Sunday, July 23, 2006

Turid Rugaas "Calming Signals" book report.



Turid Rugaas is a Norwegian dog trainer who wrote "On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals." It's the only dog book that fairly exhaustively indentifies and explains canine body language, and how humans can use these signals to communicate with dogs.
While I think it is important and very useful information, I think some of her underlying theories and training methods are misguided at best.
I just posted my opinion of the book on one of my yahoogroups.

I think she has done some wonderful observational work in identifying many body language signals; I learned from that. A couple of things that I hadn't really thought about became clear, in terms of canine body language. A lot of what she writes about how to use body language to communicate with dogs is spot on.
I have a problem with her theory, though. She identifies just about everything as negative stress, and the "calming signals" as ways dogs use to relieve the stress. In fact, she seems to have a real bug in her panties about this stress thing and regards just about everything apart from pure joy and contentment as "stress" which MUST be avoided at all costs. OK, I think that is just silly. First, stress is inevitable and little stresses are normal, it's not the jouney it's the destination. IOW, stress isn't inherently bad (to her, you can stress a dog by stepping over it when it's lying in a hallway, which can damage the dog's psyche and you must not do this, ever, because it is Not Nice.) Things which may stress a dog: Under or over-exercise. Having to hold going to the bathroom. Being alone, too cold, too hot, being startled, hungry, thirsty, being corrected, direct threats, getting overexcited, being pulled by a leash and so on.
Granted these things would be stressful if they were constants in anyone's life, but certainly normal occurences at times.

She then identifies many things dogs do as signs of stress.
Take yawning. Most of us know this habit in dogs and can identify it as a communication of sorts, I figured this out MANY years ago. Mine would yawn loudly when they were in the car approaching the park, in that case I interpreted it - correctly, I think - as anticipation and eagerness, like" are we there yet, hurry UP!"
She makes no distinction between eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress.)
The other problem I had - despite the claim by Terri Arnold on the book cover that every incident recounted in the book is true - I don't believe that. I just don't.
Example: She has one dog, Vesla, who apparently was excellent with other dogs and very good at giving clear signals and getting along with everyone. That part I believe; some dogs are better at giving signals than others, for sure. Turid says putting a nose to the ground is a calming signal. She recounts a story of a client coming to see her, with an extremely dog-aggressive bitch, for whom no other method of training has worked. She instructs the skeptical owner to remove the dog's leash and just let her go, while she and Vesla are standing there. Dog charges Vesla in full snarl. Vesla puts her nose to the ground. Dog screeches to a halt, confused. Then decides to be friendly, and shortly thereafter is frolicking with Turid's pack of dogs with nary a raised hackle. Maybe, but I just don't see it, not with a truly aggressive and dominant dog. She has quite a few similar anecdotes of calming dogs sniffing the ground, turning sideways to aggressive dogs and such to thwart aggressive behaviour. It will work with some dogs in some situations, sure - most people who understand a bit about dogs know that dogs approaching sideways instead of head-on aren't as likely to get into an altercation, it's nonthreatening behaviour. I sure wouldn't count on my turning sideways to a really aggressive, pissed off dog coming towards me as a way to save my skin, though!
Also, she says somewhere that all aggression is born of stress and fear, which I think is baloney. Her assertion that one should never threaten or chastise a dog but only be calming and submissive, is unrealistic and simply will not work with all dogs. Dogs understand corrections and even threats. Fairly and honestly given, this is quite sensible and the message easily understood by them. I agree that dogs also use "calming" signals with other dogs. Well, they also use "threatening" signals with other dogs too - in fact this is largely how puppies learn manners from their littermates and older dogs in the pack! It's not necessarily cruel.
She has some other stories in "My Dog Pulls, What Do I Do?" about how negative associations can have adverse effects.
One, a puppy sees the man of the house walk in the door, moves towards man and a broomstick falls on her and she is startled. A year and a half later, this dog is still "terrified" of the husband. Sure seems to me we're not getting the entire story there. It's normal for dogs to get startled. A mentally sound dog recoivers from the startle quickly.
Two, an Elkhound is being measured with a measuring stick at a show by the judge, is somehow hurt by the measuring stick and becomes "terrified of all people." It takes five months to get the dog past this before she can continue her show career and have puppies. Now it seems to me, a dog this weak-nerved has no business at all having puppies, since temperament is in part genetic. (I'm assuming the judge didn't beat her to within an inch of her life with the measuring stick or something.)
Three, a dog was about to take a drink of water in obedience class, the trainer yelled NO at the same time, and the dog almost died of dehydration because it was then too scared to drink water. Thankfully, Turid to the rescue.
She recounts several stories like this to illustrate why we must never use the word "NO" or raise our voice with a dog, in case it makes an incorrect association and thereafter becomes "terrified." Maybe they raise extremely nervous and sensitive dogs in Norway?
In short, it offers some useful and interesting insights. Speaking of short, it's only 38 pages long and much of that is taken up with drawings - many magazine articles are longer and more information-dense than this book. The training advice is overly simplistic, and while it might work with a soft-temperament, easy going dog, nicey-nice training mehtods are not only ineffective for many dogs, but downright unfair. Dogs understand all sorts of clear signals, not all of them calming and gentle.

