This is one of many dog ownership tips I'd like to share with you under the name 'Paws for Thought' written by a friend at work, posted here with her permission. Please note that these posts are written by a dog lover learning more every day and happy to share. They are intended to give you options and ideas to think about. They do not replace the help of a professional (such as a vet, behaviourist, trainer or lawyer). Posts can be shared with others as long as you make sure that any references contained within the post remain with the post and please do not take chunks out of context. Preference is definitely for the whole post to be shared rather than pieces.
Another Paws for Thought talked a little about arousal – its signs and some tips on how to manage it. This post is more about some of the body language that it seems dogs use when they get stressed including when they need to lower someone else’s arousal levels.
Turid Rugaas who is a Norwegian dog trainer and author of a number of books, the most widely known of which is ‘On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.’ She watched and videoed dogs in all sorts of situations and from that identified about 30 signals (components of body language) that Turid calls calming signals.
The theory is that dogs need to avoid conflicts as they are dangerous – causing injury and weakening individual dogs and the pack.
The use of these calming signals are meant to:
· Maintain a healthy social hierarchy and resolve conflict.
· Calm the dog sending the calming signals and others in fearful or stressful situations.
· Be used early to prevent unfriendly interactions.
Some of these 30 signals are known and used by almost all dogs. Other dogs have a richer vocabulary and use more of the range in order to avoid conflict. Dogs don’t just use these calming signals with other dogs. Some use them with other animals including cats or horses. They also use them with people but unfortunately we’re not very good at reading them. Hopefully this post will help at least some of you improve the communication between you and your dog.
Turid believes that by failing to recognise these signs or even worse punishing your dog for using them we an cause a dog to give up using them with us and other dogs, cause frustration nervousness or even aggression. She and many others put a great deal of store in these signals. Others are not so convinced.
Threatening signals (as perceived by the dog not defined by your intent) will cause dogs to use calming signals. These threatening signals might include walking straight at a dog, reaching for a dog, bending over them, staring at a dog or maintaining eye contact with one or fast movements as examples.
So what are these calming signals?
The calming signals identified by Turid include:
- Not when tired but at other times when you wouldn’t expect it.
- This includes very quick little flicks of the tongue and licks to their own nose.
- It appears that black dogs, dogs with lots of hair around their faces and others whose facial expressions might be more difficult for another dog to see.
Turning away and/or turning the head away
- The dog might turn their head slightly to one side or completely away from whoever they are concerned about.
- The dog might turn completely around so that it’s back and tail faces whoever they think needs calming.
Blinking or averting the eyes
- Turid differentiates between play bows where the dog is moving its legs from side to side in a playful manner and standing still while bowing.
-- Moving legs in a playful manner equates to the play bow discussed in Paws for Thought post 12 Play
Bows – The Punctuation in Play
-- Standing still and bowing she believes is used as a signal to calm someone down.
Sniffing the ground
- This might be anything from moving the nose swiftly down toward the ground and lifting it back up again to sticking the nose to the ground and persisting in this for some time. A fairly common site in many training classes – but owners and sometimes trainers see it as being difficult or obstinate or maybe not having the right level of treats/rewards handy.
- Yes dogs sniff normally but depending on the situation it might also be a calming situation. Watch for when the sniffing occurs.
- A dog who is feeling insecure will move slowly.
- This is when the dog stops completely still in any position and remains in that position for anything from seconds to some time.
- So your well behaved pooch just sitting by you when you talk to strangers may in fact be stressed and using the freeze as a signal – one you’re missing out on reading.
- Sitting down is a strong signal to calm things down. To sit with their back turned to you or whoever they are concerned about is meant to be even more calming. But how often do owners get frustrated and angry about this?
Lifting one paw
- Lifting just one paw can be used as a calming signal – although it is more rarely used then many of the other signals listed here.
Walking in a curve
- When given a change dogs will normally walk in curves around each other – watch for it when dogs are off lead. It is considered the polite way to meet – this might explain why some dogs may react so strongly when forced by us to meet another dog face to face on the path.
- Either pulling the corners of the mouth up and back or showing the teeth in a grin.
- Shaking like they’ve just had a bath. While Turid suggests this is a calming signal others have associated it with breakthroughs in learning.
Smacking the lips
Wagging the tail in circumstances other than when the dog is happy
Urinating on himself
- Cowering and crawling towards you while wetting himself and wagging his tail show three clear calming signals that are also signs of fear. Some dogs also throw in wanting to get up to your face and lick the corners of your mouth.
Making their face round and smooth with the ears held close to the head in order to act like a puppy and try and get away with it.
Laying down with the belly to the ground. Not submission this is lying down with the belly up.
- Moving between dogs or people where they feel increasing tension or arousal.
