Are "Calming Signals" a Deliberate Form of Communication?

Or Unconscious Expressions of Stress?

Lip Licking Is Often an Indicator of Stress

Dogs & Humans, Similarities & Differences

Dogs and humans share certain commonalities. Both species started as group predators who hunted animals larger and more dangerous than themselves. In fact dogs, wolves, and humans are the only land mammals who have this characteristic. (Some members of the dolphin family do too.)

However, there are there are three abilities that set human beings apart from most other animals, including dogs 1) A sense of self-and-other (or Theory of Mind). 2) A linear sense of time, including mental time travel. 3) The ability to think symbolically (through words and language). So while dogs are one of the most expressive animals on the planet, capable of a wide range of communicative skills, and able to read one anothers’ body language immediately, in real time, they can’t form the conscious intent to report information to others; they can only express their feelings unconsciously.

In his book Consciousness Explained, philosopher of mind Daniel C. Dennett tells us there are two distinctive forms of communication: 1) the deliberate reporting of information and 2) the unconscious expression of emotion, which may also provide information but isn't done with the conscious intent to communicate. The first requires the use of language, written spoken or signed. The second may be expressed through language—the way a carpenter may let out a string of course words when hitting his thumb with a hammer even though no one is around to hear him—but they are, for the most part, emotional utterances not spoken with the intent to communicate with others. Some readers have reacted badly to the idea that dogs don't have the capacity to form the intent to communicate , which is understandable since we love our dogs; they get under our skin (and inside our brains), and read us like no other animal can. It seems to me that the dog’s social and emotional flexibility (inherited from the prey drive of the wolf) amplifies our narcissistic human tendency to project human-like thinking onto everything in the natural world, from the “man in the moon” down to the survival “strategies” supposedly devised by much simpler organisms, such as plants, viruses and bacteria. The reason I think it’s important to form a clear, un-anthropomorphized view of canine behavior is that far too many people, who believe their dogs can think, end up misunderstanding and mistreating their animals. If we can educate people that, yes, dogs are feeling beings, but that they don’t do things “deliberately,” or with malicious intent, then fewer dogs will be hurt of mistreated or misunderstood. That’s my hope, anyway. Calming Signals vs. Body Language

Turid Rugaas, is a Norwegian dog trainer who seems to share that goal. She studied the body language of dogs for more than a decade, and carefully recorded their behavior on video and in photographs. In the end, she created a wonderful library of what she calls “calming signals.” Rugaas says that the primary reason dogs use their body language is to calm others “because it’s the language they know and think everyone understands.” This strongly suggests that dogs do possess a Theory of Mind. Yet if we look at calming signals more closely, we might see that what she’s actually describing are the ways that dogs attempt to reduce the unpleasant physical and emotional vibrations they feel within themselves. Plus, dogs often produce these “signals” even when no one is looking at them! Why would they produce a specific set of postures, etc., that no one can see? Don’t get me wrong. What Turid Rugaas has done is very important, and very helpful. I think every dog owner, and particularly every dog trainer, should study her work. She’s provided us with a marvelous amount of intel about dogs. But I also think we should interpret her results with a more parsimonious mindset. Brenda Aloff has written an exceptional book called Canine Body Language, which I also recommend. The only problem is that Aloff divides body language into two types: “deliberate communication” (requiring conscious intent), and “non-deliberate signals reflecting an inner state” (only requiring the ability to express one’s emotions). This problem is prevalent in many descriptions of animal behavior, even those written by brilliant scientists like Roger Abrantes. For example, in his book Dog Language Dr. Abrantes writes, “A dominant dog will make its body appear large and stiff.” This suggests that the dog knows what he looks like to others, and that he’s deliberately altering the way he looks as a deliberate, intentional signal to others.

But how else could we describe these so-called signals?

Olfactory Information vs. Cognitive Awareness

As I said before, these so-called signals are often expressed when the other dog or person isn’t able to see the signals the stressed dog is “using to communicate.” This negates the idea that these forms of body language are a deliberate means of communication. But why would a stressed dog’s behavior or signals seem to change the behavior of a second dog?

Let’s say that two dogs meet or interact in some way and there’s tension between them. Depending on the level of tension, this would probably stimulate production of the stress hormone cortisol, which would in turn create changes in the blood chemistry of the stressed dog, which would create subtle changes in that dog’s scent. Those changes would activate receptors in olfactory cells in the other dog’s nose, causing ta change in the second dog’s behavior. In this scenario, “pacifying behaviors” would be nothing more than a “down-and-dirty” (i.e., cognitively simple) reaction to an olfactory stimulus. There are other possible explanations, for which I've already discussed in my articles on the canine emotional GPS system “How Lost Dogs Find Their Way Home” and “How Dogs Retrieve Our Unconscious Desires,” as well as my article on the strange behaviors of The Druid Peak Pack in Yellowstone National Park. For now though, if we apply the simple formula above (or some variation on it), where so-called “pacifying behaviors” can be distilled down to a simple energy exchange, based on the way certain odor proteins vibrate differently than others, I think we’re on more solid ground than we’d be by believing that dogs send each other calming signals “because it’s the language they think everyone understands,” or that dogs use their body language with the deliberate (i.e., consciously-arrived-at) intent to communicate. Of course we can’t know with any real precision how dogs process their experiences. The most we can do is apply what we know about our own feeling states. For example, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that when we’re angry or in pain or under a great deal of stress, we can actually feel a very real, and very unpleasant, physical vibration taking place within our own bodies, one that is quite different from the kinds of pleasurable vibrations we feel when we’re relaxed, happy and at ease. My question is, why shouldn’t we consider the idea that dogs feel their emotions in a similar fashion, as pleasant or unpleasant vibrations? And if they do, wouldn’t it make sense to think that, lacking a ToM (etc.), their motives in producing what we think of as “calming signals” or “pacifying behaviors” may come from a very different set of cognitive abilities, primarily the desire to do whatever they can to stop the unpleasant vibrations they’re feeling within their own bodies? 1960s pop-music genius Brian Wilson revealed that the idea for his song “Good Vibrations” came from something his mother once said to him and his brothers, that dogs can sense a person’s vibration—whether they have a good vibration or a bad one. I think if we’re going to truly understand dogs, on their level, we need to learn how to tune out our need to make them into miniature versions of ourselves, and tune in to their good vibrations. We could learn a lot about dogs, and ourselves, by doing so. LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”


The concept that learning is a result of positive reinforcement is a clinical outgrowth of Freud’s pleasure principle. And Freud’s definition of pleasure is the reduction of “unpleasurable tension.” He also writes that “unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution.” (The Freud Reader, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 594, 595.)

In other words stress increases unpleasurable excitations in the body, though the body is also capable of feeling pleasurable vibrations and excitations as well.

I'm pickin' up good vibrations.

She's givin' me excitations.

This is where the human and canine mind meet and share the most similarities, on the level of positive social emotions, which have been designed by nature and evolution for the purpose of engaging in an activity with a shared purpose, i.e., the hunting of large, dangerous prey. That’s the key to not only training dogs but to understanding who they are, where they’re coming from, and why they do what they do.

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.