What Do We Really Know? Observation and Interpretation with Our Animal Friends

by | Mar 13, 2020 | Uncategorized, Animal training, Animal Behavior, Human-animal bond, Animal welfare

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Most of us who live with animals love them. We also think that we know them quite well. Do we really? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in what we are seeing, perceiving, and interpreting. We often draw conclusions about how our animals are feeling or what they are thinking. Sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong. The scads of videos of “guilty dogs” on social media don’t really have it right. Most of the dogs in these videos are more likely to be anxious and stressed, responding to their humans’ tone of voice rather than experiencing actual guilt. This blog discusses ways in which we can be clearer about what our animals are experiencing and notes how there are different degrees of certainty about our conclusions.

Before going on, let’s take a look at the cover photo for this blog. What do you think is going on with these goats? Is this a photo of goats trying to establish dominance over each other? Goats having a fight? Playing? Doing what goats often do – butt things with their heads and horns? If we have had the opportunity to observe goats over time and in different situations, we are more likely to select playing and butting heads rather than fighting or establishing dominance. If we have read accurate materials about goats, we might know that “dominance” is not really something they must establish. They are a social species and need to get along with others with whom they live. Just like dogs and horses, goats avoid conflict rather than seek to create it. Dominance is an outdated and inaccurate concept the way it is often used in popular media.

If you had been with me when I took this photo (thanks to friend and colleague Amanda Wolfe in Alaska), you’d see that they were moving fairly slowly, their bodies were relaxed, their ears were out to the sides and relaxed, hackles were not raised. They raised up and butted heads a couple times, with their bodies remaining loose and relaxed. They stopped as quickly as they started and moved off together for some browsing on nearby vegetation.

So how do we know what is going on with any given behaviors?

Ethology and Body Language

There are two fields of study that are particularly useful for our understanding of animals, and we can learn and apply what we have learned from them with our family companions. Ethology is the study of the natural behavior of animals, and in their natural habitats as much as possible. It entails careful observation, patience, and unobtrusiveness, along with careful recording of what is observed. Ethological studies have given us vast amounts of information about the species around us. Ethologists note what they actually see, hear, or smell–information that comes directly into their senses–and they avoid interpretations which involve less certainty and more hypothesizing. We will get back to these distinctions shortly.

There are different types of ethology, and different types of behavioral and cognitive study of animals, but that takes us beyond the purpose of this blog. If you live and work with horses, you might be familiar with the work of Dr. Marthe Kiley-Worthington (e.g., 2005, Horse Watch: What It Takes to Be Equine, London: J.A. Allen) or Dr. Lucy Rees (e.g., 2017, Horses in Company, London: J.A. Allen).

Well-known ethologists, authors, and educators like Dr. Patricia McConnell (dogs+), Dr. Marc Bekoff (dogs+), and Dr. Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), among many others, have enlarged our understanding of various species, and will continue to do so. When first encountering a species about which we know little, seeking out ethological work can be illuminating. Focusing on lots and lots of observation without interpretation is needed.

One of the more specific areas to which ethology as well as other careful observations have contributed is that of animal body language–animal communications. There is a large body of work on canine and feline body language (Carol Byrnes’s CDs, What Is My Dog Saying? and What Is My Cat Saying?; Turid Rugaas’s On Talking Terms with Dogs book; and Risë VanFleet’s online course, Canine Communication, and many more), and a smaller but growing body of materials on equine body language (e.g., Rachaël Draaisma’s  Language Signs & Calming Signals of Horses).










