Laura had always loved to visit her grandfather – he lived on a farm and was very wise about all animals. In particular, he knew a lot about dogs and was always teaching Laura interesting things about them. One of the things he had taught her about was “calming signals” – these are special body language signals that dogs give each other to make each other less angry or less afraid.
Laura had loved learning about these “calming signals” but she hadn’t realised just how useful they would be until one day in her teens when she was walking home from school and met a big furry brown dog.
“I just came around a corner and nearly crashed into him!” Laura recalls. “I think maybe he was lost or something because he looked a bit scared and he must have got a fright when I came running up to him because all the fur stood up on his back and neck and he showed his teeth and started barking at me really loudly.”
Frightened, Laura froze, unsure what to do. She knew you should never run away from dogs because they would probably make them want to chase you. And she also knew that you shouldn’t scream because that might make them even more angry or scared…
“Then I remembered what my grandfather had told me about calming signals and how dogs use them to calm each other,” Laura explains. “So I thought maybe I could try the same thing too.”
Avoiding Eye Contact with the Dog
First, Laura made sure that she did not look at the dog in the eyes, because dogs find staring very threatening. Next, she turned slightly so that she was facing away from the dog, with her shoulder towards him, making sure that she was moving very slowly all the time.
“I didn’t really expect it to work but the dog stopped barking! He was still all bristly and looked wary of me but at least, he wasn’t so aggressive anymore.”
In fact, the dog started to approach her. Laura remembered that her grandfather had told her that dogs can feel threatened if you walk straight up to their heads so she kept her shoulder turned away from the dog and carefully approached him in a curve, just like she had seen dogs do in the park when they go up to each other and circle to sniff bums.
As it came up to sniff her, Laura slowly crouched down, keeping her shoulders still turned away from the dog and making sure that she didn’t stare into its eyes. She was surprised when the dog started to wag its tail slightly. Gently, she put out a hand and after letting the dog sniff it, she carefully stroked its chest. She knew that it was best not to pat a strange dog on the head because many dogs find hands coming down towards their heads very threatening.
The Dog Even Followed Her Home
By now the dog was looking quite friendly – its ears were relaxed back on its head and its fur was not standing up on end anymore. Its mouth was open and relaxed, panting gently. When Laura slowly stood up and started walking again, it followed her, trotting happily beside her. When she got home, Laura gently checked its collar and found a tag naming the dog as “Rocky” and giving contact details for its owner.
“Rocky’s owner was really surprised when he turned up to collect him,” giggles Laura in memory. “He told me that Rocky is usually very scared of strangers and gets aggressive easily if he feels frightened or threatened – he’d even bitten a few people in the past! He couldn’t believe how Rocky was sitting happily with me, letting me pat him and play with him.”
“I told him that people often get bitten because they approach a dog the wrong way, like rushing up to pat it on the head or staring at it…but my grandfather had taught me how to use ‘calming signals’ to communicate with Rocky in a way that he could understand so that he didn’t feel threatened by me,” smiles Laura. “After that, Rocky’s owner started telling other people to do the same things I had done with Rocky and the great news is, Rocky never bit anyone again!”