14 Comments:

Anonymous jan said...

Very thorough and intelligent review. You've saved me the time to read it.

It almost seems that dog behaviorists/trainers have to be extreme in some way to get their ideas in print. Sort of like the child experts who think that discipline of any kind is bad and only positive reinforcement works. While I think positive reinforcement is more effective than negative, there are times when an intelligent mix is necessary.

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Maritzia said...

*laughs uproarously* This reminds me of a friend who called her dogs "doglets" because she thought "dog" had a demeaning connotation.

Heck, my dogs get "no" from me all the time. It's a very clear command telling them to stop doing whatever they are doing. Does it mean they'll never do it again. *laughs again* Yeah, right...I have dachshunds...they do whatever the heck they want whenever they want...no only stalls them until they know I'm not looking *snickers*.

Don't get the wrong idea, I love my dogs to death and they're spoiled rotten, but they all know who the alpha dog is in our household, and it's not one of them!

2:33 PM  
Blogger Carina said...

Jan, thank you! Maybe 19 years of owning Rottweilers has coloured my views a bit, haha.
If you google "neanderthal dog training t-shirt" right near the top of the page you'll see me next t-shirt...

Maritza, too true! And don't even get me STARTED on people who call their pets "furkids", that about sends me up the wall.
I suppose having One Method works better than "well, lets do what works", if you're trying to sell a book or training system.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Great Dane Addict said...

I totally agree with your assesment of the book.

One of my Danes is dog aggressive (well she tolerates dogs she grew up with, but no other strange dogs under ANY circumstance.) There is ABSOLUTELY no-way that another dog putting their nose to the ground would stop her in her tracks. Nope, just not possible.

And I walk over my dogs all the time if I have to get through a hallway and they are laying in the middle of it. They could care less.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Leigh-Ann said...

I had "the incident" with my Anatolian earlier this year, the one in which my forearm ended up in his mouth. Needless to say, I raised my voice :p I was calm enough in the situation to have softly told him to remove his teeth from my arm, but I somehow didn't feel that would have the impact of a great big "NO".

He's been an angel ever since, btw. I still think he was having a bad reaction to a high dose of prednisone.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Carina said...

great dane addict, one doesn't see many dog-aggressive Danes! Neither of my Rotties Play Well With Others (dogs, I mean, they're great with people) and my well-adjusted one wouldn't be charging a non-challenging dog in the first place because he is not aggressive, just extremely dominant. Turid makes no distinction of reasons dogs might be aggressive. My other Rottie would pay no attention to where another dog's nose was if she felt like mixing it up.
Leigh-Ann, I remember that - I wouldn't have said "pretty please" to an Anatolian who had my arm in his jaws either! I agree, I think pred can make dogs, and people, pretty testy.
The hallway thing, that wasn't in Turid's books. Dogread is a yahoogroup where dog book authors spend a month discussing ytheir books and some of the conversations when Turid was on last month were just surreal. She also thinks clicker training is cruel because it can startle or confuse dogs. And there was a huge discussion about stepping over dogs; if they licked their lips or showed some other "stress" sign you should turn your head and lick your lips first if you have to step over, or walk through, them.
I'm going on a bit...I should revisit the Dogread archives, pull out some of the discussions and make fun of them in another entry.

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Great Dane Addict said...

Well my dog agressive Dane is aggressive with strangers as well. I got her from a BYB before I knew any better and she's had numerous health problems in addition to the temperament issues. I love her to death no matter what tho. :)

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Leigh-Ann said...

This morning the Anatolian was lying in the doorway to the kitchen, and I had to step over him at least a dozen times as I made breakfast, took it to the table, cleaned up, etc. If he doesn't want me stepping over him, he can damn well move his lazy ass :p

8:01 PM  
Blogger Carina said...

An aggressive Great Dane could be a bit alarming! I met one recently who barks and looks scary at first, but that's because she's a bit nervous.

Leigh-Ann, there ya go - get all Cesar on his ass. :)
My friend Robbie (hi Robbie!) has a charming yet sometimes cranky Chow. I stepped over him once on my way to the loo and he growled. So I stepped over him again, then I hopped back and forth over him until he got tired of it and moved.
Turid would be having vapors. Haha!

9:16 PM  
Blogger Semavi Lady said...

Gosh, Carina, great post.

Brings to mind another one. I'll keep this short... a friend (a dog trainer) gave me her very mint (hint, hint) looking copy of Jean Donaldson's "Culture Clash" -- I had previously thought I should read it since the book was often 'highly recommended' when people were waxing emotive on training philosophies. Let's just say that after some more than cursory perusal by me, several bookmarks, the book is still very 'mint' looking. ;)

Hrm, I haven't read DogRead in forever. It is a good niche idea for a forum charter but due to the typical range of chaos in the forum audience -- for me it is too much noise to wade through. :p

The challenge with wanting to continue to learn any subject, is that one really needs to read just about everything and experience a lot of it- in order to get a balanced view which is somewhere in the middle.

6:35 PM  
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