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Signals: Canine Life Insurance
Terry Ryan, Legacy Canine
occasion was "Animals and Us", the Sixth International Conference
on Human-Animal Interactions in Montreal. A quiet, polite seminar
attendee, Turid Rugaas sat a couple of rows ahead of me during the
canine behavior sessions. Turid should never play poker. I couldn't
help but notice her shoulders tensing up or relaxing depending on
the speaker. Funny thing was, her body language was directly reflecting
my own opinion of the various speakers' presentations.
That's what symposiums are all about! I wanted to meet this stranger
from overseas who's response to behavior issues seemed to so closely
mirror my own. Realizing that English was not her native tongue,
it took me until the end of the day to gather the nerve to approach
the blue-eyed woman with flaxen braids.
that meeting a year and a half ago, I have come to realize that
Turid Rugaas is on the cutting edge of understanding canine behavior.
With twenty five years of experience in many different aspects of
dogs and their training, Turid is currently concentrating her talents
on pet dogs and their people.
farm, Hagan Hundeskole, is located on a heavily forested mountaintop
overlooking scenic fjords of Norway. People from all over the country
bring their dogs for her instruction in basic manners and rehabili-
tation of problem behaviors.
are nonverbal communicators. How often have we wished to know what
was in their thoughts, what they were trying to tell us? Turid Rugaas
has found a way. Turid has a special insight to canine body language.
To date she has identified numerous distinct body postures which,
alone or in combination, can provide us with vast quantities of
useful information about our pet.
special interest to me is Turid's recognition and use of instinctual
canine calming signals. With the support of miles and miles of video
documentation, Turid is studying how, with various body postures,
dogs calm themselves and other dogs in situations of stress. With
a handle on dog-to-dog calming signals, Turid is now working on
human-to-dog signals. Can humans imitate canine signals and use
them to better communicate with dogs?
Key To Understanding
following overview, in Turid's own words, gives the essence of her
theory on calming signals.
being flock animals, have a language for communication 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 and use them ourselves, we increase our ability to communicate
with our dogs. Most noteworthy of all canine signals are the calming
signals which are used to maintain a healthy social hierarchy and
resolution of conflict within the flock. These are skills 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 example 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 intended.
'Don't worry, I'm in charge around here and I mean you no harm.'
Dogs which do not signal properly can be the cause of problems."
Calming Signals, The Foundation of Communication?
a moment, let's take ourselves away from established ideas and labels
concerning subordinance displays, displacement activities, rituals,
drives and for a few moments think about canine body language as
Turid Rugaas does.
of us which have the opportunity to observe a group of well-socialized
dogs interacting freely may see the following calming signals:
dog intending to use signals, upon seeing another dog in the distance,
will start to move slowly. This exaggerated slow motion is a calming
signal, and one which can be used early and effectively when meeting.
Joggers, cars and bicycles may approach quickly and may appear as
Carl and his dog Sheena were walking down a narrow city sidewalk.
A young boy ran along the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Sheena
was worried about this quick motion and immediately attempted, as
best she could while on a tight leash, to display calming signals
with her body language. Sheena was ignored by the child who was
intent other things. Sheena's signals were of no use, so she resorted
to threats such as barking a "get away from me" warning.
IN AN ARC
upon first meetings will dogs approach each other nose to nose.
Only dogs which are very sure of the outcome of a situation will
attempt to meet head on. More frequently dogs approach each other
in curving lines, walk beyond each other's nose to sniff rear ends
while standing side to side.
Carl could have been more attentive, recognized a troublesome situation
for his dog and helped Sheena by leading her in an arc past the
curving theory has been proven time and time again. Ask any groomer
or veterinarian. Most apprehensive dogs are more easily approached
if not confronted head on. When approached from the side, one can
gain the dog's confidence more readily. Unfortunately dogs are constantly
put into situations where they must accept confrontation. It's wise
to condition dogs to accept this eventuality gracefully.
use their noses to explore their environment, but at times sniffing
seems to have a different significance. Owners have attributed out
of context sniffing to lack of concentration or stalling. Some say
it's a displacement activity. Turid categorizes sniffing during
times of stress as a calming signal.
You and your dog Spot are patiently waiting in the veterinarian's
reception room. Spot is thinking,
that human in the long white coat keeps walking in and out. She
looks and smells strangely. This is scary! I'd better sniff the
floor of the waiting room now to show that I mean no harm and maybe
she'll leave me alone."
the floor of the waiting room probably has many intriguing smells,
but it could be Spot's way to calm himself and others around him.
Ken allowed his dog Ginger off leash. "Ginger, COME" thunders Ken.
Ginger approached Ken slowly, in a curve, then paused to sniff.
Is she being spiteful or could it be conflict resolution? Has her
past experience taught her that "Come" is often followed by an unpleasant
state of affairs - time to go home, time to come away from something
more interesting, time to receive a punishment? What tone of voice,
body posture and facial expressions does Ken use when calling Ginger?
Is Ginger untrained, bad, distracted or is she trying to explain
something to Ken?
positions are probably the most graphic calming signals of all.
You can see them being used in active play sessions. A dog will
spontaneously drop when things get out of control.
many dogs, when receiving a reprimand from the owner will sit or
lie down? Turid sees this as a signal that the dog is anxious and
is trying to calm the owner down.
quick little flick of the tongue is language which often goes unnoticed
because it is shadowed by more overt signals. It is yet another
way for a dog to convey the same message, for everybody to calm
back through some photos of your dogs. Frequently lip licking can
be seen in photographs. Posing for a photo can be a problem for
some dogs. Many are worried about the camera which has a staring
eye following their every move!
