Semiotics 1: dog-related signs in a semi-gentrified neighborhood

This blog post is about the analysis of various dog-related signs in a small Finnish suburb, in particular on their semiotic structure i.e. how they convey meaning. It is largely motivated by two papers by Laihonen and Halonen & Laihonen about various dog signs, but it also serves as a sort of study diary of my reading of Scollons' Discources in place. Our aim is to have this post to be the first of many (or at least of a few) and this first one is our analysis of the dog signs before reading Scollon&Scollon beyond the introduction. We hope to write to write a commentary on how this blog post looks after finishing the book, and maybe a secondary one after reading Kress and van Leeuwen. In particular, this text should not be considered at all authorative as this is mostly a record of an amateur trying to learn the topic.

Furthermore, this writing does not aim to be a scientific text in style, and for any reader more interested in the linguistical and scientific context we strongly recommend reading the two papers mentioned above - perhaps starting with Halonen & Laihonen as it discusses dog signs in a similar setting as this blog post.

For a reader less familiar with semiotics, this should be quite readable throughout. For the sake of terminology we include in the next subsection some vocabulary we use, and the semiotics-savy reader should feel free to skip it.

Background of semiotics

We won't go full run in to the full blown terminiologies of signifiers, signifiers, representamen etc, but instead generally talk about signs that signify (or stand for) other things. For some basic terminology we recall the following:

  • A sign is anything thing that stands for another thing. In semiotics this can be a word, a picture, footprints on snow, or basically anything we observe. For us a sign will mostly be a dog sign. In some contexts the physical form of the sign is called a sign vehicle or a signifier to separate the whole socio-linguistical concept of a sign from an specific instance, but in this text we'll use loose expressions.

  • Signs are often described with three major flavors that are usually all present in any given sign in various degrees:

    • An icon is a sign that tries to be similar to the thing it is signinfying. For example "beware of the dog" signs are often mostly iconic in this sense by having an image of a (generic) dog in them.
    • A symbol is a sign that has no outward resemblance to the thing it stands for, but instead is something you have to learn. The classical example here is a traffic light's green for "go" and red for "stop".
    • An index is a sign that points to a concept by direct locational or causal mechanisms. In a map a "you are here" dot would be mostly indexical, like the whole map itself as well. Indexicality is critical for our dog signs, since these signs usually want to forbid dog actions only in a particular place or area, and thus their placement in the world is a considerable part of what they try to signify.

For a more thourough basics of semiotics, we recommend Chandler.

Geographical background

As in the papers of Laihonen and Halonen & Laihonen, we are mostly interested in how the dog signs we find reflect the local culture. The suburb we are interested in is a neighbourhood of about 3 thousand residents within the city of Espoo in Finland and is going through (or is finishing the process of) gentrification. There are some farms and fields still present, but next to these we find very new and expensive high tech homes. The buildings in the suburb are largely row houses and town houses, though there are also a few larger apartment buildings.

There are a few public parks, a school and a few stores, all within walking distance. Based on personal observations, dogs are common pets here.

The baseline of beware of the dog signs

To set the scene of Finnish dog-related signs in general, below we have an example of an "no dogs" -sign from another suburb called Niittykumpu, also in Espoo. We feel this to be a quite representative example of a Finnish "no dogs allowed" -style of sign. For more examples, we recommend the reader to study the work of Halonen and Laihonen.

A generic no dogs -sign

The two major visual components in the sign are naturally the black silhouette of a dog and the bright red "circle backslash" sign 🚫 that is often called the "no-sign". The no-sign is in our eyes very much a symbol as the red circle with a backslash does not resemble the abstract concept of "no" or "forbidden".1 Though in modern (western) society this usage is so prevalent that it might be hard to notice that this is a meaning that needs to be learned and not an inherent meaning of the sign - the following image is from a book called "young mother's guide" from the 1930s, and the caption finishes with the sentence "The cross means that this is not an acceptable way.". The fact that the author found such an explanation warranted implies to us that such "crossing out" of an icon is indeed symbolic and not iconic, at least in this context.

