Calming Signals: They Call Me Mister Dog!!!

Sidney Poitier died this year and I mourn him. I was not the only girl who swooned over him in To Sir With Love but the performance that galvanized my opinion of him was In the Heat of the Night, with his famous line,They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” Impossibly, I was watching it with my father, who voted for George Wallace and liked cop movies. He’d never seen anyone like Mr. Poitier. I held my breath, thinking the room might spontaneously combust. Respect was a big word to my father who felt no one gave him what he deserved. Being a teenage girl, respect was an unknown thing to me.

Rather than debating the relative definitions of respect, I’ll just say that growing up, I had a couple of horses that my father thought didn’t respect me and a long line of dogs who were closer than kin.

Now it’s fifty-five years later and I’m a clinician whose job is to negotiate understanding between horses and people. I’ve just spent three days driving to Texas with a dog in my truck, not that my father would have much respect for what I do, or what this dog does, but I’m sure he’d like the truck.

When I get a new dog, I make a point of trying to listen better. We are supposed to progress as humans, aren’t we? This time I’ve promised to never say no. It makes him nervous to be scolded, so I’ll find a workaround.

We signed up for agility class. Obedience classes should come first, but they remind me of western pleasure classes. I’m the one who’d flunk out. Besides, agility is like paying a quarter and getting seventy-five cents back in change. For horses and dogs, it’s all about communication and confidence.

I posted the weekly meme (above) about the power of words. People shared stories about discomfort with namecalling animals, us blaming them for our faults. Some felt shamed by others shaming horses. There was a light banter about the fun of namecalling as a joke, showing humor and good intention with namecalling. I get how fun it is to tell a story but I like to think I can have a  sense of humor without belittling my horse.

Words matter. We all remember the names where were called as kids. It was only a joke, the bully said, as if pretending it was funny was an excuse. As if sarcasm was an art, but is insult humor funny? The words cut us and we remember them today. We remember the bully’s name. Maybe their parent was a bully who took it out on them, and then they took it out on us. Bullies hit down, at easy targets. Finally, the horse got yelled at or the dog got kicked. Call it a family tradition. Why does praise come so hard to humans?

There is a word I’ve come to hate as much as any insult: cute. I’ve been raging against it long enough to make people nervous. It’s a perfectly acceptable passive-aggressive way to belittle and demean another. Stuffed toys are cute. When my first rescue donkey, the frightened one nobody could catch, won his fifth obstacle driving championship by being fast and brave and focused, people said he was cute . Really? Is that an achievement?

We buy draft horses because they are “gentle giants” until they are not. We get an Arabian because they’re pretty and end up namecalling them spooky when they are just honest listeners. It’s fine until we wake up and decide the cute one needs to be punished. We’re worse with dogs, buying them because we saw them in a movie or thought they had good hair and weird ears. I hear my new dog is cute.

I had a vision of our triumphant arrival in Texas, stepping out of the truck in a cloud of dog hair, looking like a rockstar emerging from smoke at a concert. Wrong in a dozen ways, but I took the new dog to be groomed just in case. A woman came out from behind the counter, baby-talking in a squeaking pitch, leaning over to grab him. His ears drooped, his eyes showed white, his belly dropped to the ground. His stress was obvious.

I’ve been writing and teaching Calming Signals in Horses for eight years now. It all started when Turid Rugaas, a Norweigian dog trainer, coined the phrase. After her book, it was impossible to not see the communication in all animals, even those we’re complacent about. Calming signals are an animal’s emotional response to their environment (short definition) and my dog was eloquent with the woman who wasn’t listening.

I suggested that my dog was nervous, which inspired the woman to prove me wrong. She got louder, bragging that she’d find his spot, ruffing his collar, such a cute boy, she chirped. As she was groping his belly, he held his breath. He looked in my eye and I took a deep inhale. He didn’t nip her but he should have. She was cute enough to deserve it.

