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Book Review
On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals
by Turid Rugaas

Review by: Kate Connick, Oct. 2002

The basic premise of this book is that dogs, being social animals, have evolved and use body language to avoid conflict. That is, they demonstrate "calming signals" in response to stress in order to console themselves and to diffuse others from reacting in an aggressive manner. The author contends that recognizing these calming signals in dogs, as well as using calming signals ourselves when interacting with dogs, can alleviate a world of miscommunication and prevent or correct behavior problems. Sounds intriguing.

Rugaas proposes that there are 28 or 29 known calming signals, as follows:

  1. turning head away
  2. averting eyes
  3. softening eyes
  4. turning away
  5. licking nose
  6. freezing
  7. walking slowly or moving slowly
  8. play bowing
  9. sitting
  10. lying down
  11. yawning
  12. sniffing
  13. curving or walking in a curve
  14. "splitting up" (moving between two parties)
  15. wagging tail
  16. "playing puppy"
  17. making self small
  18. licking faces
  19. blinking eyes
  20. smacking lips
  21. lifting paw
  22. scratching
  23. shaking off

If that doesn't add up to 28 or 29, the discrepancy relates to the author's disorganization. Those were ones I was able to find in her chatty explanation. She also identifies threatening signals that include staring, approaching directly, barking, growling, displaying teeth, attacking, and looming over.

Several of these calming signals are illustrated with examples. Most of the examples suggest that resolving aggression is as simple as approaching the aggressive dog with the correct signals. And that is laughably oversimplified. For example, she presents sniffing as a calming signal in a situation of inter-dog aggression:

"A client with a very aggressive dog came to me. She didn't dare to have him out of the car, as she was afraid that he would kill any dog outside... I told the owner to hold the leash and open the door of the car, letting the 'aggressive' dog out. And out he came - a monster of little golden mix breed, all teeth, and foaming and barking his head off. He really looked fierceful. Velsa was only yards away, nose to the ground and kept it there. King was snarling and acting wildly. Velsa was sniffing, but suddenly she made up her mind, went straight up to him, nose to nose, and King fell like a punctured balloon. Ten minutes later he ran happily with seven other dogs in the training field."

Ah, if only it were this easy to cure inter-dog aggression. It is not.

Similarly, she relates being face to face with a "very aggressive Rottweiler" who was growling deeply and would not tolerate her moving. She claims that by blinking her eyes, "the growling ceased, and suddenly his tail started to wag a little. It took me very shortly to become his friend." Perhaps her anecdotes are true, but they don't feel terribly believable.

This widely heralded book is just over 30 pages long, divided into five chapters. Oddly, it is published without correcting the author's awkward use of the English language. This is an expensive book simply due to its scant size. One would expect it to offer tremendous organization, insight, and/or inspiration. I'm not sure that it does any of the above. The content feels as if it belongs on someone's personal web page, rather than in the bookstore.

Most of us know that dogs are social animals, and age-old theories of dominance and submission explain a lot of what Turid Rugaas has described as calming signals. The curving, head-averted, lip-licking, blinking dog may be a classic picture of what other authors would term submissiveness; that, too, is intended to diffuse conflict. Therefore, I'm not convinced that term "calming signals" is necessary, nor the concept original. The body language, whether labeled "submissive" or "calming," is intended to telegraph to another, "I am not a threat."

Some of these behaviors may be viewed as avoidance or displacement behaviors that an animal engages in when it is experiencing an overload of stress. However, just as the individual who studies human body language will see real or imagined meaning in every head scratch or eye blink, so too will the person who is overzealous about analyzing dog body language. Sometimes a yawning dog is just a yawning dog.

Moreover, she at least implicitly denies the significance of socialization, whereby dogs learn at an early age to become familiar with and adapt to human behavior and body language. I don't know of any normally-socialized pet dogs that become agitated by human smiling, for example. Yet it is a clear threat display when one dog bares his teeth at another. Dogs are typically astute enough to know the difference between human and canine behavior; the author does not give dogs enough credit in that regard.