Criss cross explanation

Going back to the dog sign above, the black silhouette of a dog, on the other hand, is a direct icon of a dog. Note that it is generally quite passive in stance; it has no visible eyes nor does it seem to have any sort of attention towards the viewer. The breed of the dog is perhaps some kind of terrier - we again refer to Halonen and Laihonen on a more through discussion for the selection of an iconic dog to depict all dogs. We also note that the dog has a collar; this sign then does not target wild dogs (a very rare thing in Finland) but pet dogs under active control of their owners.

The sign is quite small and stands inside the dirt area of a bush. So the natural interpretation here for us is that it is the bush/greenery from which the dogs are barred from. We also note that the sign is built at least semi-industrially from high quality materials, and is reasonably new. Sitting in the yard of a large apartment building complex, this feels more of a top-down communication from the apartment complex to the population at large.2

This will be one baseline to compare our dataset of dog signs to.

Various exhibits

From the neighborhood under study we were able to find 12 dog signs. Our perusal of the area has been extensive but not systematic or exhaustive. Two of them were so deep within a personal property that we thought it unpolite to photograph them, so they will be only described and not shown directly. All the other images here are photographed by the author in public spaces.

We will go through all of the signs we discovered. There are various ways in which we could classify the signs into different groups, and here we've settled for the major division of

  1. Classical "no dogs" signs.
  2. "No urination or defecation here" signs.
  3. Other signs.

The classes 1 and 2 were also classes studied by Halonen & Laihonen in Jyväskylä. We note that for the suburb we study, the "No urination or defecation" class of signs is very dominant. We feel that this is due to the facts that on the one hand there are quite few limited public spaces where dogs could be ruled out from, and on the other hand that we are not in an agrarian neighbourhood where the dogs would function as guard animals. So there is less need to bar entrance to dogs or warn people of free-roaming potentially dangerous animals.

Halonen and Laihonen discussed the class of "no dog excrements" from the context of "potential impurity and dirt". We again refer to their work for more detailed description of this context, but note that with the signs we observed we feel that the question is less of the impurity and behaviour of the dog, and more about reminding the owner about their excrement-responsibilities.

Classical no dogs signs

This is the class that Halonen & Laihonen describe as "restricting the being of dogs". In all of the suburb, we've only found a single sign that is a direct "no dogs allowed" -sign. It is very similar to the generic sign we showed earlier, though the one here is a bit more active. In the local sign the dog icon has its mouth open and ears pointing forward, suggesting attention and perhaps barking.

Direct no dogs sign.

The sign is right next to a gate in a fence that goes to the yard of a house, and we see that it has been slightly painted over. So this sign might have been here for a while. Indeed, looking through Google Maps streetview data we note that the sign has appeared here between October 2009 and September 2011, so it has been there for more than a decade. It is not clear if this sign is something that the current owners wish to enforce, or if it is something that has been left by previous owners and they have simply not taken it down. (In particular if it has been painted over, the removal of the sign might require repainting of the whole fence.)

Though we said that we could find only one direct "no dogs allowed" sign, there was another where "no dogs" was mentioned. The following picture is from the gates of a local childrens' public playground that, among other things, forbids dogs and smoking. We emphasize that in this sign the forbidding of dogs is merely one of many things that are being communicated, and it seems to have a low priority since it has been located at the very bottom of the page with the "no smoking" sign.

Playground no dogs mentioned

This sign is an official sign of the city of Espoo and thus goes to some sort of extreme in the grayness of bureaucracy. The dog is simply an outline of the silhouette of a generic and passive dog with red "X" on top of it. Note that this is the only sign here where the dog is clearly facing left, thus increasing the passiveness of the sign. It is borderline minimalistic, and all business. We feel that this sign is, in a sense, an outlier of our dataset as it has been selected and installed by the city of Espoo instead of a local actor. It thus doesn't reflect the sociocultural landscape of this particular suburb, but that of the very much larger area of the whole of Espoo.

No defecation or urination signs

The dominant class of signs we have observed are there to remind people to control the urination and clean after the defecation of their dogs. Halonen & Laihonen mention that such signs are often similar to "no dogs allowed" signs with an addition that signifies either defecation or urination. However, in the examples we'll see here the whole stance of the dog is usually different and thus helps to emphasize that it is not the whole dog but the excrement that we wish to limit.

