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Good Dog: Studies & Research
Should we call these canine behaviors calming signals?

“Calming signals” is a term coined by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas to group a large number of behavior patterns that she says dogs use to avoid conflict, to prevent aggression, to calm other dogs down and to communicate information to other dogs and to people. Since the publication of Rugaas’ 2006 book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, it has been a popular idea that actions such as lip-licking, sniffing the ground, yawning, scratching, looking away, play bowing, sitting down, lying down, softening the eyes, blinking and even sneezing (along with many others) are social signals that help calm down those around them.

Rugaas’ observations are compelling, and many dog trainers and behaviorists, including me, have learned a lot from her work. However, the term “calming signals” entered the lexicon without much analysis, which is problematic. Using a term that ascribes functionality to behavior patterns prior to scientifically testing whether or not that’s true creates challenges, and is a big no-no in ethology. One problem is that claiming that certain behaviors are “calming signals” creates a bias such that people tend to accept that this is, in fact, what they do. The idea that these signals are functioning in this way is an intriguing hypothesis. However, in the years since Rugaas shared her ideas with the dog community, there have yet to be adequate tests of their function, or substantial efforts to determine if the various behaviors have different functions. Rather, the idea that they were calming signals was broadly accepted without being subject to rigorous scientific study.

There is, however, a recent pilot study investigating the function of the behavior patterns that have all been placed into the category of calming signals. The purpose of the study “Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): A pilot study on the case of calming signals” was to assess if the behaviors that have been called calming signals are used to communicate, and if they de-escalate potentially aggressive situations between dogs. In the study, 24 dogs were observed interacting two at a time. Dogs interacted with familiar and unfamiliar dogs of both sexes.

Throughout the course of the study, 2130 calming signals were observed, with the most common being head turning, nose licking, freezing and turning away. Dogs were more likely to display calming signals when they were interacting with the other dog compared with when they were not interacting, which does suggest a communicative role. It does not prove it, though, as it is possible that these behaviors indicate stress and that they are performed during social interactions more often than they are performed outside of that context because such interactions are stressful. In fact, most of the signals that Rugaas has called “calming signals” are also considered indicators of stress.

More calming signals were displayed when dogs were interacting closely (within 1.5 body lengths of the dog displaying) than when interacting at a greater distance. Overall, more calming signals were exhibited during interactions with unfamiliar dogs than with familiar dogs, but licking the other dog’s mouth was more frequently observed when the other dog was familiar.

During the interactions in the study, there were 109 instances of aggressive behavior. A calming signal never came right before the aggressive behavior, but 67% of the time, at least one calming signal followed the aggressive behavior. In over 79% of the instances in which a calming signal followed the start of the aggression, there was a de-escalation in the aggressive behavior. These data are consistent with the idea that these behaviors function to calm other dogs down and lessen their aggression, but the work is too preliminary to conclude this for certain. More research is needed to explore other possibilities, such as the role of stress in these behaviors and their effects, and the potentially different functions of each of the dozens of behaviors that have been lumped under the term “calming signals”.

This is a pilot (or preliminary) study, and though the results are intriguing, they are in no way a definitive test of the function of “calming signals” in dogs, which the authors correctly point out in their paper. Though this research makes an attempt to test the often-accepted hypothesis that many behavior patterns function as calming signals that de-escalate aggression, its biggest flaw is that it lacks a very important control. De-escalation of aggression is quite common, and in this study, the authors report the frequency of de-escalation after a calming signal, but do not report on the rate of de-escalation in the absence of a calming signal. Part of the problem is that with so many possible calming signals, it is quite likely that one will be exhibited as a response to aggression. (Dogs are unlikely to have no reaction to such behavior.)

To evaluate the function of the behaviors, it is necessary to know the frequency with which the aggression de-escalates in the absence of any calming signals. We know that there was often de-escalation in the absence of calming signals because the authors report that in quite a few cases, the dog on the receiving end of the aggression walked or ran away, increasing the distance between the two dogs, which was often associated with a de-escalation in aggression. Fleeing is not considered a calming signal, and yet when the distance increased between the two dogs, there was also usually a de-escalation of the aggression. Future research should explore the differences in behavior in cases in which there was de-escalation and in which there was not.

News: Guest Posts
Working to End Dog Breed Ban in Public Housing
Ernie, the pit bull mix who inspired Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski to sponsor a bill to disallow breed-specific bans by landlords.

