Friday, November 12, 2010

Another calming trick: yawning

Like many dogs, Maize was uneasy with the camera  
I think this is my favorite one yet, picked up from reading Turid Rugaas' Calming Signals: On Talking Terms with Dogs. For dogs who are stressed by other dogs, thunderstorms, the sound of approaching trains, we can use the signals that dogs use to calm each other down.

When dogs do something that seems out of context--shaking when they're dry, licking their lips when they're not eating, yawning when they're not tired--often they are displaying a calming signal. When two dogs meet each other for the first time and are not sure of each other, they do a lot of these. 

I see this all the time in my own house.
  • I bring home a new foster, foster comes into yard, Lamar is allowed to see foster, Lamar turns sideways: calming signal. 
  • New dog licks his lips: calming signal.
  • Lamar sniffs the ground: calming signal.
  • New dog approaches slowly, in an arc: calming signal 
  • Dogs greet, sniff, decide they like each other, new dog goes into a play bow: calming signal
  • Dogs romp and play for a few minutes, Lamar yawns: calming signal
  • I get out the camera to capture these fabulous moments on film, both dogs look away: calming signal
  • Dogs start roughhousing again, knock into my legs, I yell Ouch! with some irritation in my voice, both dogs stop playing and shake: calming signal.
What all these signals are saying is chill out! With these communications, dogs are trying to convey that they are a bit uncomfortable with a situation. To another dog, they are saying Remain calm, I'm not a threat. To a person with a camera or a yelling person, they are trying to get us to calm down and remove the camera from their faces or stop yelling at them. 

The most fascinating thing Rugaas relates is the value of these signals in training. She worked with a family that lived by the train tracks, whose dog was terrified, howling, trembling, hiding with every passing train. To get the dog to relax, she tried getting the whole family to yawn when that train went by. Within a few weeks, the dog was transformed--sleeping calmly as the train blew its horn and chugged on by.

I think this is a wonderful tool to be used in conjunction with desensitization and counterconditioning. I tried it last night with Lars and Lamar, who still get stressed and excited about each others' entries in the front door. As Lamar tried to enter, and Lars stood inside, hackles up, I gave them both bits of hot dog as usual while I stood there yawning. And I swear Lamar's hackles relaxed a bit and both of them smiled a bit wider, a bit less tensely, as they chewed their hot dogs and watched me yawn and yawn.

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