The problem with cute is subtle and socially acceptable, but it creates a hierarchy. Cute is dismissive. We mean no bad intention. It’s just a way we maintain our superiority, a cute way to instigate passive-aggressive domination.

Have I gone too far? Another horse trainer told me that I took the horse’s feelings way too seriously. My father would agree. Or maybe I lost my sense of humor after years of being underestimated. Some girls do.

Anyway, our first agility class went great. The new dog flew over tiny jumps and through tunnels, careful to keep his eye on me. He didn’t attack other dogs and he came when I called. The problem was me. My tongue stumbled over his name more often than my feet stumbled over each other. So often the instructor noticed and suggested I give him a name for agility. What a relief. I think of it as his superhero name.

Mister is having his nap before bed as I write this. Soon, he’ll take me for an evening walk, he sniffs and I look at the stars. We both sleep better. Sometime in the night, he’ll hear something and position his breast bone in the soft center of my belly and bark, sitting on me until I’m safe. I wouldn’t think of punishing him. All any of us wants is acknowledgment. I tell him he’s good because he’s a dog, the very definition of good. He stops every time.

Dog stories all end too soon. The day will come when he takes his last breath and I will exhale with him, thanking him for a thousand hours of his head resting on my thigh, for all the mornings up early pulling his breakfast before my coffee, for the hours that he waits for me to return and for the welcome I am guaranteed each time without fail. Dogs give us their lives without judgment and I will try to live up to that gift. I will start with Mister by building his confidence affirmatively. I promise that he will know his value every day. I will ask the world of him, but I will never call him cute.

God bless all dogs and God bless this dog.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

48 thoughts on “Calming Signals: They Call Me Mister Dog!!!”

  1. Beautiful, heart-wrenching & heart-warming but most of all in true Anna Blake fashion, thought provoking. Geez, humans (myself included) can be so thick at times. I try to remember my grandfathers advice, “engage your brain before putting your mouth in motion”.
    Do we even deserve the gift that our animals are? I will continue trying to be deserving and yes, God Bless their patience & resilience.

  2. Anna, I teach agility close to Dallas, have been in the sport for over 20 years, used to be an eventer. Would love to have you in my agility class!!
    Will laugh all day about obedience being western pleasure!!!

  3. I had to step away from the computer before I could write. Ok, back now! For a little girl in a family of dominant men I first found my solace, my peace, my acceptance, in a dog. With him the world was, and could be, anything. I saw it through his eyes and I found my joy. That kind of love and appreciation never leaves you. My young niece got her first dog a few weeks ago. I cried, both for the love she will give and get back, and for the terrible loss she will feel when he’s gone. I am dog-less now and actually afraid to get one. As I age it gets harder and harder to get over loss. But I must take the plunge again. You have made me remember, for better and for worse, that for many of us our life is not complete without these family members, these friends. I am sure you and Mister will have a wonderful weekend, full of the love and enjoy that you give, and get back.

    • Kathy, get thee to a dog shelter or breed rescue. Yes, there is loss in the future. But dogs live for today and I take that to heart. Mister is adapting to this weird thing we’re doing. I’m telling him he’s right about everything.

    • Kathy I so very much agree with Anna – there IS a dog just waiting for YOU to come & bring him or her home. Yes, it hurts to lose them but its so much worse to never know them or give them a chance to be loved. I adopted Axel only 3 weeks or so after I lost Suzie Q – and I know many would say it was too soon but the house was so empty with her gone.
      Please think about bringing someone home?

      • Oh, I know Maggie! My mother had to finally ban me from the local Humane Society when I was growing up! When I am settled in our new place I will indeed bring someone(s) home. I so look forward to it!! Thanks for the kind encouragement from you both.

  4. Mister is not cute! He is handsome and dignified (most of the time). He is brave and loyal. Cute? I agree, hell no!

  5. Good to have a kindred soul who resists the cute label, perhaps as much, if not more than the dreaded furbaby moniker. Yuck.

    • I made a very unattractive sound when I read furbaby… Don’t start with me! But you didn’t, my dog-loving sister. Give the pack a scratch from me. Only if they feel like it.

