Dogs are much more diplomatic than we think. Because you’re in a rush, you call your dog in a somewhat irritated voice to come back to you once he’s had his walk off leash. But just to get your goat, it seems, he makes his way toward you slowly — and in a curve rather than a straight line, which only makes him take longer. And the more annoyed you get, the more slowly he goes. So of course you scold him once he gets to you. Or perhaps you want your dog to do something, and his response is to act “stubborn,” or perhaps “distracted.” Maybe you’re yelling at him to comply one way or another and all he does is sniff the ground.
Your dog is not sassing you. Quite the opposite. He’s trying to diffuse the situation by using signals to calm you and ease the stress — both yours and his. He is engaging in conflict solving.
Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas explains that dogs exhibit “calming signals” to ease our anger and show us that they come in peace. Between dogs, explains Rugaas, “movements that become slower, sometimes so slow that there is hardly any movement at all, have a very calming effect.” A dog who has started moving slowly is trying to help a perhaps somewhat aggressive dog, or person, to calm down. He is saying there is no need to be aggressive because no harm is meant.
Your dog will also recognize this signal coming from you. If you want to disarm him, getting him to come willingly so you can attach his leash and get him back to the car, move slowly. That will let him know that you’re not looking for any trouble, and he will be more inclined to come back to you.
Another signal dogs use is sitting down. When an anxious dog is approaching, a dog will sometimes sit to keep things calm. “Try sitting when your dog is stressed and cannot relax,” Rugaas advises. “Make your guests sit down if you have a dog that is not quite sure about strangers.”
Rugaas tells the anecdote of a Rottweiler who starting growling at her. The growling became deeper if she so much as tried to walk slowly or even move her head (although turning your head to the side, she teaches, means you aren’t looking for any trouble). “All I could think of doing was blinking my eyes,” she says. “After a while the growling ceased, and…the Rottweiler’s tail started to wag a little….it took me only a very short time to become his friend.”
Learning dogs’ signals is a powerful way to get along with them better, and a good page for humans to take from their book, so to speak. “Conflict solving is a part of their heritage from their ancestors the wolves,” Rugaas points out, “and they read each other like we read books. It is a part of their survival instincts and pack behavior. We will never be as good at it as the dogs are, but we can…let the dog know we understand. We can give signals back to reassure them….and also reduce the risks of having scared, insecure, aggressive and stressed dogs.”