First published in the
Santa Barbara News-Press
The Art of Communication
In the 1990s, Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas studied canine behavior and in 1996 published the widely acclaimed book “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.” Turid teaches how to be a keen observer of canine behavior. We can use her work to understand the behaviors of many species.
Animals use body language to calm themselves or other animals in stressful situations, to show dominance, to communicate to us where they have pain in their body or to show us when they are confused or confident. Some of these body language signals are looking away, blinking, yawning, fake sniffing the ground, approaching in an arc, shaking, sitting, lying down and play bowing.
Body signals of a lack of calming or when an animal is getting stressed include closing/clenching of the mouth, staring, leaning on the front paws, stiff body and panting. These often lead to fear or territorial aggression or other timid behaviors.
It can be dangerous not to know and understand these signals. Most humans expect domesticated animals to learn human voice commands and hand signals without acknowledging that animals have a native language of their own. This is selfish on our part. Often when people do not understand animal body language, they inadvertently are late to discipline or scold an animal at the time of inappropriate behavior and may scold while the animal is calming themselves. This can result in increased aggression, fear, lack of confidence, illness and in general creates confusion and dysfunction in the animals’ lives.
It is important to pay attention to our own body language and how we may be sending an animal mixed messages. For instance, a human may think bending over with one’s torso to greet an animal is welcoming when in actuality it is telling an animal that you are more dominant and that they must submit to you. You may notice when dogs are dominant to one another (in play or aggression) they may throw a chin or paw up on the other’s shoulder. If you want an animal to feel safe and come to you, bend with your knees not with your torso and/or blink your eyes or turn your body to the side.
Another common misconception is thinking it is disrespectful if the animal looks at you and looks away when you are speaking with the animal. Holding eye contact is also a form of dominance in the animal kingdom. Your animal is being polite when they look and look away. You may also see these behaviors in children when you are disciplining them. They are instinctual across species.
If we start to mindfully watch animals, we can praise an animal for exhibiting calming signals, which will, in turn, build confidence, independence and communication skills in all situations and relationships. For instance, if you have two animals that are not getting along in the house, you can start praising them for their positive communication skills. If the dog is staring at the cat with his mouth closed and then looks away, give praise. If the cat licks or fake grooms in the presence of the dog, praise. We can also teach the animals to look away when we see them staring at each other and then praise. This will remind them how to calm themselves. We can do this during any stressful situation.
We should start to notice an animal’s behavior as we approach it or are petting it. If the eyes start to stare, mouth closes, and body gets stiff, we should retreat. Perhaps the animal is nervous and may bite or perhaps we have just touched a sore spot on the animal’s body. In general, a soft eye and open mouth is safe.
If people use their knowledge of animal behavior to communicate more efficiently with their animals, it will build confidence and trust. The bond between human and animal will become more affectionate and understanding. Start watching your animals more closely and see what you discover.
Want to hear what your animals have to say?