Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior

Behavior is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Behavior does not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to control a stimulus. Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time, a particularly advantageous behavior spreads throughout the population. The disposition (genotype) to display a behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires maturation and/or reinforcement for the organism to be able to apply it successfully. Behavior is, thus, the product of a combination of innate dispositions and environmental factors. Some behaviors require little conditioning from the environment for the animal to display it while other behaviors requires more.


Canine Ethogram Social Agonistic Photos

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are therefore only approximate and as pictures allow.


An organism can forget a behavior if it does not have the opportunity to display it for a period of a certain length, or the behavior can be extinguished if it is not reinforced for a period.

Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from maximization of utility and towards maximization of fitness.

Social behavior is behavior involving more than one individual with the primary function of establishing, maintaining, or changing a relationship between individuals, or in a group (society).

Most researchers define social behavior as the behavior shown by members of the same species in a given interaction. This excludes behavior such as predation, which involves members of different species. On the other hand, it seems to allow for the inclusion of everything else such as communication behavior, parental behavior, sexual behavior, and even agonistic behavior.

Sociologists insist that behavior is an activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to social behavior, which has both. However, this definition does not help us much because all above mentioned behaviors do have a social meaning and a context unless ‘social’ means ‘involving the whole group’ (society) or ‘a number of its members.’ In that case, we should ask how many individuals are needed in an interaction to classify it as social. Are three enough? If so, then sexual behavior is not social behavior when practiced by two individuals, but becomes social when three or more are involved, which is not unusual in some species. We can use the same line of arguing for communication behavior, parental behavior, and agonistic behavior. It involves more than one individual and it affects the group (society), the smallest possible consisting of two individuals.

Agonistic behavior includes all forms of intraspecific behavior related to aggression, fear, threat, fight or flight, or interspecific when competing for resources. It explicitly includes behaviors such as dominant behavior, submissive behavior, flight, pacifying, and conciliation, which are functionally and physiologically interrelated with aggressive behavior, yet fall outside the narrow definition of aggressive behavior. It excludes predatory behavior.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, which caused the least disadvantages.

Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat.

Submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival.

Aliens are two or more animals that do not live close together and do not depend on one another for survival.

A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

Canine Ethogram

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are, therefore, only approximate and as pictures allow.


The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors.

As always, have a great day!


PS—I apologize if by chance I’ve used one of your pictures without giving you due credit. If this is the case, please e-mail me your name and picture info and I’ll rectify that right away.



23 comments on “Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior

    • Hi dogueshop,

      I would love to know more about the your research. Where are you conducting it and with which species? Have you published some of your results?Do you have your own pictures of dog body language?
      Hope you don’t mind answering to all my questions!… 🙂

      • Hi Raquel,

        I am studying feral dog (not village dogs) social signals towards unfamiliar humans. My hypothesis was (it has since changed) that feral dogs displayed social signals to unfamiliar humans in the same way “urban” dogs exhibit social signals towards unfamiliar humans.

        Following Ray Coppinger’s advice and help, I have concentrated my efforts in Central-America and the Caribbean. The reason was that it is much easier to determine if the dogs are 100% feral or not.

        I have not yet published as I have not finished collecting data. I am comparing feral dog social behaviours towards unfamiliar humans to socialised wolf social signals towards unfamiliar people. We have a very small socialised wolf population (I’m in Quebec – Canada) but need another group, thus, am planing my second trip to Wolf Park this august.

        I do have my own pictures, but most of my documentation is video because it’s easier to see signals in slow motion.

  1. Great post. I have two carolina dogs and one CD mix. The Ethogram contained some subtletys that I have missed in their dominance displays. It would be interesting to know how behavior around comings and goings and sleeping and sitting spots works. Also one dog ‘herding’ the other. All major points of conflicts for us. They evidently have some sort of map.

  2. As always Roger, a good read with lots to learn. I have some questions from the chart: When you say ‘showing belly and throat’, do you mean lifting up the chin high up with the nose pointing up? Does this apply when I lift my chin up high and show my throat to the dog (since dogs have been able to understand when we make champing noises or lick our lips)?
    Thanks for helping me understand my dog better!

  3. Hi Vei Li,

    No, the behavior you describe is a different one. The one I described is the generally called “passive submissive behavior” (down on the back offering belly and throat for inspection). However, the two are related, the former coming often before the latter.

    Enjoy your day,


    • What are you looking for as I have over 20G of pictures and videos 😉 Should I refer to the Canine Ethogram above or are you looking for different behaviours?
      Gaby Dufresne-Cyr

  4. Hi Roger
    I’m curious to know exactly where you would place the “submissive grin” in this ethogram. I’ve heard different interpretations and it is not clear to me. For example, I’ve heard that some dogs exhibit this behaviour during greeting (people say the dog is smiling). Are we talking about the same behaviour? Do wolfs also use it in greeting? And why only some dogs exhibit this behaviour in greeting (personally I have never owned a dog that would exhibit it).
    Thank you,
    Raquel Matos

  5. Hi Raquel,

    I presume that the ‘submissive grin’ and the ‘smile’ are the same. If it is, I would place it as a 7-8. It is a peculiar behavior with strong genetic roots (it runs in some breeds and families). If you have a picture that you’d like ti share, I’d appreciate that.



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  8. Just found this blog. Great article, though I like the chart better than the text. I keep Labbies and will not breed from a dog that isn’t firmly in the Friendly category . . . nor would any proper retriever person. You don’t want dogs working out social hierarchy when they’re supposed to be working on something else. There is a middle ground between dominant and submissive, and in my very biased opinion, it’s a good place to be.

  9. p.s. not to imply that behaviour is all hereditary. But the right genes sure help. Some dogs naturally gravitate to the blessed neutral ground. With others, it takes an effort to get them there. Breed doesn’t predict perfectly, but breed sure helps establish the (italics) a priori (end italics) probabilities that a dog will fit into one or another categories.
    Much appreciated your note, in the Thai Riki-Tiki-Tavi post, that Thai dogs are selected for being friendly. Makes me wonder if, centuries back, the proto retrievers, who were also fishermen’s dogs, albiet in a very different world, had strong selection for affability with both humans and other dogs.

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