YOUR Dog is Stressed! MY Dog is Doing Calming Signals.

Many years ago, I went to a seminar by Turid Rugaas.  She pointed her finger at me as I struggled with my dog and said, “That is stress.”  My dog was energetic and young, bouncing and pulling at the end of the leash.  Kiki was friendly to embarrassing extremes.

During the two days, those were the only three words she spoke to me.  She said it only once.

“That is stress.”

It had a strong influence on the way I perceived seemingly happy, playful dogs.  The squiggly “OMG I did it! I did it!” dog that people think is happy – might not be happy.

No, I didn’t feel insulted.  I felt relieved.  Kiki was the dog by my side when I started out.  While I could have been insulted, it made more sense to consider that our struggles might, possibly be rooted in stress.  The hardest but most valuable pill to swallow is self-reflection.  Turid writes in her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals:

Find the reasons for your dog to be stressed.  By looking critically at yourself and your surroundings, you can often find out a lot all by yourself. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask someone to help you see the situation from the outside. We often become blind to what we do.

It’s really quite simple.  If you see calming signals, look deeper.  Identify the root of the stress.  Deal with the root of the stress.  Do not be blind to stress in your own dog as it can easily happen.

Reading other people’s dogs looks easy.  People point a crooked, denouncing finger at pictures and videos of other people’s dogs.  “YOUR dog is stressed.  He gave a whale eye.  She looked away.  Your dog sniffed the ground.”  Funny how sure people are with their accusations when they are pointing away from themselves.

Assuming to KNOW what other dogs are experiencing in short video clips is presumptuous.  It is about as accurate as saying that someone who bites their nails IS stressed.  It’s equally possible that the person has a hangnail or a long standing habit.  Nail biting MIGHT mean stress or it might not.  Context is important.  An intimate knowledge of the subject also matters.

For example, I can take a series of SLR pictures of my dogs.  One second they look happy.  Less than a third of a second later, the white of the dog’s eye is exposed, their head is turned away and their mouth pinched tight.  Some might scream, “Whale eye! Tight mouth!  Looking away!”

Kip slr
Little do you know that the cat walked by.  My dog turned his head, looked sideways at the cat and closed its mouth in order ascertain the cause of the noise to its side.  My dog is not stressed in that instance.  My dog is looking over its shoulder.

Here is where things get interesting.  Some people reinforce calming signals during training.  They put the dog into a position where the dog WILL give off calming signals.  Accusatory fingers point at others: “YOUR dog is stressed – but MY dog is doing calming signals.”

Stop right there.  OTHER dogs are stressed but YOUR dog is happily self-soothing and using calming signals?  Maybe it’s time to revisit Turid’s warning that, “We often become blind to what we do.”

The problem with opinions is that my opinion is just as valid as your opinion.  If your pointy finger is aimed at my dog while you wrinkle your nose clucking “Stress,” then I can just as quickly point at your squiggly, seemingly happy (I say twitchy) dog and retort right back.  “No, YOUR dog is STRESSED.”

Opinion only really leads to wars.  Pity, because there is a way to know if your dog is using calming signals or showing stress signs.  Read the definitions and apply them.  The quagmire of word choice isn’t that difficult to navigate.  Several words are used in similar contexts and here is what they mean:

Displacement Behaviours:  Behaviours that bring a dog comfort when conflicted.  Observing displacement behaviours is considered a non-intrusive way of measuring stress, potentially indicating a negative effect on the animal.

Calming signals:  The signals are used at an early state to prevent things from happening, avoiding threats from people and dogs, calming down nervousness, fear, noise, and unpleasant things.  The signals are used for calming themselves when feeling stressed or uneasy. (On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals)

Appeasement gestures:  Stereotypical gestures made in response to threat gestures that tends to inhibit an attack.

Stress signs:  Signs of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.  To subject to pressure or tension.

The differences between these words amounts to hair splitting.  Stressed dogs use calming signals.  Calming signals may indicate stress.  How is one better than another?

All of these terms describe stress, discomfort and adversity.  The difference between stress signals, displacement behaviours and calming signals should not be the direction your finger is pointing.  The use of these words should not be a marketing strategy, making stress signs more palatable by making these behaviours seem desirable.  Really, that is the key difference.  Calming signals sounds warm and fuzzy.  Stress sounds bad.

I respect Turid’s observations, and have for many years, enough that I am not going to candy coat or change the definition she created.  She says that dogs often do these things when yelled at, threatened or scared.  Look for the root of the problem and solve it.  If you believe that calming signals/stress signals/displacement behaviours are important indicators of stress, then changing the definition for your dog (or your friend/guru’s dog) is more of a reflection of personal bias than objective analysis.

I also respect another mentor.  Many years ago, when I wanted to capture and reinforce my dog’s yawns she said, “You’re going to let your dog feel stressed so you can reward them for yawning?  How exactly will you know when the dog is actually stressed or just wanting a cookie?”

Harsh questions are good questions.  I’ll never forget that one because it did make me feel pretty lousy.  For an instant I forgot that capturing a calming signal meant that I would need to cause my dog discomfort.  Calling a stress sign a calming signal doesn’t change a thing about that moral dilemma, regardless if it sounds better when spoken out loud.

4 thoughts on “YOUR Dog is Stressed! MY Dog is Doing Calming Signals.

  1. This is a great post; thanks for sharing your experience. I hadn’t previously thought about the distinctions between calming signals, stress signs, and appeasement gestures; you provide an excellent description for dog owners.

  2. I have been working on capturing my dog’s shake offs for awhile. Do I purposefully cause her stress just to capture it? Of course not, but there are many opportunities anyways because an environment alone can be stressful. LIfe is stress.

  3. Thanks for this beautifully written blog. This subject has both confused and enlightened me for a long time, and yes, I also read Turid Rugaas’s book years ago. Such a small and thin little book, and yet it was one of those life-changing books for me. The ideas in it are never far from my mind, and I often wonder at how much stress I impose on my dogs, both during training sessions at home, but especially when I take them to group classes. How can we learn to ask more from our dogs without stressing them? Or is being out of our comfort zones part and parcel of the learning process, both for humans and dogs?

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