I've seen followers of Rugaas attempt to overanalyze canine "calming signals" to the point of absurdity. For example, envision a well-meaning individual slowly sidling sideways towards a highly social dog, scratching her own head, licking her lips, blinking her eyes and yawning. This dog, one that is well socialized and comfortable with normal human social greeting, may find the "calming" behavior alarmingly abnormal. This person, in attempting to behave like a calming canine, behaves like a human freak. She may thereby create the very stress and discomfort that she is so painstakingly attempting to avoid.

Should you think that it is not the author's intention to encourage human beings to mimic canine body language in their routine interactions with dogs, you are mistaken. For example, when discussing tail wagging as a calming signal, she admits defeat, "You might not be able to use it. I have never been able to do so very effectively." She's tried? Try to visualize this middle-aged, matronly, Norwegian woman attempting to pacify a dog by wagging her tail. Oh dear.

Further, contrary to her assertion, not all dogs are necessarily hardwired to resolve conflict readily. Some breeds, like bloodsport dogs, have been selectively bred to not recognize and/or to ignore social signals that tell them to turn off aggression. It is therefore arguable that calming signals directed towards these dogs would be functionally meaningless.

Rugaas's tone is often quite condescending toward the reader as well as several of the clients in cases she presents. She tells of a Tibetan Mastiff whose owner leaned over him and asked him to sit in a normal tone of voice. The dog "became psychotic." She describes how the dog was "completely lost," "afraid of being alive and present," as evidenced by his remaining motionless. I'm not exactly sure how one can logically jump from a dog being nonresponsive to it being out of touch with reality due to assumed fear and abuse, but that is exactly what the author does. Rugaas sat alongside him and petted him until he "started to come back to reality," and "he loved (her) to pieces after that." I was grimacing at her twist on things. She presents herself as some sort of all-knowing savior who is at odds with a heartless humanity. "You have always a choice of being threatening or calming. To me the choice is easy." I'm not convinced that life is so black or white.

The author concludes that most behavior problems and many health problems are directly related to the stress inflicted on dogs via their association with people. She claims that people are punitive and threatening towards dogs, and that that stresses the animals, makes them ill, leads to aggression towards dogs and people, and results in bites. She believes that by understanding dogs' calming signals and reacting in kind, that much of this stress can be dispensed with. Among other things, she concludes from all of this, that dogs should never be punished or trained with "harsh" methods. Harshness, to her, presumably includes such relatively benign acts as leaning over a dog when issuing a sit command - the act that put the Tibetan Mastiff mentioned above into his "psychotic" trance.

I suppose what I find most puzzling is how unnatural her ostensibly in-tune-with-nature approach is. The basic premise is to speak to dogs on their own terms, yet dogs do freely give one another dirty looks (hard eye contact), curse at one another (growling), physically control one another (shoulder-slamming), and otherwise challenge (leaning over). They may even attack one another in an alarmingly violent-looking manner that results in no physical damage. Serious conflict (injury and death) is avoided not only through calming signals but through assertive posturing and aggressive bluffing. There is no reason to believe that dogs inherently suffer when exposed to the latter. To the contrary, one might propose that dogs "expect" and are well adapted to coping with threat displays. Whether or not a person wants to pretend to be a dog in an attempt to communicate with them is another question altogether.

Of course it is useful for the dog owner or trainer to learn basic canine body language, to be able to read the difference between challenges and appeasement, and to recognize budding stress. It is also useful to accept that socialization enables dogs to read humans to a large degree, as well. Other books offer greater detail, organization and breadth in discussing canine nonverbal communication.

In sum, this very brief book has a casual, albeit self-righteous feel to it. It's informal, poorly organized, and peppered with anecdotes of dubious quality. The reader (particularly if she is very unfamiliar with dogs) might find some useful ideas about canine body language, but the conclusions that are drawn are misleading and heavily value laden. This is an overpriced ego piece where the author blows hard about how enlightened she is, but it is not a meaningful manual to understand or deal with dog behavior.

Note: This book is on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers 2001 top-ten lists for the best books for dog owners and dog trainers.

On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas.
Published by Legacy by Mail, 1997. ISBN: 0967479606

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