calming signals

Calming Signals

by James Branson

Calming signals are a set of facial expressions and body language that dogs instinctively use to calm each other down. Turid Rugaas has produced many books and videos on this subject, and I highly recommend that you learn from her. Kat Albrecht also has a video on Calming Signals for lost dogs.

If your dog is lost right at this moment, you may not want to take the time to watch a long video or read the books written by Rugaas. Also, her studies don’t specifically mention dogs that are wandering stray. This brief guide on calming signals for stray dogs is written just for your situation, and you can also share it with anyone who may be looking for your dog, so they don’t do the wrong thing.

Sky, pictured above, had lived in a cemetery for several months when I found out about her. She behaved as a feral dog, and she wouldn’t let anyone approach her. She would bark at a humane trap because it was foreign. She has lived with me for a couple of years now, and she loves to play with my other dogs. When I first spotted Sky in the cemetery, I ignored her, and pretended I didn’t see her. I watched her behavior for a while to see how she responded to people in the distance. She was showing classic avoidance behavior, as you would expect from a dog who has been wandering loose for a while. Stray dogs inadvertently become trained to avoid people because so many people try to help strays and they keep repeating the same mistakes, over and over. The person trying to help the stray doesn’t think the dog has been through this scenario a dozen times already, but if you think about it logically, if a dog would respond to a whistle, and patting your leg, and saying in a soft voice, “Come here, girl,” then she wouldn’t still be roaming as a stray.

To get Sky to warm up to me, I walked across her known travel path, and I “accidentally” dropped some bits of hot dog. She noticed, and she began to follow me as I continued letting treats fall to the ground. Then I sat down, with my back to her, and let her check me out. Very importantly, I did not kneel or squat. I was sitting on the ground with my legs out in front of me, and my body language showed her that I was relaxed and calm, and there was no way I could suddenly get up and chase her. I tossed bits of hot dog toward her, and then a little closer and a little closer. She eventually came close enough that she would eat out of my hand, but I did not try to grab her. I spent several hours just hanging out with her that afternoon, and I let her get comfortable. Someone interrupted us, so I had to quit for the day. In all, I spent four days gaining her trust before she let me put her in a car. You can see a video of Sky’s capture here.

Calming signals, in relation to catching a stray dog, are as much about what you don't do as it about the actions you take.

  • Don’t make eye contact with the dog. If you do make eye contact, then look to the side next.
  • Don’t chase a stray dog.
  • Don’t expect your dog to behave in a normal way, even if you have know the dog for years.
  • Don’t move toward a dog if the dog shows signs of getting ready to bolt.
  • Don’t kneel or squat.
  • Don’t call the dog’s name, even if it’s your dog!
  • Don’t grab for the dog.
  • Don’t put your hand over the dog’s head.

Things you should do.

  • If this is your dog, just talk in a normal tone of voice, or turn to the side and call the name of another dog in your household.
  • Watch the body language of the dog, and adjust your actions according to what makes the dog more comfortable.
  • Have plenty of high-value dog treats, such as hot dogs, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, or pizza.
  • Call a friend to bring treats to you if you don’t have any.
  • Get closer to the dog by walking in a path 45 degrees to the side of the dog and gradually spiraling closer.
  • Sit on the ground with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  • Turn your body to the side so you are not facing the dog.
  • Pretend to eat the dog treats, and “accidentally” drop some.
  • Eventually, toss some treats toward the dog, but not at the dog.
  • Get a picture, in case this attempt fails and the dog runs off again. Silence your camera-phone, so the shutter noise doesn’t scare the dog.
  • Take your time, and let the dog come up to you when he is ready.
  • If possible, have an assistant keep people away, so you have room to work and no one interferes.
  • Let the dog eat out of your cupped hand.
  • Yawn several times.
  • If the dog is eating out of your hand, gently rub under the chin. Don’t force the dog. Only pet the dog if he’s comfortable.
  • Let him see the leash and smell it before you put it over his head.
  • If all of this isn’t quite working, you can switch to using a humane trap. Don’t undo all of the trust you’ve built by grabbing at him.
  • Another trick you can use is to run away from the dog and get her to chase you. This can put a dog at ease.

On the second day of catching Sky, I ran all around the cemetery and “accidentally” fell down on the grass, and Sky would catch me. She let me pet her by the end of the second day. We still had to build trust before she would let me put her in the car. Calming signals also helped me capture Wilson. Even though he wouldn’t let me touch him, he trusted me enough to follow me to a humane trap, and he eventually went in. I have used calming signals on hundreds of stray dogs, and it also helps with foster dogs or newly adopted dogs. When you have time, be sure to learn more about this important way of communicating with dogs.

Sadly, I have had experience with many cases where people did not use calming signals at a key moment, and the dog either died while fleeing or was never found. Some people are reluctant to use calming signals because they believe they know how to catch a stray, or because they believe their own dog would of course come to them. Failure to use calming signals is the number one barrier to helping a lost or stray dog. The use of the Calming Signals approach never hurts, even in those few cases where it may not have been necessary.

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