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January 13, 2009

Using a holiday gift card, I bought On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugass. It’s a tiny book, full of photos, so it’s a one-sitting read.

Many of the signals she writes about, I already knew — yawning, lip-licking, etc. But, it made me realize that what I’ve been calling “shutting down” or “going flat” is like the Mother of All Calming Signals.

And, if you follow her logic, it might be Lilly’s way of telling ME to calm down. Oh my! The book, however, left me with questions. Maybe you can help.

First, let’s continue with the DOWN as a major dog calming signal. Rugaas says, “Lying down with his belly to the ground is an act of calming. It’s a very strong one too…”

I’ve described before what I mean when Lilly shuts down, but suffice it to say it’s a pretty dramatic down, like this show dog moment captured on TV. It’s getting less so with the medication routine (clomipramine and alprazolam twice a day, every day) and the behavior modification work we’re doing to help her not be so afraid, but until I read this book, I’d never thought that Lilly might be signaling for ME to calm down too. I’ll have to work on that — maybe with deep breathing, softer eye focus, and such.

Dog Calming Signals Confusion

But, now to my confusion. I get that dogs look away or even turn away from one another as a way to communicate. I also get that it’s similar to when we turn away from dogs to teach them not to jump up on approach, but the book often recommends using various calming signals (including looking or turning away) to get shy or fearful dogs to approach. Again, I understand and have often used such body postures with Lilly and other dogs, but I never thought of it as using Dog Language per se.

So, here’s the thing … how can the same Calming Signal both get wild dogs to go away and fearful dogs to approach? And, if turning away (or leaving the room), as I had to do to break Lilly’s attention seeking pattern, is often done as a mild “negative” consequence, is that still a calming signal.

Maybe it’s all the same thing, just used in different situations, but I’d always thought of them as different processes or strategies.

When I first learned that lip-licking or yawning were signs of “stress,” I guess I thought that meant they were things you did NOT want to see in your dog, but the book seems to say that dog use these things to communicate with each other, to help calm themselves and others down. We played with this a bit by putting several signals (lip-licking, raising one paw, sniffing the ground) on cue in 2007, but now I’m thinking about it differently.

I’m going to start observing Lilly’s dog calming signals, and I’m going to experiment with giving some back. For example, next time she goes flat in public, rather than getting all jolly and trying to cajole her into moving, I might throw some signals back at her (no words) and see if I can get her moving again that way. Should be interesting.

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. My guess? After a bit, she will have a Kissing Fit — climb into my lap and kiss my face all over, which we know from our work to end attention seeking behaviors is an anxiety thing.

    BUT, next time we go to class or something and she throws a down at me, I’ll give it a try and report back.

  2. I’d be curious to know how Lilly would react if you were to mirror her signals. So, if she lies down, you could sit down on the ground near her.

  3. Good observation. If I recall, behaviorist Brenda Aloff prefers to refer to many of these calming signals as “negotiation signals” that dogs use to negotiate peaceful interactions and the sharing of space and resources. I’ll have to dust off my copy of her book Canine Body Language, a Photographic Guide.

  4. Interesting.
    Maybe the dog’s motivation and intentions are part of the puzzle. It seems like you may be conveying the same thing, but want a different reaction according to the situation. If a dog is acting aggressively towards you or a dog is hesitant to approach, you may turn away in both instances and mean “I mean you no harm/I’m not a threat/etc. but you would want the agressive dog to leave you in peace (in ONE piece!) and the fearful dog to feel less threatened and approach you.
    In your example, you reference leaving the room when Lilly is attention-seeking. Could you argue that is still a calming signal because she might be getting worked up and is in your space? Is it just a matter of terminology?
    Patricia McConnell also speaks about the importance of “reading” dogs. One of her videos “reading between the lines” is a great demonstration of how body language can affect how we interact with dogs, particularly strange ones we may encounter.
    Do stress signals act as indicators that our dogs are uncomfortable or warnings that they may react if the situation continues? Things that are scary to dogs may not be scary to us. I doubt you are afraid of your own windows, Roxanne:) but since Lilly shows you certain signals, you were able to tell that she was uncomfortable with them.
    Also, in the line of behavior evaluations, I believe they are an indicator of how comfortable the dog is in novel situations and if they have any kind of a warning device.
    This is one of those difficult topics because it’s almost impossible to pinpoint. Methods, interpretations and course of actions differ from dog to dog, between people and according to the situation.

  5. One more quick comment – can you explain the little buttons at the bottom of your posts? Or point me to where I can learn about them? Thanks.

  6. I think that different dogs express their stress in their own ways. Lilly goes flat. My dog, K, sometimes becomes wildly excitable. For example, she tries to jump on people – not because she wants to meet them – but because she’s trying to make them back away (and it usually works).

    In my opinion, both Lilly and K’s behaviors indicate stress but they outwardly look extremely different. When I think about it that way, it makes sense that a calming signal might make Lilly get moving and make K leave a person alone.

    I haven’t tried much with me giving K calming signals. Rather, I’ve observed her a lot to see when she uses them (and it’s pretty frequent). A jumping episode is often preceded by a paw lift or sniffing the ground. However, with your suggestion, I think I might try using the calming signals myself.

    One more quick note – K once exchanged calming signals with a red fox out on the trail. They both sat, about 50 yds apart, and they both lifted a paw. Pretty cool.

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