You can be threatening or calming

According to Turid Rugaas’ book, lying down with belly to the ground is a calming sign for a dog. Grace has been playing with Raegan, a younger, larger, higher energy dog for the afternoon. At this point, she seems to have found a calm way to say, “Time out, youngster!” Raegan’s ability to listen to that language helps stem conflict so they understand each other just fine. Raegan is motivated to comply because Grace asked in a non-threatening way.

“You have a choice: you can be threatening or calming.”

That’s what I read in an enlightening book entitled “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals,” by Turid Rugaas. The author talks about our relationships with dogs, and of course, I also see the applications between manager and employee.

Rugaas talks about how frequently we, as humans, have a one-way relationship with a dog. We demand things and the dog responds. When we see a well-behaved dog, we often think the relationship is solid. But that’s not always the case. If a dog is responding out of fear, that relationship is not strong, nor healthy. When we work together with the dog, allowing for mutual understanding, the motivation and compliance for desired behavior will always be richer. Her book talks about a dog’s language and how to interpret signs: signs that we may even take as being aggressive but are really a sign that the dog wants us to calm down.

The main lesson that jumped out to me from this short, but information-packed book is that in any interaction, you have a choice. You can either be threatening or calming.

On the surface, that seems straight-forward. And given that I’m generally patient and easy-going, I don’t see myself ever threatening to Grace. Yet it’s important to think about how Grace would see the interaction.

On our Sunday morning walk this past weekend, Grace ran a bit farther off the trail than I felt comfortable with. She started barking at something. She tends to growl at many benign things, like a blowing leaf or a fallen tree branch that could have startled her. But I didn’t want her out there scaring wildlife, nor risk the chance of a large animal ready to attack her. I called her to me. She stayed out in the distance, intent on whatever she saw. After several attempts and still not getting her attention, I felt my frustration and concern rising, and my voice becoming stern and loud. For Grace, that would be a threatening sound, not a calming one. I caught myself, thinking about Turid’s words – I was on the verge of creating an atmosphere where Grace would have two things to worry about – this mysterious thing in the woods scaring her and me being upset at her.

It makes me think about interactions between humans, so often when there is a different perspective. Just the other day, I heard a manager talking about an employee in her organization, saying he was lucky to be employed and his performance better step up or else that job wouldn’t be there for him. Threatening or calming? That isn’t the kind of sentiment that would engender an improvement in job performance. It shuts people down and makes them resent you.

I remember a boss I had many years ago that managed by fear. You always felt like you had to walk on eggshells around him. That is not when employees do their best work, when they are more worried about the ramifications of any action, as opposed to stretching their talents, becoming creative and taking calculated risks that result in extraordinary outcomes.

Next time you feel your blood pressure rising, remember you have a choice. You can create a threatening or a calming atmosphere. If you’re interested in the best outcomes, you already know which choice to make.

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7 comments

  1. didiwright says:

    It’s amazing how tuned dog communication is…That’s how small dogs and large dogs can play together successfully, like Grace and her big friend, without either being hurt. I read a book along the same lines a few months ago (and I’m still writing a review that’s taking ages), which made me pay a lot more attention to what George (and other dogs) are saying or trying to say. I was pretty good at ‘reading’ him already, because he’s high on my priority list and I’ve always ‘studied’ him a lot to make sure we’re looking after him the way he deserves. But reading that book helped me to better understand his behaviour around other dogs, which is extremely useful when we’re out and about.
    George doesn’t really leave our sight, not only because he thinks about us, but because he feels safer if he can see us…But, on the few occassions he did disappear between the trees, my voice did rise, reflecting my anguish rather than anger, and George returned with his tail between his legs, not sure if he’s in trouble or not. Then I promised to myself that next time I won’t let my emotions show in my voice, but I’m not sure that would be enough. I think dogs can pick up on how we feel even when we don’t put that into words.
    Humans are not as astute as dogs when it comes to emotional, non-verbal communication, but even us can pick up on negative attitude through body language and ‘vibes’. A calming, positive attitude would be ideal in the workplace or everyday life, but unless it’s truly sincere, I think the other ‘party’ will eventually feel the true sentiment behind.

    • You’ll have to share the book title, Didi. Sounds helpful. I agree with your comment — the more we become aware, the more successful we will be in managing communication. In Turid’s book, she strongly recommends observation as the first step in understanding.

  2. I know I have lost my cool when Miss Maple no longer wants to respond to my voice, which probably sounds like an annoying rattling of incomprehensible words spiraling out of control. Maple’s favourite indoor hiding spot is under our coffee table, where she would wait until the ‘storm’ passes…all the while sulking to the best of her ability. That’s my cue to take a deep breath and regain my composure. Sure enough, once I am able to stabilize my nerves and adjust my tone of voice, Maple comes out of her den with a slight swagger in her steps and eyes bright as if to say, “See, now why couldn’t you have just done it this way the first time around?”

  3. I have got Turid’s book but haven’t read it for years. Must get it out and re-read it. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of ‘ah-ha’ moments, especially where Frankie is concerned:)

    As for the workplace, that can be a minefield. It’s good to get some tips on handling things better there too:)

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