Dog Calming Signals

The following are the question and answer of my ISCP Diploma in Canine Psychology coursework:

The Question:
Read “On Talking Terms with Dogs : Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas. Write a case history of your experiences of using calming signals with a dog. This could be your own dog or a friend or colleague’s dog.

My Answer:

Ruby the Husky came to the Refuge originally as Rambo, with her brother Thor and their father, Ezra. Ruby and Thor were about 2 years of age, but had never been socialised with other dogs, and had had little human contact. Nervous as they were about being near humans, nevertheless Ruby and Thor were sweet dogs, just in need of experiencing more human and canine interaction.

Rambo was adopted shortly before Christmas 2015, but was returned to the Refuge in January 2016 as Ruby. When I saw her in her enclosure, she was cowering in a dark corner, trying to hide from human eyes. I decided that she needed some TLC. I tried giving her some treats, but she turned her head away, disinterested. I thought perhaps she would be tempted with higher quality treats, so I went and got a slice of dog roll, which I broke into little pieces and put into a bag.

I entered Ruby’s enclosure and closed the door behind me. Ruby had been cowering in her cubby hole, but when I entered her enclosure, she slunk out and away to the far end of her enclosure. I sat down on the floor about 3 feet away from her hiding place, holding my bag of dog roll pieces, and waited. Once I was seated, Ruby immediately slunk past me back into her hiding place. I made no attempt to stop her, or even to touch her.

I held my hand out, holding a piece of dog roll, and waited. Ruby sat in the darkness of her cubby hole, licking her lips, looking away, yawning, and at one stage she lay down and started licking her paws, ignoring me. I did not try to approach her, instead I simply showed her the treats I had in my bag, then turned my head away and avoided looking at her directly. I pretended to be ignoring her.

Eventually, after a few minutes, curiosity won over fear, and Ruby came over to investigate. She approached me slowly and cautiously, sniffing the air, and keeping just out of reach. I kept my posture relaxed and low, my head bowed and my eyes averted from Ruby. I simply let her take her time to come up to me. After a few false starts, Ruby came over to where the dog roll was, and sniffed at it. I immediately gave her a piece, which she wolfed down. I knew then that if she was able to take food from my hand, I could win her round. As it turned out, Ruby was a sucker for dog roll.

After giving Ruby a few more treats, I was able to entice her out of her hiding place and into the enclosure proper. By talking to her softly and only looking at her sideways, and by keeping my body low and making no sudden moves, I was able after a few more minutes to pat Ruby on her neck and flank.

10 minutes later, Ruby was coming up to me on her own accord when I called her, and to even let me hug and kiss her. She was even wagging her tail and leaning up against me for body rubs. She was able to meet my direct gaze with her own, without flinching or running away. What a transformation!

I clipped on a lead, as I wanted to take Ruby out to the exercise yard where she could run freely and where I could observe her further. At first she resisted the lead, pulling away when I tried to get her out of her enclosure. I gave her a few more treats, reassured her I meant no harm, and tried again. She would come with me a few steps, then, as soon as she was out of the enclosure, she would turn and run back into her hiding place, where she obviously felt safe. It took us a few more false starts like this, before Ruby made up her mind that it was alright to leave the kennel and come with me.

Once outside the kennel, Ruby’s confidence seemed to grow. She was eager to get into the exercise yard. Once there, I unclipped her lead, and she took off exploring the yard. I sat down on the grass and watched her. She seemed to like coming over to check up on me once in a while, and always her approach would be in a curve, never directly towards me. Also, she would present her side for patting first, never straight on. Pilot, a fellow Refuge volunteer, was in the yard with me, and I noticed that Ruby was a little more hesitant with him than with me. This may have been because she possibly trusted me more, as I had done the groundwork earlier with her to gain her confidence, whereas Pilot had only just appeared. I noticed that, although Pilot held out the same dog roll treats to Ruby, she was wary of approaching him, and if she did, she would take the treat from him and then quickly skip away. I moved myself to sit right next to Pilot, and we both had the treats ready, and when Ruby came round to me, I gave her the treat and then Pilot tempted her over to his side. After a few repetitions of this exercise, Ruby was going to Pilot quite happily, and getting pats and hugs from him too, having forgotten her initial nervousness.

The yard had a clamshell paddling pool, which was filled with water. Pilot threw out the dirty water and refilled the pool. Ruby was curious, and kept coming over cautiously to investigate, then darting away. Pilot and I stood by the clamshell pool talking and ignoring Ruby. After a few minutes, Ruby decided on her own accord to explore the pool, and climbed into it. She lapped at the water, seemed to like it, then climbed out. I threw a ball in the air, and she ran after it. She did not retrieve it, but instead she surprised both Pilot and I by suddenly doing “zoomies”. She ran like a maniac towards me, then at the last moment, changed direction and ran round me instead. She did likewise to Pilot. She seemed to really enjoy jumping in the paddling pool, then running off doing “zoomies”.

It was quite a sight to behold, this previously frightened, cowering dog now transformed into an energetic, friendly and affectionate dog.

After spending an hour in the yard with Ruby, it was time to leave. I wanted to see if she was ready to go for a quick walk around the perimeter of the Refuge before going back to her kennel, but it became apparent that Ruby was not quite ready. She was happy enough to have the lead clipped on and to be led out the door of the exercise yard, but just a few feet outside, when she realised we were heading in the opposite direction to her kennel, she put the skids on and refused to go in the direction I wanted.

I understood Ruby’s signal that she wasn’t ready, so I simply changed direction and started heading back towards her kennel. She walked with me on the lead very nicely after that, and even pulled at the lead in her eagerness to go “home”.

I was looking forward to having more sessions with Ruby over the next few days, to draw her out of her shell even more. But, as things go, Ruby got adopted later that afternoon.

(Postscript: since this was written, Ruby has unfortunately, through no fault of her own, been returned to the Refuge a second time. This time she seems a little more forthcoming and less shy, and I’m hoping that she gets adopted again soon, by the right people this time).

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