There are quite strong cultural norms in Finland to collect after your dog, especially outside of forests, but it is not so rare for people to allow their dogs to urinate on fences or other vertical surfaces next to streets. This can cause discoloration, smell or other damage to these surfaces in the long run, even if a single event seems quite harmless. We feel that this aspect of "dogs often urinate on vertical surfaces" slightly alters how we should interpret the placement of these signs. Often fences and gates symbolize (and function as) boundaries between spaces, and a "no dogs allowed" sign placed on a fence tends to mean that it is from within the fenced area that dogs are barred from. But in this setting a "no dog urination" sign on a fence does not mean that the fence is a barrier that limits the effect of the sign to within, but instead a generic vertical surface that the owner wants to protect from dog urine.

The meaning of the signs below does not mean, naturally, that the dogs should not urinate or defacate at all, but rather that they either should not do it right here, or that any effects should be removed. It is very hard for a dog walker to clean up dog urine from the environment, so the "clean up" factor is more focused to defacation, while the "not right here" factor might be more targeted on the urination part.

We've further divided the no excrement signs we've discovered based on their visual style, though other divisions would also be very suitable, e.g. based on a urination-defecation split or on the presense of red cross-outs and the like.

Note that out of the six signs here, five are clearly facing right, which tends to signify a more active party in Western language semiotics. The only exception is not facing obviously left but sort of "left and away from the wiever", making the stand less obvious in its meaning.

Simple silhouettes of relief

The following sign was attached to a fence and depicts another combination of a symbolic red line over an icon of a dog silhouette. We note that the dog's eyes are depicted this time and it has its mouth open and ears pointing forwards, creating a much more active image. Very notably this sign not only has a collar on the dog, but it is also on a leash. So the dog here is very clearly being walked by someone, and we feel that this emphasizes that this sign is very much targeted for the dog-walker who, by the leash, are in control of the dog and thus of the urination. We also note that as this sign is attached on a fence, thus indexing that it is this fence that should not be urinated upon.

Square alert dog peeing

The next sign consists of a more traffic-sign like "no"-symbol on top of a silhouette of a dog in the act of defacating. We again have the eyes of the dog included in the silhouette, and the dog has a very familiar crouching pose that might itself be enough to signify what is being forbidden. To make the situation abundantly clear, however, the sign includes a silhouette of a pile of excrement with wavy lines arising from it. We consider the wavy lines to serve a dual purpose of signifying that the excrement is fresh, i.e. the result of the dog above, and also smelly and thus unwanted. The dog again has a collar which emphasizes that this is a pet dog.

Pooping dog in silhouette

The following example is again a forbidding urinating on a metal utility box. The style is a lot more whimsical, almost comical, with the both the styling of the dog silhouette and the tilted red "X" on top with notably ragged edges. Here the dog's eye even has a pupil, aimed upwards, producing an oblivious or funny feel to the icon. Note also that the raised leg has its toes spread out. This is the only sign where the dog is not clearly right-facing. In our eyes this makes the sign seem more like the dog urinating on top of something particular, and the process of the urination being more foregrounded with the urine stream almost three dimensional with some splashing around. Note that the dog has no collar or leash here, and the funny expression seems to emphasize that the goofily urinating dog is not a serious actor. Maybe this is emphasizing the responsibilities of the owner by showing that this uncollared and unleashed dog is out of control here, though not dangerous because it is quite silly?

Wacky peeing dog

The final example in this section is a lot more run down in the others. The icon for the dog is now a white-on-black silhouette, but insted of the symbolic "no-sign" we instead have a textual "Please collect after your dog." part. The icon for the defecating dog is a lot more simplistic here, though still easily understood. Unlike in the previous defecation part, we seem to have feces still on their way to drop on the ground, leaving no confusion about whose feces we are discussing here. Note here that we more explicitly are not forbidding the act of defecation, but explicitly asking to clean up afterwards. So the sign is directly addressing the dog-walker, and not the dog which does not even have a collar in the icon. Unlike the other signs, this dog is more haphazardly hanged on a fence, and has seen a lot more wear than the others.