  6. Anna,
    I cried when I heard of Sidney Poitier’s death. Like you, I thought him one of the very finest actors.
    And remember Lulu? She’s still gorgeous.

    You have a way of reducing me to tears, but then your words travel even deeper in to my consciousness.

    Blessings to all dogs, including those suffering in Ukraine.

    Thank you,

  7. “I had a vision of our triumphant arrival in Texas, stepping out of the truck in a cloud of dog hair, looking like a rockstar emerging from smoke at a concert.” BWAHAHAHA! Uh, your sense of humor is intact. But I bet that’s what’s happening. Thanks, Anna.

    • It is a sort of fanfare, lest any of us take me too seriously. Thanks, Linda. A scratch for your new dog, living his best life.

  8. I *could* leave a trail of heart and dog emojis for how much I love this, but I won’t because, well, you know. Out of respect for you, your incredible teaching, your Mister and all the dogs and horses and animals out there, I will simply say I love you and all the animals who teach us countless things every single day. We have but to listen, and say a grateful thank you for their presence on this earth.

  9. Yes, a thousand times. If Bhim (and Mister) could write a eulogy to the word “cute,” this would be it. This is a beautiful, thoughtful piece of writing, my friend, and I thank you for it.

    • Thank you, my friend. Bhim (and lots of horses) hold a grudge about it. You and I have met plenty and they are right. But you travel with three dogs… there must be so much hair-fanfare when you climb out of your truck!!!

  10. I don’t show anymore, but I remember that when a judge couldn’t give my horse a good score they would usually say she was “cute”. Ugh.

  11. Thanks for an important reminder as I’m welcoming a newish cat Fiona to my home and learning our cooperative rules together. I will LISTEN more than speak. As you know well in your experiences, listening to them instead of insisting my animals listen to me, was the turning point that made the most difference with my Arabian Taye and my dog, Pippa, who just passed a couple weeks ago after 11 years of a very connected partnership and priceless, two-way conversations. (And yes, each has many names, and each elevates their brilliance.)

  12. Just yes, but sometimes I wish I still couldn’t see calming signals. They are everywhere, humans too and it makes me crush my teeth together soooo hard I break them. Same with cute and baby talk!!!!!

  13. Come to think of it, not that anyone would, but I don’t think I’d take kindly to being called “cute” myself; so point taken, Anna!

  14. Funny, I hadn’t really thought about it much, but I distinctly remember being called cute by a waitress in a restaurant a few years ago. My husband I had worn matching shirts accidentally, and a young waitress called us cute. We were old enough to be her grandparents. I didn’t really take offense, because I could tell none was intended, but it did feel offensive, now that you mention it,and I, who can hardly remember anything, remember that. I will try to remember to refrain from calling anybody cute in the future.

  15. Well- done, as always ! I so enjoyed reading this and forwarded to a few friends with dogs. I am loving the story underlying Mister’s new name. But what I enjoy the most is how much joy and fun he is bringing into your life.

  16. Recently I met a young dog, who barked at me through fear. His owner told me of a recent incident that has resulted in this barking behaviour. Thanks to you Anna, by the time I got on my way, the dog had calmed down and approached me of it’s own accord. All I did was converse with the owner, and ignored the dog sniffing at my shoes, until it reached up for contact. Of course it helps I’ve always got interesting smells on me😀.
    Cute is one of those four letter words that ought to be banned. G’day to Mister👍

  17. Thank you so much for this. I fall in the trap of “cute” because well I love cute things and everything is cute, my horses, dog, cats. I didn’t think anything of it until now.

    You don’t realize the the power of the spoken name until you you start calling them wonderful. Or in the case of my student’s pony that she’s now had for about a year and a half, Mr. Wonderful. He came with the name Charlie, his coggins said Cowboy, she calls him Charlie and everyone from the old barn talked about how spooky and nervous and aloof he was. He hauled home like a champ and I called him Mr. Wonderful and we’ve been calling him that since. It’s his show name now. He’s spectacular.

