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Wolf Watching

Calming Signals

Course: Behaviour & Rehabilitation
Date: 19-24 August 2001
Venue: Summer Camp, Kincraig, Inverness-shire, Scotland
Leader: Turid Rugaas

In April 2001 Aileen Clarke attended an introductory course lead by Turid Rugaas, the well-known Norweigan animal behaviourist. Aileen was so impressed with everything she learned that she booked for a second course, which was billed as dealing with behaviour and the rehabilitation of dogs. The summer course included wolf watching, and as she does Pet Obedience classes and rehab work with the permanent residents at the NCDL, it seemed ideal.

The venue was stunning. Most of the course was held in the village hall at Kincraig, a few miles away from Aviemore, and the wildlife park was just down the road so it was very central.

We arrived for the second week of a two-week course - the first had covered calming signals and stress in dogs - which did feel a bit awkward to start with as most people had already been there for a week. It was a very international week as one lady came from Norway, another from Israel and another from New York. People had come from all over the British Isles as well, with some making the journey all the way from Cornwall.

The course was very relaxed. We spent a considerable time observing dogs use calming signals, and working with dogs that at one time I would have called aggressive.

Now that I am beginning to understand and use these signals with dogs I have found it to be a very humbling experience. I thought I knew a great deal about dog psychology and dog training. Over the years I have listened to many so called experts and followed their advice, but after listening to Turid in April, I went home and ripped up everything I had done and started again. This wasnít just over reaction on my part. Most people who attend Turidís courses feel the same way.

It would take me too long to detail everything that we did, so I will just give you some things to think about.

Calming signals
In the pack wolves need to be able to communicate, co-operate and avoid conflict with each other if they are going to remain as an efficient hunting team. If members of the pack are injured in petty squabbles, it reduces the pack's ability to hunt and to defend itself. Wolves have evolved a language so they can communicate with each other in order to avoid any such conflicts arising. This is not the whole story though, as wolves use calming signals to prevent situations from arising, to avoid threats from others, and to calm down others who are feeling nervous and stressed.

Dogs are very closely related to wolves and they use the same calming signals, but with less intensity. As Turid put it 'Wolves communicate in BIG LETTERS; dogs just need to communicate in small letters!' It is much more difficult to spot dogs using the signals so we need to be much more observant.

There are at least 29 Calming Signals that dogs use. Two of the easiest to understand are licking the lips, and turning away, either just the head or the whole body. You can see these signals now. Sit your dog down by your side and put your arm across his body and scratch his side that is furthest away from you. Watch his face. He will probably lick his lips, and turn his head away from you. He will be avoiding eye contact, sliding his eyes to the side. These are all calming signals. What he is saying is that he is finding this behaviour of yours quite threatening, and he is trying to calm the situation down by going through his repertoire of calming signals. Now try scratching him on the side closest to you. See the difference. He will turn his head towards you, and will look much less tense.

Change tactics
Most problems with dogs arise because through ignorance we have ignored or misinterpreted these calming signals. We have got annoyed with our dog, and might even have punished him when he has desperately been trying to communicate with us. A good example of Calming Signals being misinterpreted is a dog sniffing the ground and slowing down. This is intended to show others that he is actively being non-aggressive and is trying to calm the situation down.

Picture this. A handler has a dog that is slow on the agility course, so she tries to encourage him by acting like a demented chicken, making a lot of noise in order to get him moving faster. The dog sees this manic person screeching round the ring, looking totally out of control. To him this as a potential conflict situation, and so he desperately tries to calm her down in the only way he knows by sniffing the ground and slowing down. He might even yawn at her as well. The handler gets more and more excited to get some speed out of this stupid dog, and the dog gets slower and slower trying to get some control back into this crazy woman. This is total breakdown in communication, with the handler doing a wonderful job of achieving the opposite of what she wants through misunderstanding the signals her dog is using!

All dogs are born using calming signals which are literally a dog's life insurance policy as it is better to avoid fights and the possibility of injury. But if these donít work, they move on to the threatening signals. At one time if I saw a dog using these threatening signals, I would have said they were being aggressive. Now I know that this is not the case. They are still trying to calm the situation down, but instead of asking politely as they did with the calming signals, they are now demanding. The threatening signals include lip curling, growling, and air snapping. This snapping shows no intention of connecting with the other dog.