In our Animal Assisted Play Therapy® courses, we teach a particular process for understanding our animal companions and work partners better. After learning the basics about the species, we observe all the time, noting what we see with individual body parts, and then the whole body (the combined body parts of the whole animal). We train ourselves to pay attention at all times to such things as eyes, ear positions, furrowed or smooth brows, open or closed mouths, stance, musculature/tenseness, look aways, head turns, body positioning, moving away or toward, whiskers, licking, chewing, tail position and movement, hackles, leaning, proprioception, energy levels, stillness, and much, much more. A single stress signal should get our attention, and then we pay attention to the whole body to see if there are others present. Observation is a skill that is useful for all who live with animals to develop. The more we train ourselves to pay attention, the more we begin to see. This is important because animals can’t speak to us, and this is their way of communicating. Sometimes their communications are subtle, perhaps a gift of their species’ evolution. If they show signs of fear or illness or weakness, they might not survive in the natural world.

Observations of Behavior

I recently asked members of my Building Strong Relationships with Animal Companions  facebook group  (click here) to provide a list of terms they often hear that do not convey sufficient information. For example, we might say that a dog is aggressive, or a horse is skittish, but what does this really mean? These are labels or interpretations, but if no other information is given, we don’t have a very good idea of what has happened or what it might mean to the animal. The group came up with an impressive list, just some of which are listed here in no particular order: anxious, fearful, shy, reactive, stressed, socialized, submissive, guilty, protective, territorial, agitated, abused, stubborn, disobedient, spiteful, high drive, appeasing, overly aroused, mean, biting or mouthing, mugging, frustrated, friendly, playful, defensive, and many, many more. If you hadn’t yet met an animal (or a person for that matter!), and any of these terms were used to describe them, would you have much of an idea of what was actually going on with the animal? And even more, would any two people actually agree on the picture that formed in their minds of the animal so described? The answer is probably not. The reason is that these are all labels and interpretations of behaviors that someone has seen. I have written an article about the pitfalls of labeling, available here. While labels can be useful as a shorthand form of communication, both parties must have a shared understanding of what is being described, and if that is not available, it is important to ask the key question, “What are you actually seeing or hearing that gives you the impression that your horse is agitated or your dog is reactive?” This question will help define more observable behaviors that have gone into that assessment.

It seems a normal human process to also think in terms of interpretations or labels. This means that we have impressions of what is going on with our animals, but they could be wildly inaccurate if we don’t first observe how the animal is actually behaving. This is not only important in terms of understanding behavior problems or frustrations, but also when reporting on our animals’ behavior to our veterinarians and veterinary techs/nurses. “My cat is acting sick.” gets replaced by “My cat has stopped eating for 2 days, and I have not seen her drink any water. She stays in a hunched position for 90 per cent of the time she is awake, and she does not purr or rub against me when I pet her as she usually does. When I tried to pick her up today and touched her belly, she reached out a paw with claws extended and swiped at my hand. She has never in her life done that before.” I think you can see how much more useful the second version would be for the vet.

As we learn the body language and pay closer attention to our animals’ behavior, it is important to first look at these specific, observable aspects while avoiding interpretations. (We’ll get back to interpretations in a moment, as they do have a place). Let’s look at an example together. Take a look at the following picture of a horse. Even though an interpretation might come to mind, try to put that aside and think only about what you can see. What is the stance like? What is he doing with his ears, tail, mouth, etc.? What about his nostrils and lips? What about his musculature and its smoothness or tension? Where is he looking? What does he have? (Of course still pictures do limit our observations, but they are a good place to practice first before going on to videos.).

One person who saw this photo commented that he was “being naughty.” Another person might say he is being “playful” or “curious.” These are interpretations of what they are seeing. We will come back to talk more about this photo in a moment, but the first step is to avoid interpretations and describe what you actually can see with your eyes.

Here’s another one to look at and describe what you actually see:

While we might immediately have the impression that this dog is uncertain, let’s back up for a moment and describe what we see. It might be useful to write them down. If you have said or written something like the following, you are on the right track.

Description of the dog in the photo: He is standing on a pile of loose dirt (it’s not packed down) apparently at the edge where there is a greater downward slope right past his feet. The toes on his left front foot are splayed. His tail is extended out horizontally to the ground (neither up over his back nor pointing straight down). His ears are drawn back and down. There appears to be a furrow on his forehead. He is looking down, and his eye appears to be in a triangular shape, and there’s a little ridge (the light colored “puff”) above it. The muscles in his back right leg are tight and the outline of them can be seen. His mouth is closed.