AVERTING EYES, TURNING AWAY
a dog approaches another, it's a very interesting moment in time
for those individuals. Why then, do we see dogs looking away, exaggerating
an eye blink or turning their heads away from approaching dogs?
Is it disinterest, distraction or a calming signal?
who work with dogs realize early in their careers that they can
gain the confidence of a worried dog more quickly by avoiding direct
eye contact, or even better, by turning away with their backs or
sides to the dog.
the most intriguing of all signals is yawning.
and her dog Fido are at the neighborhood barbecue. The volleyball
players are smacking the ball with gusto, the music is playing with
a resounding beat and people are animated and noisy. With all of
this fun going on Fido still gives an occasional yawn. Can he be
sleepy? Perhaps. Or is Fido yawning to reduce his stress and to
calm down the others present. If Jane were to turn her own head
away from the noisy people and yawn, would this reassure Fido?
SIGNALING WORK FOR ALL DOGS?
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.
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.
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.
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.
time this winter I passed dog number five hundred. I cannot recall
one single troubled dog that did not respond or learn to respond
positively in some way through the use of calming signals."
take a look at some of Turid's case histories as told in her own
words. We'll see just how she applies the knowledge she gained from
her observation of dogs.
still remember Trixie from many years ago. She was the first dog
I tried using signals with, the dog which gave me confidence to
further my study and application of canine calming signals. Trixie
was seven years old, a small hunting dog and she had been hysterically
afraid of people all of her life, running under the sofa, barking
frantically every time someone came close to the house or even looked
at her. The owner wanted to know if there was anything I could do
about it and I said I was willing to try, but there were no guarantees.
Trixie and her family came to my farm and we started with the dog
outside in the training ground. I approached her from a distance,
showing very clear calming signals, moving very slowly, yawning,
looking away from her. The owner was told to ignore all her signals
of fear. If Trixie kept calm, or moved in my direction, she was
to receive praise. I moved around but kept my distance. Trixie was
interested in the signals I gave her, but they were new to her,
so it took some time before she responded. After three sessions
of this type of signaling, Trixie took contact. She came all the
way up to me, sniffing. She gradually began to accept people in
the training grounds. We would allow a stranger to approach and
finally pass her, at first with rather slow movements, curving slightly,
looking away. Then the owner would stop to greet the stranger. Trixie
would show slight interest, wanting to sniff, which she was allowed
to do. There was no fear reaction now and very soon she accepted
touching as well. Trixie stopped barking. She was not upset if given
eye contact. Now we had to be sure Trixie was trained to accept
people in all situations, particularly at her own house. At first
she still ran under the sofa, but with more training she eventually
became a quiet, pleasant dog with strangers in the home.
was a ten-month-old puppy scared out of her wits of trains - and
her family lived thirty feet from the railroad! When I was contacted
she was a shivering bundle of nerves, had stopped eating and was
quite thin. The owners were desperate. When I visited the family
in their home I recommended that the owners ignore Mee when trains
approach, looking away, yawning. When Trixie heard the next train,
she jumped to her feet began to panting and was in obvious distress.
She looked around her and suddenly observed our signals. Mee looked
at me, at the owners, and back again. She had seen the signals,
we had gotten through to her. I left the owners to their homework
and came back three weeks later. Mee was happy to see me, and after
greetings, she laid down to sleep beside me. When the first train
came, she looked up with one eye, then went to sleep again. She
had overcome her fear. She had put on fourteen pounds. She was a
different dog. She still could be a little frightened at night,
but that also went away in time. It took Mee three weeks to overcome
her fear and the medicine was yawning, one of the best calming signals
"To be able to communicate, to be actually understood by dogs, that
is a wonderful feeling for people and dogs alike. Calming signals
are the key and seeing through that opened door has been looking
into a childhood dream of talking to the animals."
Terry Ryan: I have visited Hagan Hundeskole to observe Turid's work
and have been favorably impressed with her rehabilitation of troubled
dogs. She is among the first in her country to take a special interest
in "street mixes" - the common Norwegian term for random bred dogs.
In Scandinavia she is championing the move away from, to again use
Norwegian terms, the "frying pan" method of dog training and advocating
"contact training". The dog is taught to "take contact" (makes eye
contact with) the owner and follow the owner's lead in situations
where the dog could be making a mistake. Taking contact is useful,
for instance, when the owner and dog have a difference of opinion
in which direction to take the evening walk.
Rugaas: "In many cases dogs become hysterical when I answer them
in their own language. It is like someone long lost in the jungle
and suddenly at the edge of despair, hears his native tongue being
spoken. Maybe that is why rehabilitated dogs remember me years after
they have been here." SIDEBAR: Over the years Turid has had help
- the four-legged variety. Once in a while a very special dog comes
along with the ability to safely help convey, with signals, reassuring
messages in the face of a problem situation.
Ryan can be reached at Legacy
Canine Behavior & Training
information about reading canine body language, check out "What
is My Dog Saying?" Canine Communication 101 and "What
is My Dog Saying at the Dog Park?" dog play and dog park safety
A. Byrnes, CPDT-KA
Diamonds in the Ruff