Friday, September 9, 2011

Calming vs. Stress Signals

When I first got into dog training, I was thrilled to discover a simple, somewhat ridiculous tool to combat insomnia. Reading positive dog training books before bed made me feel so relaxed, happy, and hopeful! All of that, plus the fact that they were somewhat wonderfully boring, allowed me to drift off to sleep thinking about the possibilities for helping dogs with these methods that are thoroughly positive, joyful, and relationship-focused. 

Calming Signals: On Talking Terms with Dogs was not the least bit boring but still put me into a state of happy stupor. Turid Rugaas describes how every time a dog does certain behaviors out of context, she is probably trying to communicate calming signals. When a dog yawns, shakes, lick her lips, or looks away, she is telling other dogs to calm down and relax--there's no threat here. Dogs use them to avoid fights and establish peaceful relations among groups.

This was just so exciting to me. Imagine the possibilities for communicating with our canine friends! Imagine whole families yawning at the Fedex guy, just to help their dog cope! Imagine Reactive Dog classes where all the human coaches and assistants stand around licking their lips and shaking!

Sam, I know you wanna play--but go easy on me!
Then you can probably imagine my consternation when one of my dog training mentors--a trainer who is absolutely committed to positive methods and has done more than anyone I know for their promotion and use with rescue dogs, fearful dogs, behaviorally challenged dogs--poo-poohed the idea of calming signals and said that they are actually stress signals that dogs use when they are deeply uncomfortable. 

She said that most trainers no longer think of these signals the way Rugaas described. She said that using them as Rugaas suggests--training dogs to display them so they communicate clearly with each other, displaying them ourselves to help dogs relax--just keeps dogs in a stressed-out state. According to this understanding, our only response to stress signals should be removing a dog from the situation that is making him stressed out. 

Now this trainer, bless her heart, is as I said unfailingly positive in her approach to dogs. Not so much to humans. She can come off as a bit grumpy and dismissive, and maybe she was just having one of those days where she had to growl a little at my gushy effusiveness. 

Can someone make those two calm down?
I can see how both understandings are useful. If we are well versed in the language of canine communication, then calming signals will be like a little reminder to us to tune in to our dogs. We can respond by giving the dog some distance from the stressor, and seeing if the signals abate. Once there's some distance, we can see what happens if we do some yawning and shaking of our own--does that provide some reassurance? 

The issue fascinates me and I am going to delve again into Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff--a very in-depth look at calming signals and all aspects of dog communication. 

While I bliss out with another good read on positive dog stuff, share your thoughts! Which understanding is more useful? What do you do when you see calming/stress signals? Do you have a dog who's a brilliant communicator, or one with poor social skills? 


  1. I will be the first to admit that I often miss signals that my dogs are giving, but I have noticed that Pauley yawns every time that Annie corrects him on something. You have given me something to ponder :)

  2. PJ, sounds like a sure stress/calming signal!

    And Jodi, who reports trouble commenting on my blog, says this:

    I had heard when the dog yawns it is because they are confused at what you are asking him/her to do.

    That being said after reading your post I am going to try yawning at my dog during a "situation" and see what happens!

    Thanks for the post.

    Jodi's fabulous blog is at Check it out!

  3. I have always wondered about the chicken and egg nature of this situation, but I'm afraid I don't have the answers. I know that calming and stress signals are similar, but I don't know whether we are exacerbating a stressful situation by repeating the signals back to the dog-- honestly, something I have not pondered before!

  4. I've found reading the reactions of dogs most helpful. I'm a bit skeptical about using the same signals to communicate to dogs. I don't think we can ever do them as well as the dogs do, even if they are a form of communication.

  5. I believed them to be calming signals after reading Rugaas' work, but our behaviorist right now believes Kiba's yawning, sniffing and licking to be stress signals. Like you said, either explains the situation but defines it in a totally different way. It's interesting...

  6. Well, what if they are stress signals, but when dogs see each other exhibiting them the effect is to calm the other dog? Wouldn't that make the two definitions compatible?

    The tricky part for me is knowing what to do about them--seems your behaviorist, and my friend, would both advocate Kiba from the situation, while Rugaas would not be so quick to propose that. Thanks for the comment and the great post today!

  7. I'm watching yawns way more carefully these days :) I've always known that dogs used yawns socially, but never imagined all these nuances!

  8. You raise a good point--as we positive trainers always say, dogs know we're not dogs so we can't try to be their "pack leaders" and do things like alpha rolls. It would stand to reason that the same applies to yawning, shaking, and other forms of dog communication.

  9. The times I really watch for calming signals is when I'm taking pictures of Bunny. Sometimes she tells me that she either doesn't get what I want, or that she's had enough. It's my signal to either change tactics or to take a break.

  10. Honestly, I haven't a clue about any signals. I just tend to read the mood and body language, the dogs let me know what they feel and I respond to whatever that is.

    Interesting though.

  11. Thats exactly what I thought during training. Kiba was yawning and scratching while the other dog was within sight range. The other dog would bark, get a click, then stop barking but his eyes never left Kiba. I wondered if Kiba was trying to say "You're harshing my mellow, chill out!"


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