New legislation being introduced in New York could change the lives of dog loving low income New Yorkers dogs, and very likely the thousands of dogs in NYC area shelters and rescue organizations. New York State Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, himself a rescued Pit Bull owner is spearheading legislation that would prevent landlords in public housing from discriminating against any specific breed of dog.

Currently, the New York City Housing Authority or NYCHA which manages the nations oldest and largest public housing program providing low income apartments to over 400,000 New Yorkers has had a breed specific ban in place since 2009. When that ban took effect 115 dogs, mostly Pit Bulls were surrendered to Animal Control, 49 of whom were euthanized. NYCHA housing as explained by the Mayor’s Alliance For NYC Animals “restricts specific breeds, including Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and Dobermans, either pure- or mixed-breed.” The breed ban actually impacts over twenty breeds (including some fairly rare ones) and dogs mixed of any of those breeds

Breeds and Breed Mixes Currently banned from NYCHA Housing: Akita Inu, Alangu Mastiff, Alano Español, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Argentine Dogo, Bedington Terrier, Boston Terrier, Bull and Terrier Bull Terrier, Bully Kutta, Cane Corso, Dogue de Bordeaux, Dogo Sardesco, English Mastiff, Fila Brasileiro, Gull Dong, GullTerr, Irish Staffordshire Bull, Korea Jindo Dog, Lottatore Brindisino, Neapolitan Mastiff, Perro de Presa Canario (Canary dog), Perro de Presa Mallorquin (Cade Bou), Shar Pei, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Tosa Inu

Assemblyman Zebrowski’s proposal will be discussed by the New York State Assembly’s Housing Committee in the coming weeks, and then will go before the full Assembly followed by the Senate. In an interview with ABC news Assemblyman Zebrowski said: “You can have no dogs, you can have a restriction on the number of dogs, you can have some sort of subjective criteria to evaluate the dog, make sure they are not dangerous…. You just can't banish all of one type of breed.”

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Tips and Etiquette for Vacationing with Dogs
Stay safe and courteous when sharing your next trip with your pup.

Earlier this week I wrote about planning a trip with your pets. This article will cover tips and etiquette for vacationing with your dogs.

Car Rides

  • Remember to take enough breaks to let your dogs stretch their legs and potty.
  • Have snacks and water handy so your pups don’t get hungry or dehydrated. 
  • Be careful when leaving your dogs in the car when it’s warm out. Cars can heat up to a dangerous level even if it’s only 60 degrees outside.
  • Create a Rescue Tube to attach to crates with important information that would be invaluable in a car accident.

Hotel

  • When you arrive, check the floor carefully for medication. Dangerous pills are often dropped under the bed or behind nightstands.
  • If your dog will spend time on the bed, use a blanket to guard against fur.
  • Don’t leave your pets in the room unattended.  This is against most hotels’ pet policies.
  • Be mindful of people and dogs you encounter in the hallways and elevator. As hard as it is to believe, not everyone wants to say hi to our pets!
  • Pick up after your dog. People who don’t scoop poop are a major reason why many hotels start banning pets.

Parks

  • Abide by park leash laws, as tempting as it is to let your dogs run around outside.
  • Don’t leave bagged poop on the side of the trail. Even biodegradable bags take a long time to degrade. It’s preferable to carry out the bag until you see a trash can or burry the poop (without the bag) off the trail.
  • Follow trail etiquette, such as yielding to passing hikers and keeping your pup close and under control.

Miscellaneous 

  • Before you leave on your trip, make sure microchips and identification tags are updated with your current cell phone number since that will be your main point of contact.
  • Carry a photo of your dogs so that you have it handy in case one of them gets lost.
  • Look up the closest emergency hospital to the hotels you’ll be staying at along the way. This way you’re not scrambling to find a veterinarian if something happens.

Hope you and your pups enjoy a summer full of exciting adventures!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Doormats
Enhancing the neighborhood one house at a time

I love my neighborhood because it is unpretentious, the wide streets have sidewalks and it’s full of dog lovers. Besides the large number of dogs out on walks, the most obvious sign of that is the popularity of dog-themed welcome mats. My favorite is the one that says, “We’re so excited to see you we don’t know whether to pee on the floor or tear up the couch,” though the classic “Wipe Your Paws” is a close second.

