"Understanding Your Dog's Calming Signals."

What Do “Calming Signals” Tell Us About Canine Communication?

Originally published in different form on July 16, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

Commonalities and Differences

Dogs and humans share certain commonalities. Both species started as group predators, who routinely 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 many ways in which dogs and humans differ. Cognitively speaking, there are three abilities that set human beings apart from most other animals—three higher-order mental abilities we have that evolution hasn’t yet given dogs. In fact these are abilities that dogs have no need for. What are they?

1) A sense of self-and-other (or Theory of Mind).

2) A sense of linear, chronological time (or mental time travel).

3) The ability to think symbolically (through words and language).

One of my main themes here is that, for most species animal consciousness should be described economically, through the laws of physics, not through higher-order intellectual thought processes. (This is why I think Freud—whose psychology was based on the conservation of energy—is more relevant to dog training than Skinner.)

Unconscious Intent

In my last article, I proposed that 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 another’s 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.

Some readers have reacted badly to this idea, 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-anthropomorphic 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

Turid Rugaas, is a Norwegian dog trainer and writer 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, or that Rugass believes they do. Yet if we look at these 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, i.e., via Ockham’s razor and Morgan’s canon.

Canine Body Language

Brenda Aloff, following Rugaas’ work, 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” (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, when nothing could be further from the truth.

However, Abrantes rightly says that the domesticated dog’s cousin the wolf needs to sublimate its aggression in order to hunt cooperatively. “This does not mean aggression disappears,” he writes. “Rather it assumes other forms through ritualized behavior: greeting ceremonies, pacifying behavior, and rank ordering.” Note the term “pacifying behavior.,” implying that one wolf is intentionally trying to pacify the other, which again implies self-awareness and the ability to attribute emotional states to others.

Self-Awarness or Blood Chemistry?

Let’s say that two dogs meet and there’s tension between them. Depending on the level of tension, this would probably create at least a small burst of adrenaline in each dog’s system. That would also create changes in the their blood chemistry, which would in turn create subtle changes in each dog’s overall scent. Those changes would activate receptors in olfactory cells, cells that have the capacity to distinguish between the odor proteins of a relaxed, sociable dog and those of a tense, fearful/aggressive dog. This information would theoretically go to the DNA in their receptor cells and activate a sequence of regulatory DNA, which would turn on a part of the gene that says, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson! Keep your distance!”

So in this scenario, “pacifying behaviors” would be nothing more than a “down-and-dirty” (i.e., cognitively simple) reaction to an olfactory stimulus.

A Simple Energy Exchange

There are other explanations, which I’ll go into in future articles, though I’ve already laid some of the groundwork, primarily in my articles on the canine emotional GPS system “How Lost Dogs Find Their Way Home” and “How Dogs Find and Retrieve Our Unconscious Desires,” as well as my article on the strange behaviors of The Druid Peak Pack in Yellowstone.

For now though, if we apply this formula (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 vibrations we feel when we’re relaxed and at ease.

Pleasant or Unpleasant Vibrations

My question is, why shouldn’t we consider the idea that dogs feel their emotions in a similar fashion, as pleasant or unpleasant physical 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?

After all, everything in the universe vibrates.

As I stated in an earlier article, 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 [i.e., vibration] and pleasure to a diminution.” (The Freud Reader, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 594, 595.) 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.

1960s pop-music genius Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) revealed that the idea for his song “Good Vibrations” came from something his mother once said to him and his brothers. “Our mother told us 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 simply tune in to their vibrations. We could learn a lot about dogs, and ourselves, by doing so.


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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