Dogs: The Ultimate Diplomats

Learning to read your dog’s “calming signals” will 
greatly improve your relationship.


Your dog won’t “come” fast enough. In fact, the louder you yell, the more slowly he walks toward you. Why is he being so uncooperative?

He’s not. He’s trying to soothe you. Between dogs, “movements that become slower, sometimes so slow that there is hardly any movement at all, have a very calming effect,” says Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals (Direct Book Service).

Once a person knows this, Ms. Rugaas says, she can use the same diplomatic moves to calm a dog and encourage cooperation. Let’s say your dog is doing something irritating—running to sniff the butt of another dog who doesn’t welcome the “inspection,” for instance, or keeping away when you’re trying to attach the leash at the park to go back to the car. Instead of raising your voice and flailing your arms, simply move slowly, more slowly than what feels natural. That will help disarm your pet because he’ll see you’re not looking for any trouble, making him more inclined to do what you ask.

Other calming signals:

Sitting down. A dog will often sit as a way of letting an approaching dog know he means no harm. “Try sitting when your dog is stressed and cannot relax,” Ms. Rugaas advises.

Blinking several times in a row. A dog will sometimes do a lot of blinking to appear more puppy-like to an aggressive dog. It’s a “don’t hurt me, I’m vulnerable” move. Try it yourself if you feel threatened by an aggressive dog.

Turning away. Turning from you—or turning away his head—is not a dog’s way of disrespecting you. The opposite of a direct stare, it’s his way of dispelling tension.

Walking toward you on a curve. Your dog might walk back to you in a banana-shaped arc not to make it take longer but to show he’s not coming right at you. It’s yet another way of ratcheting down anxiety between dogs.

The better you understand your dog’s calming signals, the less likely you will be to misunderstand his intentions—and the more likely he will be to live a life with you in which he feels secure and knows you have his best interests at heart. Ms. Rugaass’s book explains more than 30 calming signals altogether.


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