    I just need to remember to do it with the ones that aren’t so easy 🙂

  18. Anna, guilty as charged! This brought to mind my propensity for identifying a behavior (horse or dog), naming it (ex: voracious eater), and then name calling (“you pushy boy”) at meal times. It never occurred to me that saying it (even with affection) might change the dynamic between us and might perpetuate the behavior! Yikes, it is a trial being human.
    On a different note I have to tell you I had quite the guffaw when you shared “He didn’t nip her but he should have. She was cute enough to deserve it.” I love your sense of humor!!!

    • I think it’s often such a subconscious habit, but you’re in a good spot for an “experiment”. One of the horses here gets nervous around the vet, and I tell him good boy when he tenses, just to remind him who he is… and the vet goes nuts. But it works. I think horses have taught me.

      • Thanks Anna, I’ll give that a try. It seems like horses just want support in their adapting to our requests.
        By the way, I wanted to give an update about Ferdinand. Last farrier visit, which he has not been a part of for the last 3 years, he let the farrier clean and rasp his fronts and clean one rear. I gave him a hay bag for the experiment. Will wonders never cease?

  19. Oh how I’d love to meet you and Mister on your rockstar tour! Will look into venues! I have Turid’s book and Don’t Shoot The Dog in my must read basket that I loan students. Agree, once seen you can’t unsee. So wish this was taught years ago tho the animals themselves do try hard to help us understand if only we listen. My horses taught me natural horsemanship but beautiful writers like you give me words to teach others, thank you! My recent rescue has also just started agility because she’s communicated a love for working and the marker word “yes”. She’s extremely submissive and has only been scolded after repeatedly killing chickens. After that I set up bed n food/water in area of my coop and went out of my way to explain they were as much family as the cats. She learned fast and made me laugh as she tried to communicate that. Squirrels are still natures tennis balls tho. I’m going to work on my use of cute. I’m more prone to use the word darling, which in quickly looking up means beloved, and reflects my feelings often. Safe travels!

      • The dog & chickens “war” reminds me of a black terrior(?) dog I had named Scooter – sadly he was responsible for the complete mortality of my flock of banty chickens (years ago) He put the bodies all together & honestly, I dont think he could understand WHY they didnt move anymore! He was a great dog (beyond the chicken killing thing).
        Now I have – as many of you know, dog, cat & bird. The bird is a Cedar Waxwing who fell or was pushed! out of the nest last August – shes still with me & likely will remain. Juliette (cat) sits on the windowsill next to Pookie’s (bird) cage & Pook runs right over to that side & is quite fascinated by her. It has seemed to really turn the whole cat/bird dynamic on end & the thought of releasing Pookie is kind of worrying when she has no idea that cats are dangerous plus what birds are not (bluejays were quite threatening last fall when I put her outside in her cage) plus shes not big. Sorry to say this, but Pook IS cute!! And likely in her opinion she would hate that description too! Shes quite feisty.

  20. Calming Signals! Don’t get me started! About 7 years ago me and my Great Dane Piper, went into a training program for becoming a Therapy Dog team. The first several days of training were spent solely on learning all (and there are many) the ways our dogs try to warn us with these signals while they do their best not to go on full implosion mode. This training has been so valuable and at the same time so frustrating; mostly because I see dogs all around trying so hard to be “good”. It drives me especially crazy with all the videos on social media that people like to post of their toddler wrapping their arms around the family dog and the poor dog is doing everything possible not to eat the kid while the person on the end of the camera is squealing about how “cute” it all is! AAAUUURRRRRGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!! When you work as a handler for therapy situations, your job is to always advocate for your dog, no matter the situation, and take them away from any environment that makes them uncomfortable: sometimes it is at the risk of seeming rude to the client. I wish everyone had to get that training prior to owning a pet.

    • Oh, Mary. Great comment. I’ve had therapy dogs who slept for 20 hours after working; it’s simply the hardest job an animal can have. Thanks for your advocacy!


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