi gets away and Easy chases him grabbing his tail, hits him with the legs and bears him down. Kobi gets away running and raises up charging Easy with open mouth display trying to hurtle, gets away and Easy grabs him by his neck. Kobi reacts with an agonistic pucker and tries to hurtle leaping high and forward with his front feet wide open. Follows the video we saw in the beginning, used to explain “hurtling”.
We are still talking only about the interaction between the two dogs, there isn’t any analysis, but I based my valuation on these elements, on guesses on the interactions, the dogs personality, their emotions and their motivations. Ethograms are instruments that enable us to see these elements and to use them to understand the relationships, the dog’s personalities, their emotions and motivations. A longer video helps us to understand dogs in a better way, but only understanding every single behavior gives us the key of deep understanding. Minutes or hours of videos won’t give us the solution to the problem “understand” if first we don’t learn to “see”.

Knowing somebody helps us to understand who he is, how he feels, his motivations and the reason for some behaviors in definite contexts. If a girlfriend and I are walking and my girlfriend looks at her cellphone, I can presume that she wants to receive a message from somebody. If I see a stranger that does the same thing, I don’t have enough elements to understand his behavior. The shared common awareness is the key to interpretation.

The ethogram is a different way. We start from behaviors to understand an individual.
The principal of the ethogram is the non-awareness.

My perspective  when I look at a dog is of a person that doesn’t know anything and only through observation and analysis can I extrapolate the elements of awareness and comprehension. I usually don’t ask information about the dog from the owner, I prefer the dog to talk for himself and to tell me how he sees the world.
He who enters the world of ethograms should have the patience and the calmness to say “I don’t know anything and I want to learn to see”

To read a dog is not simple at all. Is not an ability you can pick up in a few days, weeks or even months. In my experience it takes years of study and application. The good news is that anyone can learn and the starting point – or at least my starting point – was being able to see the behaviors and naming them, putting each one in a category and building up pattern after pattern in the wonderful world of the dog that is in front of us. The advantage is that dogs don’t lie, and is not a small thing! Everything we see is real. It’s our turn to open our eyes and mind and start looking.

What is the ethogram useful for?
To understand the fundamentals (expressions, postures, actions) of dog’s social communication, to put those fundamentals in their categories,  (social behaviors, agonistic behaviors, imposing behaviors, stress and fear behaviors), to gain information about the dog, to know and understand the dog.
How to use the ethogram
The described behaviors are like the words of a foreign language. The more words you know, more are the possibilities to understand a dialogue. In the beginning it is normal to recognize only a small amount of behaviors, but with time the observation skill gets better and we get faster and more secure with the analysis.

The Series "Ethogram of the dog"

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Text and Video by Alexa Capra

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