Book/Video Review: Calming Signals

On Talking Terms With Dogs

Turid Rugaas is a Norwegian dog trainer and the author of a few books about dog communication. Last week I read her book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. (I’m doing two book reviews in a row this week; forgive me.) I’d had this on my to-read list for a while, as it had been recommended somewhere for people with anxious dogs. Then, as my first movie from BowWowFlix, I requested the companion DVD, Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You. The premise of both is to show readers/viewers the body language and cues that dogs use to show their stress and to calm down stressful situations.

The information in the two is substantially the same and excellent in both; I would say pick your preferred medium. I read the kindle version, which is a disservice to a book that depends on photographs, while Rugaas’s narration of the DVD is spoken with an accent that some viewers may struggle with. It was fascinating in the DVD to see how quickly dogs use their calming signals both toward each other and toward humans, but that same speed makes it slightly less easy to catch exactly what is happening.

For someone like me, who both lives with an anxious dog and doesn’t have a lot of dog experience, this information was fascinating. Somewhere near the end of the book, after Rugaas had walked me through a handful of behaviors that Silas offers frequently, she points out that dogs who live with chronic low-level anxiety often react very quickly and very inappropriately under additional stress. Hence, say, Silas having a meltdown when someone walked around the corner of a pet store and surprised him. It makes sense. After the coffee doesn’t brew right and you can’t find your shoes and there’s no milk for the breakfast cereal, a traffic jam is much harder to take philosophically.

The downside of the book is that there isn’t a ton of information about helping your dog work through or avoid the things that are triggering the anxiety that you can now see. I have a lot of interesting data that doesn’t translate smoothly into new or edited behaviors. I can see it better now, but I don’t necessarily know what to do with that information.

Action isn’t, of course, the book’s stated aim; the book and video only want to show you what to watch out for. Given the vast array of dog anxieties and situations, I doubt that a comprehensive resource could possibly exist. While there are a few gestures toward contextualizing the data, it is largely beside the point. Knowing what to watch for is certainly a valid and useful beginning, after all.

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