My next door neighbors recently purchased the fashionable, “Ask not for whom the dog barks, it barks for thee.” Around the corner I just saw a doormat that reads, “Please remove your shoes. The dog needs something to chew on.” I got a chuckle when I visited a neighbor who was just putting out a new mat that reflects the state of things in her house: “Our dog flunked out of obedience school. He’s back, living here at home.” I laughed a little harder when she told me that she almost bought the one that said, “Ring the doorbell and let me sing you the song of my people. –The Dog”.

We’ve come a long way since the only dog-related expression one saw outside of someone’s door was “Beware of Dog”.  Today, you are far more likely to see a welcome mat that says, “We like big mutts and we cannot lie” or “It’s all fun and games until someone ends up in a cone.” It’s quite common to welcome people into a house with a mat that says, “Welcome Diversity” and features a graphic with dogs of different shapes and sizes. Another option I’ve seen multiple times is the one that lets people know the inhabitants value “Peace, Love & Muddy Paws”.

Does your welcome mat pay homage to the canine members of your family?

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Planning a Pet Friendly Vacation
Tips for devising a summer road trip with your pup.

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer vacations, so it’s time to plan a road trip with the entire family—and that includes our pups!

Planning Destinations and Activities
As a starting point, I usually ask around for new vacation ideas. Facebook, dog training clubs, veterinarians, and groomers are good places for recommendations. In addition you can search online and visit Go Pet Friendly’s Destination Guides, which is a great source for sparking brainstorming. 

My favorite trips involve the outdoors, especially when I can bring my dogs. Pet Friendly Travel has a helpful list of pup friendly recreation areas, beaches, and National Parks across the United States.

Prepping for Car Travel
Road trips involve a decent amount of time in the car, so it’s important to consider how your dog will ride. A crate or specially designed seat belt (that is well fitted) will help keep pets safe in the event of an accident, while also preventing distractions for the driver.

The crate or seat belt should be set up in the backseat, away from airbags which can be fatal. The cargo area of hatchbacks and SVUs isn’t ideal because of crumple zones, but I often put a crate there because I don’t have space elsewhere with multiple people in the car.

Also, be sure to get your dog used to their restraint ahead of time by easing them into longer rides. You don’t want a multi-hour road trip to be their first time in a crate or seat belt!

Accommodations
I haven’t had difficulty finding pet friendly accommodations as hotels realize the growing market for vacationing with dogs.

Web sites like Orbitz and Booking.com have the ability to filter hotel search results by pet friendly accommodations. There are also specialty web sites like Go Pet Friendly and Bring Fido, which only list dog friendly lodging, including campgrounds.

Online reviews are invaluable for narrowing down choices. Bring Fido has some reviews, but I also check TripAdvisor since there are millions of users and you can search reviews by keywords such as “dog” or “pet.”

Planning the Route
When planning a road trip with my dogs, I’ll look at the route and do an online search for pet friendly spots in the major cities we’ll pass through. I also like Go Pet Friendly's Road Trip Planner which lets you map your route and view pet friendly hotels, restaurants, parks, and stores along the way. PetFriendlyRestaurants.com is another source for places to eat.

Many restaurants with outdoor seating with allow pets, but not all. Also policies can change, so be sure to call ahead to confirm.

Happy planning and enjoy your next trip!

News: Guest Posts
Dogs and Surprises on Newscasts
People on live TV forced to roll with it

Dogs occasionally end up on the air during live newscasts and the people on screen have to make the best of it. In this Russian broadcast, it does not appear as though the anchorwoman is too thrilled. She sounds alarmed but tries to make the best of it, even petting the dog. However, she looks startled when he jumps up on the news desk and messes with her notes. According to the description of the video, she says, “This is why I like cats.”

The weatherman in the next video acts more like a dog lover, responding in a generally relaxed and dog savvy way to sharing the screen with a canine. This man easily throws the toy with both his left hand and his right, and knows that the fake throw is a good move when the dog fails to see the actual toss. He adjusts well to simultaneously playing fetch with the dog who joined him and continuing with the weather forecast, even making a joke about men not usually being able to multi-task.

In this last video, the weatherman purposely had the dog on air with him, but he definitely should have heeded the common advice to avoid screen time with children or dogs. The risk of them stealing the scene is ever-present! In this case, the dog was a visitor from a local humane society, and a high energy, mouthy adolescent more skilled at play than basic manners. In the first 30 seconds of the clip, the dog chewed through his leash, leapt up on the man four times, and engaged in a vigorous game of tug with what was left of the leash. This poor man was completely distracted, and looked a bit foolish as the dog got the better of him. To be fair, he didn’t let it get him down. He was laughing—apparently enjoying the dog and his antics.