And there are more.
To hear Turid herself talk about these signals check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj7BWxC6iVs.
What some others have to say about calming signals
Terry Ryan, another well known trainer, has this to say about calming signals and the need to develop an awareness of them:
“Some dogs don't play by the rules. There are numerous reasons a dog might lose the inborn ability to use calming signals properly. Puppies learn valuable lessons from their environment. One must be very careful about the company a puppy keeps or the pup might learn that calming signals are of no use. If a pup, while displaying calming signals, encounters a dog lacking respect for appropriate body language, is attacked, much ground has been lost. This pup might learn to use threatening actions as a life insurance policy instead of calming signals. Luckily, with most dogs it takes more than one or two unfortunate incidents to extinguish signaling. Calming is a very dominant instinct in dogs. However it's a good idea to protect young dogs from interacting with unnatural, angry dogs. Safe, friendly dogs with good signals are the best teachers a young dog can have. Puppy classes are helpful in teaching these lessons, but can do more harm than good if inappropriate dogs are allowed to interact.
Some owners hamper a dog's attempt to communicate with other dogs or humans by inhibiting them with leashes. Yes, by all means dogs should be on leash. No, it is not safe to turn your dog loose to "communicate freely" with an unknown dog. But be aware that you could be helping your dog get into trouble by preventing appropriate body language. A more prudent plan is for you and your pet to keep your distance from an unknown entity.
Whether on purpose or unintentionally, some dogs have been taught to ignore signals. Many responsible owners seek dog obedience classes as an opportunity to train their dogs. Here's a typical obedience class exercise: Owners command their dogs to Sit and Stay. Dogs happily comply. The class instructor now asks owners and dogs to take turns weaving among the sitting dogs. This is fine in an advanced class of dogs with well-know temperaments. But in a beginner's class a handler might be asked to prevent a fearful dog from signaling.
For example, Brownie is trying her best to maintain the sit-stay while the other dogs in class weave around her. She may be a little worried about the next dog approaching, so she wants to use her calming signals and tries to lie down. She is prevented from breaking her sit-stay by her owner pulling up on the lead. Next she tries to slowly move away, another common calming signal. Brownie's owner forces her back into position.
What about King, the approaching dog? King is made to stay in heel position and cannot move slowly either. Nor can King curve and certainly he is not allowed to sniff.
What about the enthusiastic trainer who gives overly sharp commands or pushes the dog too far to fast in an exercise? The dog may try to signal the owner to let up a little. Here we see yawning on the sit-stay, sniffing on the heeling, curving slowly on the recall, turning away on the sit in front.”
Karen Pryor of clicker training fame has this to say in a post on aggression, calming signals and clicking (http://diamondsintheruff.com/karenpryor.html):
“I can be very comfortable about saying how I, at least, use the clicker with some of the behavioral events people lump under the topic of aggression. Before a dog launches into overt displays of barking etc., it almost inevitably does those things Turid calls calming signals. Turning the head aside a little and licking the lips are the two I use most.
In the first place, if you watch for those behaviors you will be able to gauge the distance at which your dog feels pressured, way before he or she starts acting up. This tells you at what distance to start reshaping with the clicker.
Second, if you click and treat the calming signals themselves they will increase; and since they are the first line of defense, and open threat/ attack is the last line of defense, increasing these signals tends to replace the more overt behavior. Plus the dog feels better, too. You can then click to reduce the distance at which the calming signals appear; and you can negatively reward the dog for giving those signals by going away from the object he's fearful of (not backwards: sideways.) Once you get the tolerable distance down to fifty feet or less, you can use the click to reinforce passing by another dog in a big arc (another calming signal), something you will arrange by walking in a big arc yourself--giving that nasty stranger a wide berth, as it were, but clicking your dog for doing that, with you.”
Some others raise concern about teaching a dog to display calming signals. They argue that this means that you don’t get a real read on the feelings of your dog because they are masking their true response with a trained behaviour.
Things to think about
All this gives us something to think about in terms of our perceptions of what dogs are thinking, feeling and saying. Think about the following common situations mentioned on Turid’s website:
· The dog knows when he’s when he’s done something wrong. When I get home, he always looks guilty! Remorseful dog?....or good calming behaviours?
· Your dog doesn’t seem to like other dogs. He always turns his head away when a new dog approaches. Shy dog?....or good calming behaviours?
· When you and your partner hug each other the dog always pushes in between you. Jealous dog?....or good calming behaviours?
Now over to you...
To wrap up this post:
· Watch your dog interacting with yourself, other family members and other animals over the next days and weeks and see what you might pick up from the signals that they are sending. Feel free to share what you find.
· Turid Rugaas – On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals