dog training Dogs

Calming Signals

One of the topics I like to introduce handlers to when they attend puppy socialisation classes, is Calming Signals. In 1997 Turid Rugaas and Terry Ryan published a book entitled “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals”. This book describes how dogs are able to offer certain behaviours in order to calm those around them down. Turid Rugaas, who hails from Norway, first noticed these behaviours when her little Elkhound, Vesla, appeared able to prevent aggression in other dogs by behaving in a certain manner. Here is a direct quote from her book:

“Dogs, being flock animals, have a language for communicaton with each other. Canine language in general consists of a large variety of signals using body, face, ears, tail, sounds, movement, and expression. The dog’s innate ability to signal is easily lost or reinforced through life’s experience. If we study the signals dogs use with each other anduse them ourselves, we increase our ability to communicate with our dogs. Most noteworthy of all canine signals re the calming signals, which are used to maintain a healthy social hierarchy and resolution of conflict within the flock. These are skill which, when carried over to our own interactions with dogs, can be highly beneficial to our relationship. Dogs have the ability to calm themselves in the face of a shock (fearful or stressful situation) and to calm each other as well. As an exale let’s consider the manner in which dogs meet each other. Dogs which are worried in a social situation can communicate concepts such as, “I know you are the boss around here and I won’t make trouble”. Furthermore, the boss dog is very apt to want the worried dog to realize that no trouble is intetnded. “Don’t worry, I’m in charge around here and I mean you no harm”. Dogs that do not signal properly can be the cause of problems.”

Some of the commonest calming signals used by dogs, taken from Turid’s book, are as follows:

Sniffing the ground
Sniffing the ground is a frequently used signal. You often see it being offered in groups of puppies, and also when you are out walking your dog and someone unfamiliar comes towards you. In fact in any place where there is a lot of activity, noise or unusual objects. Sniffing the ground may be anything from moving the nose swiftly down toward the ground and back up again – to sticking the nose to the ground and sniff persistently for several minutes.
Is someone approaching you on the pavement? Take a look at your dog. Did he drop the nose down toward the ground, even slightly? Did he turn his side to the one approaching and sniff the side of the road?
Of course, dogs sniff a lot, also in order to ´read the newspaper´ and enjoy themselves. Dogs are pre-programmed to use their noses and it’s their favourite activity. However, sometimes it’s calming – it depends on the situation. So pay attention to when and in which situation the sniffing occur!

Walking slowly
High speed will be seen as threatening to many dogs, and they might want to go in to try and stop the one who is running. This is partly a hunting behaviour and is triggered by the sight of a running human or dog. If the one running is coming straight at the dog, it involves a threat and a defence mechanism sets in.
A dog who is insecure will move slowly. If you wish to make a dog feel safer, then you can move slower. When I see a dog react to me with a calming signal, I immediately respond by moving slower.
Is your dog coming very slowly when you call him? If so, check the tone of your voice – do you sound angry or strict? That may be enough for him to want to calm you down by walking slowly. Have you ever been angry with him when he came to you? Then this may be why he doesn’t trust you. Another reason to calm you may be if the dog is always put on a leash when coming when called. Take a look at your dog the next time you call him. Does he give you any calming signals when coming? If he moves slowly, you may need to do something different in the way you act.

“Freezing” – is what we call it when the dog is stopping while standing completely still, sitting or laying down and remain in that position. This behaviour is believed to have something to do with hunting behaviour – when the prey is running, the dog attacks. Once the prey stops, the dog will stop too. We can often see this when dogs are chasing cats. This behaviour, however, is used in several different situations. When you get angry and aggressive and appear threatening, the dog will often freeze and not move in order to make you be good again. Other times the dog may walk slowly, freeze, and then move slowly again. Many owners believe that they have very obedient dogs who are sitting, lying down or standing completely still. Perhaps they are actually using calming signals? Very often a dog will stop and remain calm when someone is approaching. If your dog wants to stop or move slowly in a situation like that, then let him. Also, should your dog be in a conflict situation with a human or dog, and is unable to escape, freezing may be one way to calm the other dog or person.

Sitting down/lifting one paw
I have only rarely seen dogs lift their paw as a calming signal, but on a few occasions it’s clearly been used to calm another dog.
To sit down, or an even stronger signal, to sit down with the back turned towards someone – for instance the owner – has a very calming effect. It’s often seen when one dog wants to calm another dog which is approaching too quickly. Dogs may sit down with their backs turned against the owner when he or she sounds too strict or angry.

Walking in curve
This signal is frequently used as a calming signal, and it is the main reason why dogs may react so strongly towards meeting dogs when they are forced to walk straight at someone. Their instincts tell them that it is wrong to approach someone like that – the owner says differently. The dog gets anxious and defensive. And we get a dog which is barking and lunging at other dogs, and eventually we have an aggressive dog.
Dogs, when given a chance, will walk in curves around each other. That’s what they do when they meet off leash and are free to do things their own way. Allow your dog to do the same when he’s with you.
Some dogs’ needs large curves, while others only need to walk slightly curved. Allow the dog to decide what feels right and safe for him, then, in time and if you want to, he can learn to pass other dogs closer.
Let the dog walk in a curve around a meeting dog! Don’t make him walk in a heel position while you’re going straight forward – give him a chance to walk in a curve past the meeting dog. If you keep the leash loose and let the dog decide, you will often see that the dog chooses to walk away instead of getting hysterical.
For the same the reason, don’t walk directly toward a dog, but walk up to it in a curve. The more anxious or aggressive the dog is, the wider you make the curve.

Other calming signals
By now you have learned about some of the more common calming signals. There are around 30 of them, and many have yet to be described. I will mention a few more briefly so that you can make further observations:
• “Smiling”, either by pulling the corners of the mouth up and back, or by showing the teeth as in a grin.
• Smacking the lips
• Wagging the tail – should a dog show signs of anxiety, calming or anything that clearly has little to do with happiness, the wagging of the tail isn’t an expression of happiness, but rather that the dog wants to calm you.
• Urinating on himself – A dog who is cowering and crawling toward his owner while wetting himself and waving his tail, is showing three clear signs of calming – and of fear.
• Wanting to get up into your face and lick the corners of your mouth.
• Making the face round and smooth with the ears close to the head in order to act like a puppy. (No one will harm a puppy, is what the dog believes)
• Lying down with the belly against the ground. This has nothing to do with submission – submission is when the dog lays down with the belly up. Lying down with the belly towards the ground is a calming signal.
• …and there are even more calming signals that are used in combination with others. For instance, a dog may urinate at the same time as he is turning his back to something. This is a clear sign of calming by for instance an annoying adolescent dog.
• Some dogs act like puppies, jumping around and act silly, throwing sticks around, etc. if they discover a fearful dog nearby. It’s supposed to have, and does have, a calming effect.

Meeting situations
A meeting situation between two strange dogs will almost never show signs of strong submission or what people refer to as dominant behaviour. A meeting situation between two dogs will usually be something like this:
King and Prince see each other at 150 meters range and are headed toward each other. They start sending each other message the moment they see each other. Prince stops and stands still (´freezes´), and King is walking slowly while he keeps glancing at the other dog through the corner of his eye.
As King gets closer, Prince starts licking his nose intensely, and he turns his side to King and starts sniffing the ground too. Now King is so close that he needs to be even more calming, so he starts walking in a curve and away from Prince – still slowly and now he is licking his nose too. Prince sits down, and looks away by turning his head far to one side.
By now the two dogs have ´read´ each other so well that they know whether they wish to go over and greet each other, or if this could get so intense that it is best to stay away from each other.

Never force dogs into meeting others
Allow the dogs to use their language in meeting situations so that they feel safe. Sometimes they will walk up to each other and get along, other times they feel that it’s safer to stay at a distance – after all, they have already read each other’s signals, they do so even at a several hundred meters distance – there’s no need to meet face to face.
In Canada, dog trainers who attended my lecture, came up with a new name of these calming signals: ´The Language of Peace”. That’s exactly what it is. It’s a language which is there to make sure that dogs have a way to avoid and solve conflicts and live together in a peaceful manner. And the dogs are experts at it.
Start observing and you will see for yourself. Most likely, you will get a much better relationship with your dog and other dogs, too, once you are beginning to realize what the dog is really telling you. It´s likely that you will understand things you earlier were unable to figure out. It is incredibly exciting, as well as educational.
Welcome to the world of the dog, and to knowledge of a whole new language!

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