There’s a certain spirit of adventure when it comes to live TV, and these dogs are proof that you never know what is going to happen!

News: Guest Posts
Smiling Dog: Stanley

Dog's name and age: Stanley, 1 year

Adoption Story:

After their fourteen-year-old dog Sparky died, they knew they would eventually want another dog. The name Stanley was decided upon, it was just a matter of finding him. The family was continually look at the Humane Society's website looking for their Stanley. One day this past summer the family went to the Humane Society to visit the available dogs. When they met this dear dog the family agreed that they found their Stanley!

More:

Stanley loves going to work with his dad who helps transport elderly and underprivileged people to their doctor's appointments. Stanley loves riding in the van and his passengers get a kick out of it.

Dog's Life: Home & Garden
10 Nontoxic, Dog-Safe Houseplants
Keep pets healthy with the right selection of indoor plants

When preparing to adopt our kitty, I learned from the folks at the rescue organization that a few of our houseplants were toxic to cats and dogs — and since this particular furry friend enjoys chomping on plants, it was vital we remove these from our home beforehand. (And even though some pets pay no attention to plants, it’s always better to be on the safe side.) But many of the most popular design-friendly houseplants, including split-leaf philodendron and fiddle-leaf fig, are toxic to cats and dogs. So what’s a design-loving pet owner to do? Live without houseplants? No way. We’ve found 10 cool houseplant options that are all nontoxic to cats and dogs.

1. Tillandsia. Air plants are tailor-made for modern spaces, and they need very little care. Because these petite plants don’t require soil, you can place them just about anywhere — on a piece of driftwood, in a seashell, in a hanging glass vessel. However, their small size can prove problematic if you have a nibbling pet: A lot of damage can be done to the plant in a short amount of time, so watch your pet and be prepared to move the plant out of reach if this becomes an issue.

2. Boston fern. Most true ferns are nontoxic to cats and dogs, including the classic Boston fern. This fern has lush, full foliage, is easy to care for and looks equally at home in traditional and modern spaces.

3. Staghorn fern. This unique plant has sculptural appeal when mounted on the wall and — major bonus for plant-chomping pets — can be kept up high and out of the way of those sharp little teeth. Cluster several on a wall and create your own living art installation.

Photo by Sushiiphoto - Look for shabby-chic style home design design inspiration

4. Maidenhair fern. Delicate and romantic, the light-as-air foliage of a maidenhair fern is a beauty to behold. This plant is a bit fussier than most houseplants, preferring a humid environment (or frequent misting) to stay healthy. The ultra-tender leaves may be tempting for pets to nibble — and while it won’t harm your furry friend, the plant itself is quite fragile and can easily be destroyed by a curious cat. If you want to keep a maidenhair fern but it keeps getting chewed up, try placing it in a hanging planter.

5. Dwarf olive tree. Dwarf olive trees can do well indoors in a large pot with good drainage, but they do need a very sunny spot with at least six hours of full sun each day. If you live in a cool, cloudy region, it probably won’t thrive.

6. Rosemary. Like the olive, this is another attractive Mediterranean plant that will look right at home in interiors of any style. Grow a pot of fresh rosemary in a kitchen window and enjoy snipping fragrant sprigs to add to your cooking.

Photo by WXY architecture + urban design - Discover modern living room design inspiration

7. Ponytail palm. This wacky plant looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Ponytail palms are well suited to modern interiors — starting with a smaller plant is easier on the budget, and you can always transplant it into a larger pot as it grows. A full-size specimen makes a dramatic statement, as seen here.

8. Echeveria. This succulent has rosettes of leaves in shades that range from green to blue, depending on the variety. They do best in well-drained soil, in a spot that gets morning sun.

9. Orchid. With their elegant, long-lasting blooms, it’s no wonder that orchids are a decorator favorite. Thankfully, according to the ASPCA, phalaenopsis and dendrobium orchids (two of the most popular varieties) are nontoxic to cats and dogs. Plant a single orchid or group several in one large vessel for more drama.

Note: Roses, also pictured here, are nontoxic to furry friends as well. So feel free to treat yourself to that bouquet!