Thus far I have covered the first two steps of understanding animals better: (1) using what we have learned about a species to notice each specific body part and what it is doing, and (2) putting together what we have seen from the whole body. The observations are something we can be quite sure of — we’ve seen them with our own eyes, heard them with our own ears, smelled them with our own noses, and so on. They are more objective, less influenced by our own subjective biases, although not entirely free of those. I’ll also note that it is much more difficult to observe clearly when animals are moving, which they often are doing, and that is why it can be useful to start out looking at photos. Once one feels confident about those observations, the next step might involve practice observations when watching videos. Observing live animals is the final stage of skill development since it requires very fast observations in many cases.

Once we have these observations, which might occur in a matter of seconds in real-life situations, we can begin to think about interpretations.

Interpretations of Behavior

Interpretations usually seek to understand and describe what the animal’s subjective experience of a situation might be. With the horse example above, suggesting that the horse is naughty or curious would be an interpretation. With just the single photo, we could probably read a number of interpretations or explanations into the horse. We could also end up with quite a few different interpretations in the absence of any other information. When information is sparse, however, we are much more likely to be inaccurate in our conclusions.

Interpreting behavior has one major requirement: context. Context refers to the circumstances or conditions under which a behavior or set of behaviors is occurring. It refers to the environment, in its totality, surrounding the animal and behavior of interest. What happened right before the behavior? What was going on in the environment – a truck backfiring outside the office, an unfamiliar person arriving, the doorbell, a child client with poor hygiene and interesting odors. In behaviorism terms, this is part of the antecedent or establishing conditions. This can also include the animal’s history in similar contexts. If every time humans have approached a horse they have required work that is unpleasant for the horse, it is a context that might lead the horse to walk away whenever humans approach. The context gives us more information about the behavior we are seeing.

In our Child-Centered Play Therapy book (VanFleet, Sywulak, & Sniscak, 2010. NY: Guilford), we devote a large section to interpretation of children’s play during nondirective play therapy sessions. Context is important there, too. We cover the many different contexts with which to consider play themes. These include development, problem-solving, mastery, family, historical, cultural, emotional tone, and community. They offer a glimpse into the life of the child from multiple points of view. The same approach works very well when interpreting animal behavior in various contexts.


Context: In the horse photo above, an Animal Assisted Play Therapy® training group had spent time the prior day interacting with the horse in quiet, relaxed ways, asking for his consent. They scratched for a few seconds and then stopped to see if he showed any body language that suggested they continue – standing still, moving closer, nudging with his nose. They scratched in different locations and with different pressures, listening carefully to what he communicated about his preferences. They also ended the prior day’s interaction by giving him a few carrots. On the second day, he approached them more quickly, and showed visible signs of more relaxation when interacting with the group. The gray box went with an activity during which the humans dressed themselves up in costumes. He watched them pull out and don costumes, stayed with them, and put his nose into the box several times, snorting as he sniffed the costumes. When the group finished dressing up, they moved aside to discuss the second part of the activity. He remained with them, but their attentions were on their discussion. He then picked up the box and began rocking it back and forth in his mouth. The group laughed and approached him again. When they turned their attention away from him again, he picked it up and tossed it around some more.

This is an observation of the context surrounding this behavior. It does not include an interpretation yet. What do you think this behavior was all about (interpretation) now that you know the context of it? What function might it serve for him? Interpretations might include that he was curious at the point he was sniffing and snorting, as well as when he was lifting and bouncing it around. When he repeated the behavior it is possible that he was seeking more of the attention he had just received from the group before they turned away from him. With even more context, we might come up with another interpretation or two. The important thing to keep in mind is that we must have the context in order to interpret, and the fuller our knowledge of that, the more we can have confidence in our interpretations. Even so, interpretations are never as certain as observations.

