"Unified Dog Theory 8: Understanding Calming Signals."
Calming Signals or Stress Indicators? What You See Is What You Get!
Originally published in slightly different form on December 29, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.
Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas has spent years studying canine behavior, and has noticed something very important about the way dogs interact with their owners and with other dogs, some very simple behaviors and micro-expressions that dogs all over the world exhibit on a daily basis. She calls them “calming signals.”
Rugaas: “Dogs have about 30 calming signals, perhaps even more. Some of these signals are used by most dogs, while other dogs have an incredibly rich ‘vocabulary.’ It varies from dog to dog. Dogs use this communication system towards us humans, simply because it’s the language they know and think everyone understands.
She goes on to say that by “failing to see your dog using calming signals on you, and perhaps even punish the dog for using them, you risk causing serious harm to your dog. Some may simply give up using the calming signals, including with other dogs. Others may get so desperate and frustrated that they get aggressive, nervous or stressed out as a result. Puppies and young dogs may actually go into a state of shock.”
Rugaas’s list of calming signals include everything from tail-wagging, to tongue-licking, to turning away, moving in a circular fashion, to yawning.
As Rugaas rightly states, there is a great deal of value in knowing about and understanding these simple behaviors and facial expressions; they’re very clear indicators of stress. But are they really done consciously by one dog to calm another, or to calm a human being?
I began thinking about this in earnest after a recent discussion on my Facebook page, over a New York Times article on yawning. In the course of the back and forth that took place between me and various people—dog owners and dog trainers—I began paying more attention to these behaviors and micro-expressions whenever I encountered dogs of various sizes, breeds, and temperaments on my daily walks in New York City.
Turid Rugaas: “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.”
I agree. It’s important to start observing these “signals.”
Here’s What I Found
So that’s what I did, and here’s what I found: most dogs will exhibit these behaviors and micro-expressions even when the other dog or human being can’t see what they’re doing. The clearest cases of this were the dogs who had no tails to speak of, and were wagging them furiously anyway, even though their tails were nonexistent or were so small as to be hidden from view. I also observed cases where a dog didn’t start the tongue-licking behavior until after the other dog’s back was turned, and dogs who didn’t make circular approach toward the other dog until that dog was looking away from them.
If Muttsy is really using these behaviors to communicate, and is doing so with the intent of changing the other dog’s or human’s emotional state, then he would have to have a realistic expectation that the person or dog he’s communicating with would be in a position to receive the input; in other words, the receiver would have to be able to see what Muttsy is doing, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to call them calming signals.
Readers of my blog here know that I see canine behavior in some pretty simple terms, based on the energetic qualities of attraction and resistance and tension and release. So to me it seems fairly obvious that when a dog comes toward you in a circular fashion he’s doing so primarily because he has mixed feelings of attraction and resistance. The same goes for tail wagging (also a means of releasing tension). Tongue-darting is clearly the result of excess adrenaline production, brought on by anxiety or stress.
So if we’re going to be exact about these behaviors and micro-expressions I think we should call them stress indicators, not calming signals. The main reason I make this distinction is that whenever you tell dog owners that their dogs are acting with deliberate intent, or ‘thinking’ about their experiences, the more you create the possibility for mistreatment.
The Guilty Look
Alexandra Horowitz of Columbia/Barnard did a study last year showing that if people believe their dog did something wrong, they’re certain that the dog has a guilty look on its face, even when the dog didn’t actually misbehave. And the people who were sure their dog “knew” what he’d done, the more likely they were to scold or punish the dog!
We’re hardwired to project our thoughts and experiences onto animals. In fact, we do it with inanimate objects as well. (A recent episode of NOVA was about the strange behaviors of atoms at super cold temperatures, and one of the scientists said it’s difficult to understand their behavior because it’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced in our own minds or bodies.)
The wonderful and amazing benefit of Turid Rugaas’ work is that it’s a fabulous handbook for tuning-in to how your dog is feeling. And in my experience, the more we stick with how our dogs are feeling rather than what they may or may not be thinking, the better we understand their unique point of view.
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It would be fairly simple, I think, to test Rugaas’ hypothesis (and mine) by making the same kinds of everyday observations that I’ve done, but doing so in a more clinical and scientific manner. One could easily calculate the percentage of instances where dogs exhibit these signals when no one can actually see what they’re doing.