10. Cat grass. Pets nibbling houseplants, even nontoxic varieties, can get tummy aches. For cats, you can encourage healthier green eats by planting a container of cat grass and placing it in an easily accessible spot. Not to be confused with catnip, which is in the mint family, cat grass will not give your cat the crazies. It’s usually grown from oat or wheat seed. If growing your own cat grass from seed, keep the container out of reach of your pet until the grass grows in, to protect the tender sprouts.

Tell us: Do your pets nibble the houseplants? Share your stories in the Comments.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Understanding Canine Growls
People are able to interpret these vocalizations

Research in recent years has shown that our brains can process the emotional content of vocalizations based on acoustic structure, and that various mammalian species share the same brain structures used for such interpretation. That means that we ought to be able to interpret the emotional nature of vocalizations from other species much like we understand those of other people.

Multiple studies of communication across species have found that animals can understand the emotional nature of vocalizations made by members of other species. In a number of studies, experience with the other species enhanced the ability to understand calls from that species.

Cross-species communication is particularly interesting between humans and dogs because of the long history we have of associating with one another, leading to the possibility that we have influenced each other’s vocalizations. In order to investigate people’s ability to understand canine growls, researchers conducted a study in which people listened to recordings of dogs growling and were then asked questions about the emotional state of the dogs.

In the study, “Dog growls express various contextual and affective content for human listeners”, 40 people heard recordings of growling dogs. All of the growls were recording in one of three contexts: guarding food from another dog, playing tug with a person and being approached by a stranger. In the first part of the experiment, the people were asked to rate each growl on a sliding scale for each of the following emotions: fear, aggression, despair, happiness and playfulness.

The emotional profiles based on the 40 ratings of all three contexts were different. Food guarding had the highest aggression rating, followed by the stranger context, and the growls from play had the lowest aggression scores. For the other emotional states, the food guarding and stranger context did not differ from each other, but were rated higher in despair and fear than the playful growls and lower in playfulness and happiness than the growls recorded in play.

In the second test, people were asked in which of those three situations the growl was recorded. Overall, people correctly identified the context of 63% of the growls, which is significantly better than the 33% rate that chance predicts. The play growls were most readily identified, with 81% of them being correctly chosen. The food guarding growls were correctly identified 60% of the time, compared with 50% of the growls directed at strangers. Most of the errors in identifying these two (potentially aggressive) contexts involved confusion between the two of them, rather than with the playful context.

The authors conclude from this study that people can distinguish different types of dog growls, including being able to tell apart growls that are both in potentially aggressive contexts. Previous studies have found that people’s ability to understand canine growls is influenced by the time between growls and the duration of the growls. Based on analysis of the acoustic structure of the growls in this study, the key characters of the growls that make them seem different to people are the rhythm of the series of growls and the length of the individual growls within that sequence. Longer gaps between growls is associated with higher aggression scores. Shorter growls are generally perceived as more positive on emotional scales. In growls recorded in the context of a stranger approaching, the higher the pitch of the growl, the higher the fearfulness score.

Individual people varied in their ability to identify the context of the growls. Overall, women were better at it then men. Also dog guardians outperformed people who do not have dogs. Whether or not a person had ever been bitten by a dog had no effect on whether people were able to determine the context of a growl. This study shows that although people in general can interpret the emotion in canine growls, experience plays a role in how well they are able to do so.

Can tell what your dog’s growls mean?

Dog's Life: Humane
Malik Jackson Sponsors 181 Adoptions
NFL defensive lineman teams up with local rescue organizations in his new community.

Last year the Jacksonville Jaguars signed defensive lineman Malik Jackson to a lucrative contract. Malik wanted to give back to his local community and teamed up with the Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS) and Jacksonville Animal Care & Protective Services (ACPS) for a two-day adoption event earlier this month.

Malik promised to sponsor the adoption fees for all pets adopted over the weekend and visited the JHS to meet fans and talk about the importance of fostering and adopting. It was a critical time since Jacksonville shelters were full. And, as a result, 181 pets found homes due to the event.

In addition, many special needs pets were adopted as well. That included Prince, a dog who needed to find a single pet home willing to maintain his arthritis treatment, and Devan, a senior citizen cat with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Hearing about the free adoptions, his new mom checked out the JHS web site, fell in love with Devan, and made sure she was first in line the next morning.

I always feel conflicted about “free” adoption fees since it's a small cost compared to the financial commitment of a pet. But as long as the shelters do their due diligence in screening potential homes, having a National Football League player sponsor these kinds of programs can go a long way in encouraging people to consider adoption. 181 pets with forever homes to be exact!

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