I feel that a very important part of being an animal professional is studying and watching animal behavior. I can see almost every eye blink, tilt of ear, look-away, or limp.
I have recently learned that in canines, a tail wag to the right means that they are happy and may see something they want to approach; and a tail wag to the left means that they are frightened and confronted with something they want to run away from.
I think it is important for all animal professionals to know and understand animal “calming signals.” These are signals animals use to calm themselves and communicate with other animals, and they use them on us as well. Some of these signals are looking away, blinking, yawning, sniffing the ground, approaching in an arc, shaking, holding up a paw, sitting, lying, and play-bowing.
We should also know the signals that reveal lack of calming. These can be closing/clenching of the mouth, staring, leaning on the front paws, and body stiffening. When we see lack of calming we want to guide our animals into calming themselves and then praise them for those signals.
So let’s say we have a frightened dog or cat that is frozen, staring at our visitor. We can make a sound or call their name to get them to break their stare and look away or lick for a moment. As soon as we see them using a calming signal we can quickly praise: “Good look-away!” This reinforces their natural ability to calm themselves and to feel confident in different situations.
One of my biggest gripes with “old school” training techniques is that often people’s timing of punishment is off. A dog may have just lunged and barked at a person but by the time the handler has been able to jerk or shock the dog, the dog has looked away and licked. So the punishment appears at the calming signal, not at the lunge.
This can make dogs feel even more insecure, and in the long run teach them to skip the bark and go right into the bite. More positive training teaches the handler to praise for the calming signals. This teaches the dog how to naturally feel confident and leads to a more stable dog in various situations.
I tell animals every day that the most intelligent animals are conscious of their behavior: They know what they are doing at every moment and why. If we start to point out these subtle movements to our animals, they will become more aware of how they feel during various situations.
My cat Joey used to be scared of feet. He would stare at them with wide eyes until they came close, then he would run fearfully away. I started to point the calming signals out to him. This is what Joey has to say: “At first it was really hard to force myself to blink or look away for a moment. But when I did, I realized that when I took a breath, then I could feel my paws on the ground. That gave me just enough time to realize that what I have been scared at hasn’t hurt me yet. So I look away again, or lick, and realize it is still okay. The calming signals give me a chance to think about what is a false fear and what is a real fear. If it is real fear then it gives me a moment to plan my reaction. The calming signals are still hard to do during every scary moment, but I am getting better.”