This is best explained by example. The breeds are chosen at random, so substitute any breed you want to!

A handler and his Labrador are stood in the queue, quietly waiting to go into the ring. The collie next to them is going bonkers - leaping round, barking, and encroaching on the space of the Labrador. The Lab curls his lip and gives a little growl. So his handler reprimands him for being aggressive. He is not being aggressive. He is moving up his repertoire of signals. He has probably tried the calming signals - blinking, turning his head away, sniffing and yawning but these havenít worked. He cannot get away from this manic collie because he is on the lead, so to protect himself from this potential conflict situation he has moved on to the threatening signals.

This is not aggression
They are warning signals. If the Lab could speak, these signals could be translated into English as. 'I say, old chap, if you donít behave I really will have to sort you out.' Other breeds might not be so polite!

If we ignore our dogs when they give the calming signals or punish them for giving threatening signals, we are leaving them with no means of calming conflict situations down. This leaves them only one way to protect themselves... with their teeth.

What we need to do is watch our dogs and remove them from this potential conflict situation before it gets this far. I never stand in queues now, because queues are too stressful for my dogs, and I want to take a calm dog into the ring. So I let the person in front of me know that I will be standing to one side to give my dogs the room they need to feel safe. I donít have a problem with my dogs and I am making sure that it stays this way. Admittedly I am the callerís nightmare!

Most of the aggressive dogs we see are ones that have lost their calming signals. The wonderful thing is that our dogs can regain these signals. We saw this happening on the course. Christina, the Norwegian lady, and I used calming signals with a German Shepherd that was very uncomfortable around people, barking and lunging at anyone who came too close. Everything was done quietly and with no fuss. We gave him space, didnít force eye contact, turned away from him and eventually he chose to come to us and say hello. It was a magical moment.

This is just half the story. Understanding how stress affects your dog is also vitally important. More about this another time.

Turid is coming back to Britain in October. If you can go and listen to her. It is well worth it.  Contact to find out more.

Turid with dogsAbout Turid Rugaas
Internationally renowned Norweigan dog Turid Rugaas has studied the body language of dogs for 12 years. She and a colleague started observing dogs carefully, recording their behaviour on video and in photographs.

She found dogs, like wolves, use body signals to solve potential conflicts. She has recorded 29 different signals used by dogs to communicate, including turning away, which helps calm aggressive dogs, and yawning, which shows nervousness.

Turid regularly lectures in Japan and the USA and is the author of On Talking Terms with Dogs.

Source: The Centre for Applied Canine Behaviour - web site:

About the author
Aileen Clarke
has been competing in agility for about ten years. She has now trained four agility dogs including her little mongrel, Tessa, who she now knows spent years trying to calm her down by going slow and yawning when she did her demented chicken act in the ring to hurry her up! Tessa is now nearly 14.

Three years ago her second dog, Fen achieved Senior level, but was diagnosed as having hip dysplasia and retired at six. He's an avid TV watcher and has learned to use the remote control on the TV. Big mistake!

Kie, her stunning four year old Border Collie spends his life in turbo drive. He just needs one more win in Agility to gain Senior status. Max is her six year old parti-coloured German Spitz, who thinks he's a Border Collie, until we get into the agility ring. Since coming back from Scotland, Max has achieved two agility rosettes. Those of you who know Max will know how amazing this is. He normally gets stuck in second gear.

Her beautiful Border Collie baby Bryn has just started competing, but at present it's much more important to say hello to the Judge, Timekeeper, Scribe and everyone else in the vicinity!! At the moment she is letting him be the puppy he is. After all, he has the rest of his life to compete.

Aileen has just take the plunge and started up her own dog training business called Fellandale Dog Training. For the time being, she is concentrating on building up the Pet Obedience side of the business, but she is looking to expand in lots of other directions as well. She is moving away from the traditional methods as her courses are now centred on understanding and communicating with dogs rather than just teaching the obedience exercises.

Aileen is also offering individual behaviour counselling and independent flyball as well as agility instruction.

For more information, contact Aileen at Beechbeck, Romaldkirk, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham DL12 9EE

Photo credit: http://www.friendsofthewolves.htm, and


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