Jack the Dog: Calming Signals and Anthropomorphism

Maybe there’s a rule that if you have dogs long enough, you eventually end up with a terrier even if you try to avoid it. No shade to my terrier friends. Humans are designed to fit into categories of identifiable behaviors that compliment dog breeds. Cynics say we use dogs like fashion accessories but it’s really the other way around. My idiosyncrasies and horizontal stripes go well with herding dogs.  And rescue dogs. Rescues are a leaky area though…

Jack was relinquished to rescue as a Corgi Mix. Well played, Jack. He came to the farm for an evaluation and within a month, the rescue had an interested inquiry from a forever home. We set a playdate and the adopter came with her young show dog. The dogs covered each other in spit and it was a deal. They drove off to forever.

Long story short, forever was interrupted by a hard diagnosis. Jack traveled from his home to ours a few times during his owner’s treatment over the next couple of years, and sadly, at his owner’s request, came back to stay. He’d like you to know he’s not a rescue dog again, but an inheritance, a treasure passed on.

I still doubt his Corgi ancestry. He has lanky legs and bounces as high as my nose. Not jumps, bounces.

It was hard getting a photo for the blog, even after all this time, because he always looks away when I have the camera out. He’s a comedian, always squinty-eyed and cute. Sometimes when he’s on my lap, turning circles, he pulls up one side of his lip and in a lopsided sneer. It’s like I’m a bit distasteful to him. His lip twitches up and down, perhaps he’d like to say something nice, but he can’t get it out.

Other times, with a wag to his tail that could power the eastern seaboard, he crumples his big old bat ears down and gives me a huge smile, showing each of his teeth, up past the gums. He pulls his lips so high that the end of his nose curls up. His smile is how I know he loves me.

Oh, hogwash! Wait, that’s not fair to hogs who are very intelligent. Oh, poppycock then! Snap out of it, it isn’t about love at all! Humans believe what they want to believe, usually the thing that makes us feel good about ourselves.

Calming signals are the way to get real. Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas wrote about it in 2005. She coined the phrase calming signals to describe the social skills, or body language, that dogs use to avoid conflict, invite play, and communicate a wide range of information to other dogs. And horses have them, too.

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. -Wikipedia (I know wiki definitions aren’t the most dependable, but this one is worthwhile because it adds the tricky human instinct part into the mix.)

Like usual, most of us are trying to navigate the gray area between extremes. We’ve gotten beyond the story of the Three Pigs with that huffing and puffing, and learned enough about wolf packs to be impressed; the truth is better than the fairy tale.

Communicating with animals is complicated. Some feelings we share are similar, some are not. Anxiety is frequently confused with affection. Understanding the differences takes perception, seeing them with human eyes but listening in a way truer to their species than ours. Perceptive attention versus anthropomorphism.

The trick is to find compassion without an over-abundance of sentimentality.

Back to Jack. See what I did there? I listed a few of his calming signals and drew a caricature of him that was really all about me.  Don’t get me wrong; I love a good story. I just think animals are more interesting than us. Rather than make up a fairy tale, let’s try to understand his less flattering habits. At the least, recognize when he shows anxiety and respond by not exacerbating it.

I said I couldn’t get a good photo because Jack looks away. He does it to the extreme. It’s one of the most common calming signals. He looks away to let me know he’s no threat to me, that I can be quieter.

Squinting eyes, softening eyes, even closing eyes are all ways of asking for calm. We want to think it’s relaxation or peace but many times it’s a stoic anxiety response. Other times, closed eyes are almost like playing dead to avoid a predator. Can you tell the difference?

I described a lopsided sneer in amusing words, but that facial expression is full of anxiety and nervousness. That full-faced lip contortion that we call a “smile” has nothing happy about it. If we call these signals cute, we might coo and pick them up. Imagine what it means to an animal when we grab them and hold them tight, when they were looking away, avoiding eye contact at all costs.

There’s a better answer. Respond by looking away yourself, replying to him that you’re no threat. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly, encouraging him to do the same. Then wait and see if he wants to come to you.

Jack and I disagree about food. I’m sure he will never miss a meal but he’s frantic. Has he been starved? Rabbit hole alert! We love to imagine sordid rescue horrors. Shut that fairy tale up, too. Gossip isn’t helpful.

Jack was stoic when he first came, he held himself tight and didn’t have much to say. Our pack was larger then; we lost two dogs over the last year.  It’s given him room to yap. In some ways, he shows more anxiety but sometimes when a stoic animal begins communicating, it’s uncomfortable good news. The only certainty is that there’s more change ahead.

Jack is a puzzle, coming together or apart, one signal at a time. Just like the rest of us. The art of reading calming signals is to take the sum of all his body language and listen without jumping to conclusions. His Corgi friend, Preacher Man, is anxious, too, but they play bitey face now. Zoomies happen. Maybe they’ll help each other. I do know this: I can’t miraculously heal them, but I can give them space to figure it out for themselves.

You’re okay, Jack. You don’t have to try so hard.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro

15 comments

  1. This is a bit off-topic, but last weekend I attended a clinic teaching clicker training (a/k/a) positive reinforcement training for horses and wondered what you thought about using it.

    • That’s a big topic for this small box. I’ve seen it done well and done poorly. I trust the calming signals demonstrated by the horse more than any technique used to produce a behavior. It’s their opinion that matters. Thanks for asking, Blue Eagle.

  2. My current dog Q – a JRT – “rescued” from neglect, is (fondly) referred to as a jack russell terrorist. Her predecessor was a lab/pit mix. When asked about her breeding, Sweetpea became a Gulf Stream Retriever. Saved me from having the pit bull conversation, and we are just a few miles from the Gulf Stream as the crow flies.

    Q has reliable recall issues, and Sweetpea became dog aggressive after we got jumped once by an off leash neighbor. Calming signals have helped in both situations, though I didn’t know that’s what they were called until recently. I just thought it was paying attention lol. 😀

    • I discovered them when I moved here and saw all the animals communicate more than I did… finding this title for it gave me such a feeling of resonance. And yup, just paying attention. Thank, great comment.

  3. I loved the concept of calming signals and try hard to remember to breathe; for my horse as well as for me. But my animals do more than calming signals to me. They each have ways to tell me to pay attention to them. My dog and cats do so more to get a tangible something. My horses more to get me to attend to something they are worried about or wondering if they should be worried about. I often feel that we all train each other, rather than me training them.

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