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.


Have you guys heard about this?

BowWowFlix is the dog-video-only version of NetFlix. You know all those neat dog-training videos, with their exorbitant prices, limited availability, and spotty production values? Now you can just rent them. One video at a time is $10.95 per month.

I’ve only received one video so far, which I’ll be reviewing ASAP. First I thought I would talk about the service.

Unlike NetFlix, BowWowFlix is still a one-warehouse operation. My video shipped out of Washington state, so keep that in mind when considering turnaround. I signed up for the service on Saturday. My first disc shipped on Monday, and I received it on Wednesday or Thursday (I didn’t check the Wednesday mail.). Running the math suggests that even a quick watcher and efficient mailer on the one-video-at-a-time plan will max out at three or maybe four videos a month, depending on how long the restocking/shipping process takes. BowWowFlix says that three exchanges per month is their average, although I suspect they’re averaging the multi-disc plans with that.

Stock seems to be good. I have, as far as I know, all of the most popular dog videos in my queue, and except for Susan Garrett’s Crate Games they are all available to ship. Like regular Netflix, BowWowFlix splits multi-disc sets, which seems to be an incredibly common format for dog-training videos. Out of the 25 videos in my queue, only five of them are single discs. I see some potential frustration there, as a longer 5-6 disc series will take two months to watch IF every video is available as you need it.

All in all, I am ridiculously excited about this. Because they rely on individual expertise and are often produced by small and specialized companies, dog training videos start at a bare minimum of $19.95. Something like a Patricia McConnell seminar series can cost $60. Emma Parson’s TACT series retails for $75. While I would love to support the authors and trainers I admire by purchasing their products, it’s fairly cost-prohibitive for a non-professional, especially for those discs that are “interesting” rather than “essential.” I suspect and hope, in fact, that I will be going back to purchase the most useful of these discs after I’ve rented them.

I’ll try to update you again after I’ve had a few exchanges. Have any of you used this service?

Skin Woes

(Warning: pathetic puppy photos to follow:)

Silas’s vet is a very sweet lady. Every time we go in, she looks at me sympathetically, and says, “you know, dogs who look like Silas just have this problem.” She’s referring to the skin of doom, almost the only reason we ever go in the office. In fact, I can pretty much count on getting some kind of topical medicine every time we go in, no matter what. She believes white dogs are the worst off; my personal take is that owners of white dogs are just forced to notice things that aren’t as apparent on dark-skinned dogs. In any event, Silas breaks out in a lot of rashes.

He has food allergies, which show up as a rash like this:

(Don’t worry–he’s been neutered since this photo.)

And, as our vacation surprise this summer, we learned that he is allergic to some grasses/weeds:


I have an elaborate regimen to avoid/treat these things. The first line of defense is a diet that consists entirely of raw turkey. This has made a huge difference. He gets a bath with medicated shampoo, as often as twice a week during flares. During “good” skin times, he gets the mildest shampoo I can find. (Earthbath’s Oatmeal and Aloe right now.) On hand I keep an arsenal of topical treatments. We carry Benadryl on vacation, and in the future I’m stopping at the vet before we leave town. Having your vet call in Prednisone to a rural pharmacy is not good times.

If Silas eats nothing but his own food, doesn’t leave town, and gets regular baths he can go almost indefinitely without flareups. In practice that is really, really hard. He’s having a fairly bad episode right now because he got some non-approved treats during obedience class. Then I, in my constant quest to find treats that are small and portable, gave him some peanut butter treats with “natural flavors” that apparently included an allergen. (On my inquiry later, the company refused to disclose their “secret ingredient” or even to tell me if it was or was not protein based.) It’s hard not to take it as a personal failure.

The Hair of the Dog

Silas has almost no hair, for a dog.


He shines with a beautiful pinkness. Those black spots? On his skin.

Only his neck, chest, and tail really have a good covering of fur. His longest hairs are less than an inch.

So, why is it that every. single. surface of the house is covered in a fine mist of dog hair? I don’t just mean the bed and the sofa; those are lost causes. There is dog hair on my coffee table. Dog hair on my desk. Dog hair on clothes that have just come out of the dryer. I’ve stopped even looking too hard at the food I cook, because I don’t want to know. I just swept up more hair than I think is still on the dog, after doing the same thing two days ago.

Do you, wonderful dog people, understand this mystery? Does dog hair continue to proliferate even after it is shed? Why has no one turned dog-genes into a best-selling hair product for men?

The Community

Yesterday’s post from Jodi Stone got me thinking about our local dog-owning community.

The one park that I avoid is terrible. It’s the place where I’ve seen, among other things, a man walking two large dogs on pronged collars, while he sipped wine from a stemmed wine glass. It’s also the place where I got into a shouting match with someone who let her pack of off-leash dogs follow poor anxious Silas around the park, while she walked around wearing headphones. We also had just enough weird encounters at the local dog park that we don’t go there anymore. No loss–while Silas did surprisingly well the few times we went, I was an anxious mess.

Otherwise, we’re pretty lucky. We live in a very urban area of a very large city. I can think of stupid things that I see pretty often, but as a percentage of the population it’s miniscule. The better local parks have what I actually consider to be weirdly *few* off-leash dogs, and while those few bother me intellectually they don’t seem to cause problems. Our positive-only training facility is pretty well booked, as is the other one that I considered using. (Their puppy class didn’t have an opening in time for Silas.) I have seen people clicker-training in public. I see Gentle Leaders and Easy-Walk Harnesses, but never electronic collars. There are no dogs languishing in back yards in my neighborhood, because people with back yards have enough money to hire dog-walkers.

Now the perk of living in an urban area is that you can very much shape your own experience. Maybe we’ve just, as with the parks, navigated toward “our kind” of experience with the dog. I’m guessing that, for instance, shoppers who frequent the locally-owned raw food store are, in general, a different subset of the population than people who shop at the suburban big-box stores, who are different again from people who shop at the farm supply stores. In a town with a million options, you have to pick something for some kind of reason, and like-minded people almost inevitably congregate.

We didn’t mean to stay in this town forever, and I’m still not sure that we will. On top of our non-dog reasons, in a lot of ways urban life is very hard on Silas. When we go home to see the family, he has free-run of ten or fifteen private acres, and he is so happy that it’s hard to bring him back here. On the other hand, there’s something very powerful to be said for living in a community that generally agrees with how you feed, train, and manage your dog. People back home would think we’re crazy.

What kind of community do you have? Would you pick something else if you could?

Waiting at the Door

Part of our obedience class homework this week is to practice waiting at the door.      We’re also working on having the dog sit next to you, rather than always in front.

Yesterday’s training went something like this:

I asked Silas to sit. The goal is having him sit on my left side. Silas hopped up on the sofa, sat. Then he did all his other tricks, on the sofa. I moved to the kitchen, where there is no furniture he can get on. Silas sat on the sofa and waited for me to come back. I got the leash, clipped him in, and moved him off of the sofa. Once he realized that we weren’t going outside, he cowered, terrified, on the sofa. Then he ran to my husband, presumably to be rescued from the crazy lady.



Look at those worried ears.

So, I obviously can’t put him on his leash and work on waiting at an interior door, which is the first recommended step. I decided to skip to the second level of training, which is having the dog wait to go out into a fenced yard. He’s still supposed to be leashed, but whatever. We’ll skip that, too. He doesn’t usually rush out that door, so it’s a decent compromise. Next time he asked to go out, I looked down at him and said “Wait.” The plan was to not open the door until he was calm.

You’re ready for this one, right?

He turned tail and ran for his life. We tried another time or two over the course of the evening with similar results. There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. “Wait” doesn’t sound like any word I have ever used to scold him. It’s a command we use, even, on the rare occasions that I scoff at the HOA and take him out the front door.

I thought, “okay, I won’t say anything. We’ll just work on the concept of not rushing out. I won’t open the door until he’s calm, and we can add the cue later.” Apparently, though, I now am not to be trusted at the door, and he watches me suspiciously from the back corner of the dining room table.

I guess he’s not rushing out the door, right?

Training, Week of August 13

The report from Saturday’s obedience class is mostly great. Last Saturday was the best class ever, but there was only one other dog in class. This weekend we were back to our usual four, including one directly across from us. (Last weekend the trainer insisted that I move Silas out of the corner. I wasn’t sure he could take it, but he did fine. It’s good to be reminded that it is okay to push him a little.) And it was still pretty darned great. We had to skip waiting at the door, because the doors at class all lead to scary places, but we’re working on it at home.

The only real hitch was that at about the 45 minute mark, Silas crawled under a stack of chairs and didn’t want to come out. He had hit the end of his tolerance. I was a little surprised by it, because he’d been doing so well up until he suddenly shut down. The instructor said I should just act happy and get him to come out and finish the lessons, but I know my dog. We did one more thing, then I sat in the floor with him and he put his head in my lap, just being calm and relatively happy in the classroom space.

I was actually thrilled with two parts of this outcome, in a weird way. First, I could and did appropriately assess the situation and act on my own feelings. Six months ago I would have felt like a “failure” that my anxious dog could “only” handle three-quarters of class. Secondly, Silas trusted me enough to come hang out with me, rather than going back under the chairs or checking out in some other way. We’ve both grown since our last round of classes.

This week we’re just improving/practicing the same behaviors from last week. Saturday is our last class, so it’s supposed to be a fun day for “showing off” what we’ve learned, plus a trick that we selected and taught at home.


In my area, the shelters do their own puppy classes, so when Silas went to puppy kindergarten, the “competition” was pretty intimidating. There was my little who-knows-what from who-knows-where, in a class filled with stunning examples of all the most biddable breeds, who had stayed in their litters to a comfortable eight weeks and had verifiably good temperaments. In comparison, Silas was a neurotic mess.

At home, I was busy reading Ian Dunbar, Pat Miller, and Patricia McConnell. Ian Dunbar, in particular, constantly beats his readers over the head with the fact that you must be PERFECT in order to have a decent shot at raising a good dog. I almost despaired. I could never be this “perfect” dog owner. We didn’t know 100 people. We didn’t, at the time, even know ten. The dog could drop and pee faster than I could ever imagine, even if I took him out every fifteen minutes. His one accident a day, which hindsight tells me most pet owners would kill for, loomed like a black cloud. In comparison to those perfect puppies and perfect owners, we were both failures.


I think the switch flipped for me sometime about halfway through our first round of obedience class. Six-month old Silas was easily the least manageable dog in class, but even back then he was pretty good at home. The next dog over was fantastic in class. I was filled with envy. Then I heard her owner asking the instructor what she could do, because her dog only slept from 10:00 to midnight, then kept them up all night.

After that, I tried to be much more careful about comparing my dog to another dog that seemed “better.” Or, at least, to take the comparisons with a grain of salt. Because Silas is, as the blog says, a very imperfect dog, with some issues that I absolutely take seriously. But he is, as a day-to-day living partner, a pretty darned good little guy. In fact, I’m guessing that a lot of people would happily trade their easy-to-walk, stranger-loving dogs for a one who is, for instance, trustworthy in the house uncrated. Who has never, ever chewed a shoe, or torn up a sofa cushion. Who doesn’t try to counter-surf. (Unless there’s unattended butter. I don’t blame him for that one.) Who is super smart, but doesn’t use it against his owners.

This time through obedience, Silas is the best dog in class. (He’s also the only one who is more than seven or eight months old. I’m not getting cocky.) Last week, we were doing “Leave It” exercises. The lady across from us couldn’t get her very energetic puppy to stop frantically trying to get the treat out of her hand. Silas was leaving treats that I dropped from shoulder height. I caught her looking at me, and I knew exactly what she was thinking. Sometime before class is over, I need to go tell her that it will all be okay, and that comparisons of a particular moment really don’t tell you the whole story.

In that moment, though, I was smug.

Exercise and Games

My husband and I were maybe amongst the small percentage of dog owners who looked forward to walking the dog. Nowadays walking the dog on the sidewalk, or running him on the town running path, are amongst the things we refer to as “the Labrador Fantasy.” No offense to retriever owners–this is just our shorthand for that alternative reality in which we have an even-tempered dog with a natural desire to please.

In our reality, Silas is terrified of going out on the sidewalk, which is a whole saga unto itself that I’ll tell you about later. Our back yard is about the size of an average living room. Silas is also a pretty active dog. When I picked Silas up from being neutered, the vet cautioned me that healing might be hard “with such an athletic, busy dog.”

“Athletic? Busy? We don’t even go on walks!” is what I was thinking. My husband pointed out that regular dogs don’t, in fact, expect you to play fetch for four hours a night. And “fetch” is a very watered-down way to say what we do. Silas’s ideal game, in fact goes something like this:

1. Bring toy to human.

2. Lure human into chasing you through the house like a crazy, with the desired endpoint of upstairs.

3. Play tug for a while, if it’s a tug-appropriate toy.

4. Let human have toy, so they can throw it over the balcony to downstairs.

5. Run downstairs at lightning speed, bring back toy. (As a side note, this is, in fact, scary fast. If I throw a tennis ball straight down, at the same time that he’s leaving the top stair, he can catch it after one bounce. That’s going down the stairs, turning the corner at the landing, and running across the living room.)

6. Repeat steps 3-5 for a solid twenty minutes. Rest thirty minutes, max. Begin again at step 1.


Are you coming?

This week I took Silas to the park two days in a row. He didn’t make a lengthy trip out of it either time. Day one was about twenty minutes. Day two was only about fifteen. Silas’s choice, not mine, although I didn’t argue–at the ten minute mark he started making a beeline for the car. It’s flamingly hot out there. I was interested to see that this disproportionately cut down on the amount of run/chase/tug/fetch we had to play. The first night we played maybe two rounds. The second night the dog stayed here solo while we went to dinner and to get groceries, and he seemed pretty content with chasing a few balls across the downstairs. Walking, I’m sure has the power of novelty on its side–new things to smell, people to see, things to experience. I just didn’t realize it counted for so much.

So now I’m curious: How much exercise does your dog get? What kind of games do you play instead?


We’ve tried what seems like every collar/leash/harness out there, even though I know we haven’t. Silas does not take treats outside, so I’ve had to rely on good equipment and consistent use of the stop-walking-until-he-checks-in routine. It’s still very much a work in progress.

Tiny puppy Silas would panic, hit the end of his leash, and pull until he would gag. Very early on I switched to the standard back-clip harness.

In his first obedience class, the instructor looked at him, frantically jumping and pulling, and put him in a SENSE-ation Harness, which is a front-clip.


SENSE-ation Harness

The front clip harness works on the fact that when the dog pulls on the leash, the force redirects the dog back toward you. Mr. Crazy would flip himself on his head. After he learned not to pull that hard, you could see him pulling himself down the trail at a 45 degree angle, keeping as much tension on the leash as he could.

Eventually he outgrew the front-clip harness. We wanted something that was a little sturdier than the SENSE-ation model, whose only fault is that it relies exclusively on a plastic clip buckle. Working on the assumption that it wasn’t helping him much anyway, we switched back to a back-clip harness. We love this Lupine Model (ours is a nice blue, as seen in yesterday’s photo):

Lupine Harness

Lupine Step-In Harness

Except the back-clip reminded him of his past life as a sled dog.

I bought him a “fancy” collar for his first birthday, since he was fully grown. (From Karma Collars. Look them up. If you follow them on Facebook, once a month they do a “Free Leash Friday.”) To my surprise, and discovered largely by accident, he walked better on his collar alone than anything else.

BUT. I’m terrified that he’ll pull out of it at a moment of stress. He’s sort of between buckle positions, where one is a little tighter than I like and one is loose enough for escape. I also worry about him in obedience class, where he does pull against it really hard as the other dogs come in.

I think, in the end, we’re going to have to go with some combination. I don’t have a great solution for class–last week I took him on his harness, and not only did he pull more he pulled more for days afterwards. In the park I think I’m going to start clipping his leash to his harness the cheap way (with a carabiner). He’s usually wearing the harness anyway, because it clips into his car restraint. I also love this two-clip back-up leash from Karma Collars, which may go on the Christmas list. (We don’t have kids. Buying presents for the dog is where we get our Christmas fun. He astounded the family last year by knowing how to unwrap his own gifts.)