White on black silhouette

We also note that the textual part of this sign is being double polite with including both the "Kiitos" (eng. thank you) at the end and using a very polite verb conjugation of cleaning: "Siivoathan". This conjugation turns the text from an imperative command to clean into something like a polite suggestion with the imperative implied.

Cartoon-like signs of relief

We next get to two signs that are more cartoon-like and even less official-looking than the previous ones.

In the first one we have an iconic white cartoon dog defecating on the ground with a red line going over the dog. We have a visible pile of excrement with flies around it, and the dog is in a very clear and active defacation pose. There are various "motion lines" around the dog, making the image quite dynamic. The facial expression of the dog is anthropomorphied and is quite humoristic in its depiction of the effort that the dog is using for the excretion. Note that we have also a horizon spcecified in this image with gray ground and white sky, splitting the sign roughly in the middle. Color is used in the icon as well; besides the red line across the dog we also have a bright red collar, though the dog tag in the collar is plain white and not e.g. golden. We also note that this is a metal sign attached to a stone wall -- the installation of this sign was not easy, and the result is quite permanent.

Pooping dog cartoon-like

Another cartoony sign we found is the following anthromorphized dog who is walking on its hindlegs and carrying a bag, implying that you should collect the dog's feces in a bag. There are no "no-signs" here, so this sign expresses its meaning through a request rather than fobidding something. We have no collar or other signification of an owner, since in this image the active responsible character is the dog itself. In Laihonen the author mentions that some dog signs use terminology like "I guard here!" with a photograph of the dog, and thus move the communication from being from the sign maker to the viewer into being from the dog to the viewer. We feel that this sign is doing something similar. Indeed, note that the right paw/hand of the dog seems to be emphasizing the bag as well, as if telling someone to the right that "this is what you should do".

Zoomed cartoon dog collecting

Unlike the first cartoon sign that was a metal plate on stone, this latter one is made of some kind of paper or cardboard, and stapled on a fence. The staples are rusted and the cardboard is very worn in the weather.

Other signs

We did see exactly one sign directly warning of a dog. This was one of the signs too deep in someones property that we felt it unpolite to take photograph, but we've produced a simulacrum below. The sign has a textual "VAROKAA KOIRAA" on a white background that has a black margin. The text is in all caps with the word "VAROKAA" (eng. BEWARE) in red and "KOIRAA" (eng. OF DOG) in black. We note that the caps and blocky bold font emphasize the seriousness of the sign while making it more readable from further away. On the other hand, there is no image of a dangerous dog or even parts of a dog like teeth or eyes. Furthermore, the verb conjugation "varokaa" is in a polite format, similar to the "siezen/duzen" politeness in german, thus softening the message a bit.


Besides this purely textual sign there seemed to be another sign, even deeper to the property, that depicted an iconic dog silhouette with the word "Warning" written in cursive next to it - we find the contrast with the blocky capitalized letters in the sign above interesting. So perhaps the warning is meant to be less threatening and more about being aware that there is a dog around? Which brings us to our next sign.

The next sign was on the gate to a private property. It depicts a silhouette of a dog facing the viewer, though it might have been a photograph or other more detailed icon previously, now worn away by weather. It is accompanied by the swedish3 text "Stäng grinden! Annars springer jag ut..." meaning "Close the gate! Otherwise I run out..." The text is written with an almost cursive soft font, and combines both an exclamation point in the dominant imperative instruction to close the gate, but also a much softer ellipsis in the end of the explanation why the gate should be closed. We feel that the explanation of "otherwise the dog escapes" not only clarifies the instructions, but also alters the power relationships between the sign poster and the sign viewer as they feel that they owe you an explanation for the imperative.

I might escape

This sign is then targeting not the dog owner, but a visitor who is planning to open the gate. Unlike a "beware of the dog" type of sign, we are not warding off any people, but rather are telling them that they are welcome but that they should follow a specific rule if they wish to enter. We feel that the sign is sort of passing responsibility from the dog owner to the visitor. They both should understand that the dog itself is not capable of having full responsibility of its behaviour, and it is the operators of the gate that need to be careful. There is no threat or danger involved, however, even though the sign implies a possible free roaming dog beyond the gate.

