A few years ago a dog trainer that I was with in Los Angeles told me of a quote by George Bernard Shaw that completely transformed my perspective on dog training and not only dog communication, but communication with people as well. “The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It’s really quite brilliant and accurate. My wife and business partner Claudia and I experience this first hand on a daily basis since her native language is Spanish and mine is English. The beauty is that if we study dog communication by looking at dog body language and the calming signals that dogs use, the basics are actually pretty simple.
Turid Rugaas is a dog trainer from Norway who has studied and written a book and created a fantastic video called Calming Signals. Calming signals are the universal language of all dogs and as Turid explains, there are about 30 different calming signals that all dogs use and understand, and they use them with us as well as other dogs. If we understand this type of dog communication and respond appropriately to these calming signals we can have great relationships with our dogs. Unfortunately, if we don’t learn this dog body language, there is the potential of causing harm to our dogs. They may give up on using the signals and then not be able to communicate with other dogs clearly. They may become confused, perpetually nervous and stressed because we aren’t responding appropriately to their clear dog body language.
A perfect example that Turid gives is that when a dog perceives another dog or person as being aggressive, his instinct is to give one or several calming signals, such as licking his lips or turning away to stop the aggressive behavior. But a human who is giving the dog a command to come in a loud voice and doesn’t understand the signals may interpret them as defiance or disobedience, and become louder or more aggressive, confusing the dog even more.
Some of the calming signals that she discusses that are so subtle that you would not even notice them if you don’t know what to look for are also the most commonly used. Besides lip licking and turning away or turning the head, there is yawning, sniffing the ground, sitting down and even wagging the tail. So the next time you are trying to take your dog’s picture and you’re getting frustrated because she keeps turning away from the camera or licking her lips, respect that and try to make it fun for both of you.
Studying dog body language and Ms. Rugaas’ book and videos on calming signals was transformational for my relationship with my dogs as well as my work as a dog trainer. I think that they should be required material for all dog owners and highly encourage everyone to study them. We share our world with our dogs. It’s imperative that for a successful relationship with them that we understand their needs and are able to communicate with them. Once you understand calming signals, not only will your dog be able to communicate with you, but you will be able to use the same signals to communicate with, and if necessary calm your dog when they are stressed.
So please check out Turid Rugaas. It will change your relationship with your dog and make both of your lives better. You can google Turid Rugaas Calming Signal or her website.