In the dog photo above, we already identified the observations of body signals. How do we interpret what we are seeing? The context includes the fact that he went up onto the pile himself. The pile of dirt is pretty high, and the dirt appears to be loose. This was the first time he had ever run up onto something like this. He stayed in the position of the photograph for about 10 seconds, moved a bit, stopped, moved a bit more and stopped and looked out at the farm next door. His body language softened at that point, but then, after less than a minute, he came down. That is not context that the still photo provides, but I was there and was observing carefully to see if he needed assistance or not. He did not. 

My own interpretation is that he was feeling a little insecure up there, perhaps unsure of what to expect. With the way his toes are splayed and the looseness of the dirt, I believe the dirt gave way underfoot just a little. That could have been disconcerting for him. He was uncomfortable, which is my interpretation of the mild stress signals he is showing. He was not horribly stressed because he moved into a couple different positions and then began to look out beyond what was underfoot to what he could see. He was comfortable coming down when he had had enough. In a nutshell, I think he was feeling uncertain, but was handling this novel situation well. He just needed some time to sort it out for himself. All of this paragraph is an interpretation. I am not 100% sure of it, but since I know this dog’s behavior in new situations really well, and know his typical reactions, coupled with the body language and changes on this day, I am fairly sure that this would be an accurate assessment.

Interpretation as Hypothesis

It is important to remember that interpretations are not clearcut, definitive explanations. They offer possible explanations or understandings, but we can never be fully certain of them. We can borrow another concept from child-centered play therapy in which we look at multiple possible interpretations as hypotheses. It is important to avoid locking onto a single interpretation, especially in the absence of data. Learning to accept the unknown and to have patience helps us to continue our observations until clearer patterns of behavior emerge. It is critical to temper our seductive human interpretations (often anthropomorphisms) in order to keep our focus on what the behaviors mean for the animal. It is the animal’s experience and perceptions that matter.

To ensure more accurate understanding of our observations, it is valuable to explore several alternative explanations of the behavior (perhaps depending on the information offered by the different contexts), reserving firmer conclusions until clearer patterns emerge to confirm one or more of these “working hypotheses.”

Some readers might question why we need to interpret at all. There are different theoretical orientations–different lenses–with which one can try to understand animal behavior. Some eschew interpretation entirely and focus heavily on the behavior itself and how it responds to the environment (including antecedents and consequences). Others look at the cognitive and emotional capacities of animals and how they influence or are influenced by outward behavior. For our purposes, especially in therapy work and with our animal companions, we think interpretation has a place. Humans tend to use interpretations to explain what they see. We interpret ourselves, other humans, and the animals around us. Using a more systematic approach to interpretation while deliberately avoiding definitive conclusions can likely lead to more accurate understandings of the animals themselves than if we allow our own perspectives and biases to dictate our beliefs.

If you attend any of our Animal Assisted Play Therapy® hands-on courses, you’ll get to see this distinction in action, and how we are very careful about developing a clearer understanding of the animals. We frequently hear participants start out with lots of interpretations, and we keep asking them that all-important question, “What do you see or hear that gives you that impression?” Only after we have excellent observations do we indulge in some interpretation and hypothesis-testing about what the animals are feeling, communicating, or perceiving.

The value in this approach, ultimately, is that we hear our animals better. We see them more clearly. We understand who they are more fully. And if we are attuning to them on their own terms, we are likely to make better decisions with their needs in mind and have better, more reciprocal relationships with them.

*Animal Assisted Play Therapy is a trademark of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc. and its International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®.

The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® offers online and live training courses for those interested in the many aspects of involving animals in a voluntary and reciprocal way in their mental health, allied health, and education services. www.iiaapt.org



Author: Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC (licensed psychologist, registered play therapist/supervisor, certified dog behavior consultant), co-creator with Tracie Faa-Thompson of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® is shown here with three of her dogs, Josie Patches, Murrie, and Kirrie.




Article and photos © 2020, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, www.iiaapt.org. All rights reserved.