Our final sign is something that I would call more of a notice than a sign in everyday talk, but in semiotic nomenclature this is also a sign. This notice was stabled next to a road going into the large local forest park and advices the reader that dogs should not roam free here. The dominant capitalized "KYTKE KOIRASI" is an imperative command to put your dog on a leash, and the latter text says, when translated literally:

ACCORDING TO LAW Letting your dog loose in an area owned by someone else always requires the the special permission of the owner of the area or the holder of the hunting permission.

Between 1.3.-13.8. a dog may be unleashed ONLY IN THE OWNER'S YARD OR GARDEN

And the logos below depict the Finnish Kennel Union, Police and the Hunter's Central Union.

Stapled notice

We are doubtful about this sign being sanctioned by all of the instances at the bottom, especially by the police. Note how the capitalization of the "LAIN MUKAAN" and the inclusion of the logo of the police seem to aim at borrowing the governmental authority for the purpose of enforcing this sign. The note has been there for a while, which is evident from the wear and the rusted staples that it has been attached with. This sign would fit into the category of "dogs are not part of nature" that Halonen and Laihonen describe in their article.

As mentioned, this sign was stapled visibly to the side of a dominant road leading inside a forest park. This is a place where people might come to, with their dogs, from much further away than for the rest of the suburb. The notice is also not clearly linked to any house, apartment complex or other actor. (Besides the claimed organizations in the bottom.) Thus this is much more a "top-down" order to general populace from a faceless instance than a "friendly reminder between neigbours" that the other signs seem to signify.

Final thoughts

In Halonen & Laihonen they find clear differences on what aspects of the interactions between humans, dogs and properties are restricted in different settings. Compared to their observations in the urban cityscape of Jyväskylä, we feel that in our suburb there is a much more stronger emphasis on reminding the dog-owners that they have authority and responsibility regarding their dogs' behavior.

A large part of dog-walking happens near one's own home. With the exception of forests and dog parks to which people might travel to from far away, the supermajority of dogs being walked in a suburb belong to other residents. Combining this with the fact that the organization level of the most housing communities in this suburb is at the level of maybe a dozen families, we feel that this communication is mostly directed between neighbours. Together with the quite small population of about 3000 people, it is maybe not surprising that the signage about dogs is more akin to "friendly reminders among neighbours" than what we see in Jyväskylä with their 100k+ residents.

We think this communality is a large factor on why we have very few threatening or even strongly commanding signs here - as noted by Halonen & Laihonen, threats are a threat to social interactions and with the signs being more easily connected to individuals they might be detrimental to neighborly relations. (Note the exception of the stapled notice in the forest road or the official sign from the city of Espoo.) Instead of "top-down" or "bottom-up" approach or a private/public/commercial division, we think that here a relevant angle is about the "facelessness" or "anonymity" of the sign. It is easier to "hide" behind a sign if it has been put up by a bigger actor that you are a part of, like the state, than behind a sign that you have clearly put up yourself.

We conclude by agreeing with Halonen and Laihonen about the fact that something like dog-signs that might on the surface seem quite insignificant can reflect interesting things about the local cultural landscape.

  1. Halonen and Laihonen describe the "no"-symbol, or at least a red "X" across an image as an icon instead of a symbol. We admit that crossing something out does feel more iconic if thought about in the context of drawing or writing something, but e.g. in the setting of traffic signs the "crossing out" iconicity is less clear to us. Then again, I'm the amateur here. 

  2. In Finland it is commont that apartment buildings are governed by a company whose stocks are tied to the apartments themselves; when you buy an apartment you technically just buy certain stock that give you the right to live in a certain apartment. The size of the apartment building or apartment building complex can have a strong effect on if the system feels more like a friendly coalition of neighbors or a large faceless housing institution. We feel that this creates a gradient on how top-down or bottom-up the communications from the board of governors feel. This particular housing complex is also situated next to a public building that has frequent visitors from outside the area, and thus this sign is targeted not only for the residents but to "outsiders" as well. 

  3. Finland in general and this suburb in particular is strongly bilingual. Finnish is the dominant language with around 5% of the national population at large having Swedish as their native language, though with very strong regional differences. Even beyond the native speakers, Swedish is a mandatory subject in school and you can expect most people to understand the basics.