Calming Signals: The Way Wally Would First "Talk" To Me | Exploits of an Amateur Dog Trainer: Blog Edition

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Calming Signals: The Way Wally Would First "Talk" To Me

One of the "advantages" to having a fearful dog is that you get to see a lot of what's called Calming Signals. These signals are often used when the dog is feeling overly anxious as a way to diffuse a situation or to try to maintain some composure within himself, or perhaps both.

These signals would help me first see that he's starting to "lose it" or that a situation that he was okay in but now he's feeling worse about it, and so on. With this communication, I was much better able to take him away from things that worry him more proactively, before the fear escalates over threshold and any behavior modification would no longer be able to take place.

However, I would come to learn that these signals don't just take place in negative situations.

I would discover that he will use them when he's also excited about something that's happening or he thinks will happen.

This opened me up to see them as actually a full part of his language and communication. He can express that he's also super excited and is trying to compose himself so he can stay focus and perform what's needed and to contain himself. Seeing this was great. Not only did it mean his emotions were swinging to super positive side, he taught me something else.

As time went on, I noticed he would also use or express the signals differently when using them in a positive expression. I noticed he chose to shake his body more when super excited. He'd also do a lot of yawning and sometimes stretching as if he was doing a play bow, but would then stand up square again.

Signals that tended to "go away" when he's in this positive state would be look-aways, blinking (especially of one eye and usually a quick blink), moving slowly, nose licks (though sometimes they would still happen), and "fake sniffing" of the ground. When in a more uncertain or anxious state, the reverse is true - I saw more nose licking and look-aways especially. Blinking was more frequent and slower, and sometimes his eyes would almost go into a squint. Moving slowly would often occur - unless he was that afraid or anxious to the point it would make him move in a rapid/skittish way.

Wally doing a look away because the camera is too close for his comfort. 

I would also notice them during training and in "normal" situations as well. Nose licking occurred frequently in both of these situations, especially in normal or neutral situations when I'm moving towards him. Just about anytime I walk towards him, he'll nose lick. If I'm getting too agitated during training, I'll get a lot of moving slowly or lying down. Sometimes I would get yawns during training or the "fake sniffing", especially if he's coming towards me. (Interesting that he diversifies his signals based on him moving to me or me towards him.)

One signal I got just one time was him turning his back to me, but he'll do it if he's really trying to make a point. Usually it happens to other dogs instead of to people for some reason.

Observing the use of calming signals in all situations really opened my eyes to his language and how often he really expresses when his emotions are getting too high, be they positive or negative emotions. It opened a new world of understanding of him.