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On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals

When I started reading “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals” by renowned international dog trainer Turid Rugaas, I did not expect to have my eyes opened so much.

I thought I knew my greyhound Tipps. I thought I knew all his signals and between us, we communicate well. And we do, for sure but this book has introduced me to a new level of canine body language I was completely unaware of.

Author Turid Rugaas 

Turid Rugaas is a Norwegian dog trainer. Starting her career in 1969, Turid initially trained and competed with working dogs, before moving on to work with rescue dogs. However, Turid found herself becoming increasingly frustrated with the non-flexible methods her instructor courses were teaching her.

The feelings that were gathering and her career experiences started to paved the way to a new school of thought on dog training. In the 1980's, whilst at Groruddalen veterinary clinic, she started a project to simplify training techniques. It was during this time, Turid started charting calming signals. 

Since that time, Turid has focused on developing natural methods of dog training. She uses techniques that that are more intuitive for dogs to resolve behavioural problems. She set up a dog school - Hagan Hundeskole - in 1984 on her farm in the Norwegian fjords. Her philosophy: 

"My goal is to educate dog trainers that are able to help dogs and owners to a better live together"

"We want to better promote ethical opinions in dog care, better understanding of dogs and why problems are arising." 

Turid Rugaas and her dog Kenzie at her Norwegian home and school.

Turid Rugaas and her dog Kenzie at her Norwegian home and school.

A New World 

Picking up on many of my dog’s cues; I know when he is being stubborn and holding out for treat versus truly not wanting to do something. I know the difference between restless pacing for the toilet or because he is bored and wants to play. Understanding these signals, I can react to his behaviour.

All in all, I have a good rapport with my ex-racer - a career breed typically hard to read due to their training. However, I can compare reading this book to being Alice in Wonderland. I am now submerged into a new world where dogs talk to me, and to each other. Non-verbally of course, but I am on talking terms with dogs.  

Now I know the calming signals described in Turid’s book, I see them for what they are and continue learning to understand dogs better for knowing them. 

Practise Makes Perfect

The local park is a brilliant classroom for me to observe and learn. I think back to previous occasions where I misread body language and jumped to assumptions. Almost certainly intervening when it was not necessary.

There were occasions where I simple did not recognise a signal at all. Tipps tends to nose lick and yawn a lot. I put this down to his personality and that dogs yawn a lot. I now see he does this more often when the noise levels are high around him.

This book is great for really understanding your dog, and others dogs. When you know what to look for and how your dog is reacting, you can act accordingly. And, feel confident you are doing the best by your dog. Constant protection or no protection at all can lead to unwanted events, confusion and undesirable behaviour. 

Zoe, AKA Black Beauty. 

Zoe is a two-year-old street dog that was brought into the shelter when she was between 8-10 months old. I am told that when she arrived, she was extremely scared and frightened of people. Like with many rescue dogs, the reason for her behaviour is unknown.

One of the shelter volunteers started working with Zoe. Her rehabilitation was hard and her mistrust deep rooted but after months of work she was adopted out. Zoe was adopted by the volunteer who fell in love with her sweet nature. She is also fabulous at picking up commands and thoroughly enjoys training sessions. She is a enthusiastic sponge when it comes to learning.

When I first met Zoe, her mistrust of me was clear. She stood back, stared at me, barked and looked for reassurance from the shelter staff. Although Zoe has learnt to trust the people she is regularly in contact with, anyone new is regarded as a possible threat.

This is really not that unusual with dogs in general. There are many that would not engage with unfamiliar faces but Zoe was far worse than mere scepticism. After being told how Zoe was when she first arrived, I know that the centre, and her new owner especially, have done a brilliant job in rehabilitating her.

Zoe and her adopted sister Lou. The treats are too tempting.

Zoe and her adopted sister Lou. The treats are too tempting.

Calming Signals at Work

However, I still needed to show Zoe that I was nothing to be feared. I wanted to walk straight up to her and show her I’m a friendly and kind person but I know this is not the approach to take. It could be seen as hostile behaviour or even an attempt to attack.

Instead, I stood my ground, freezing in place. I did not back away but looked away. I turned my head away and swivelled my body so I no longer faced full on to Zoe. This quietened her after a while. Progress.

Over the next few hours, I did not approach Zoe directly. I was just around. I joined the morning walk, helped clean and played with the pups. She was keeping an eye on me. I know as every now and then a bark was directed at me. When I looked up to see that I was the cause of her outburst, I repeated the same behaviour. I averted my eyes, tried yawning and telling Zoe in a calm and soft voice I was not a threat.

Success!

At the end of the day (that very same day), I was with some of the shelters dog working on commands. Sit, paw, lie down - these dogs know what they are doing and treats were being dished out plentifully.

When I looked up and noticed that Zoe had joined my small group of eager beavers, I was surprised and super pleased. I had been accepted, and the allure of the treats was stronger than her suspicion of me. She happily completed a sit command and took a treat from me. When the treats were all gone so was she. Zoe did not hang around for the rubs and stokes but that was fine by me.

On returning to the shelter, I was greeted with suspicion again. Zoe took a few steps back, gave a bark or two but certainly appeared more relaxed. I know that perseverance was the key. I try never to expect too much from rescue dogs. Trust takes time. Slow progress is still progress.

It is great to see trainers working with dogs but media can also cause a misconception that training works in a matter of hours. Sure, maybe in some cases it can but dogs have individual personalities and past experiences. They will respond differently.

By day four I was able to leash her and walk her without too much trouble. She backed away a few steps as I approached with the lead but I crouched, turned my head, talked her through what I was going to do with a gentle, calm, voice and slowly reached out for her collar. This time, there was no flinching and I clipped on the lead.

Expectation

Zoe is a wonderful intelligent dog. The centre and her new owner had done an amazing job in rehabilitating her before I met her. Without a doubt, this made my engagement with her easier than if I'd met her when she was first brought in.    

The book is a great guide into how dogs operate. In being able to interpret non-verbal language displayed by dogs, we can understand better how they are feeling in a situation and change our tact, as we would a human.

She does not run to me as she does others but she gets stuck into training when I ask her to. She thoroughly enjoys learning new commands. This is when Zoe really shines. I think it is the best form of misdirection. All her worries go out the window when she is concentrating.

Book Recommendations: I strongly recommend you read ​"On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals" by Norwegian dog trainer and author Turid Rugaas. Her life long work with dogs and subsequent books have been a huge contribution to the field of dog behaviour and training. 


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On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals – Book Review

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