Calming Signals and Preacher Man: Still “Reactive” After All These Years

Bear with me, please. I miss my dogs, one in particular. I’m in Dunedin, and he’s 12,620 km away. It sounds even farther in Newzealandish, doesn’t it? It’s National Pet Day back home, I know he is keeping an eye on the door. The Dude Rancher takes good and kind care of the dogs while I’m away working, but no matter how hard he tries, he doesn’t have that certain something Preacher sees in me. If I tell the truth, there is a look Preacher Man gets that I don’t see in the Dude Rancher either. Probably for the best.

Preacher shows up in my writing; he’s been with me for about five and a half years now. It was always him and me, no one else matters. What do you think, Sandy? Was he a couple of years old when you sent him here, give or take? It’s a guess with rescue dogs and he barked across Texas before he came here. He’s a mid-life member of the long-low-barky-herding club now. He used to move around a lot, but time has passed, we’ve mourned four good dogs in those years. Too many of us have become strays, so Preacher needs to keep a special eye on me. Sure, the Dude Rancher lets him talk to me on the phone, but it isn’t the same.

I’m a horse trainer who always talks about Calming Signals in my clinics. I think it’s simply the biggest leap forward we’ve ever had in building better relationships with horses but the concept named by Turid Rugaas, a dog trainer. Once you start speaking the language of calming signals, it feels like dogs, horses, and every other species use some version of this same language. Preacher is an impresario, with seven octaves of toenails, barkyodels, and calming signals. I listen to all of them.

Lots of dogs bark a bit. No harm. Preach over-barked his welcome in a few places before coming here. It’s how you get a name like his, from loudly pontificating and enjoying the sound of your own voice a bit too much. The trouble is I don’t think he liked it at all. It’s more of a bark compulsion for him. Barkitis. He hates it when he barks but he can’t stop. I promised I wouldn’t mention the trickle-down events that result from a barksalot reality; it’s too much information and it puts him in a bad light. His anxiety makes him do things that he regrets even before they happen. Then he barks to relieve his anxiety which gets set off more guiltbarking. It’s like chasing his tail but it’s all in his head, which is both confusing and crazy-making, so he barks a while longer.

Preacher tries too hard, on guard and proactive toward possible lurking evil, but humans call it being reactive. One more misunderstanding.

When he first came, Preacher ran circles on my lap, excited to be so close, popping buttons off my shirt and barking too hard to, barkbark, breathe, barkbark. When the joy was too much, in 5-8 seconds, he had to leap down, spin a few times and try to jump back up, while mumblebarking on each exhale because if he’s breathing, he’s barking, and that’s the rule. Mumblebarking almost like not barking if you don’t look right at him. And the washer is running, they’re grating the road, and your hearing aids are off.

Preacher Man has recently become a mystery media star. I make videos for my online training group, demonstrating techniques with horses and in each one, he’s just off camera, a master thespian capable of an eloquent range of emotion, all expressed by interpretive barking. It’s not just while filming, the background music of my life is a yapping barkdog,  reminding me he’ll relentlessly protect me from all real or imagined harm, except for bark poisoning.

While working, I try to help people understand what their horses are communicating about stress so they can answer with kind affirmative signals. Some of the horses are young or have had privileged lives, and the conversations are full of curiosity, soft eyes, and relaxed necks. Others are rescues with half-closed eyes, stiff backs, and emotional baggage that make them look as tired as their exhausted feelings. Time is the magic ingredient. Some will eventually find a way back, healing themselves with the relief brought by forgiving themselves, as much as us.

Others lose their way forever, no matter how much we love them. I wonder sometimes if our ever-needful desire to heal them only confirms to them how damaged and broken they are. Do they see themselves through our eyes, an affirmation of their flaws? Do they shut down to our pity? Could our love burn too hot for healing?

For a while, I dreamed that Preacher would sleep deeply and awaken soft and relaxed. That the sight of the broom wouldn’t make him cower. That he could enjoy his dinner in small bites without defense. That he would be able to cock his head sideways and give me a goofy smile. But I gave that up. It felt like I was asking him to become a lounge singer or an electrical engineer or space alien. I let go of needing him to be anything and just listened to his barksong, with a cooling acceptance of him exactly as he is.

It’s been those same five and a half years since I’ve gone to the bathroom by myself. No one with a dog goes to the bathroom alone. But now Preacher doesn’t have to stare out the door, keeping everyone at a distance with a bark at that could chip porcelain. Instead, he follows me into the bathroom like an old man in a stained tee-shirt, punching a time clock at a job he’s no longer enjoys but it’s his duty of habit. Dozing off with his head in the corner, a grouchbark not quite under his breath.


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Join us at The Barn, our online training group at
Email [email protected] for clinic hosting details or to be added to the email list.

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

35 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Preacher Man: Still “Reactive” After All These Years”

  1. As a small animal doc for whom dogs come naturally, but horses not so much…… I loved this and I love the way you write! Thank you.

  2. The ninth paragraph. Deep sigh. A lurking danger that all those big hearts in rescue should be aware of. Or should I say be self-aware of? The sad realization that for some, love can’t conquer all. Ugh – “conquer”, a predatory word in itself! Time, space & the most basic needs fulfilled are sometimes the greatest gifts of all. Just peace please. A tall order for us loud & busy humans.
    A veritable greenhorn in the worlds of both equine & rescue, I’m learning. Just not always what I expected to learn.
    Thank you so much Anne.

  3. I’ve had Chokko, a rescue pup, for 12+ years and he’ll still fear bite if caught off guard. I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction but it’s been hardwired in during his dark formative years. I couldn’t love a dog more, but some things he can’t unlearn. I accept that and love him as much as he’ll allow.

  4. No one with a dog goes to the bathroom alone….how true. Such that my puppy (now rising 5 yo) knew exactly where to relieve herself! Never go outside. Hang on forever, so to “go” in the right and proper place, the bathroom. Took a while to sort that one. Go a little deeper here. No-one with a toddler gets the chance to shower. One has to sneak a shower. I thought my mother never showered! Yet she always smelled so sweet and clean. Dog and toddler are one and the same, don’t let you out of their sight. Preacher is simply a responsible fellow. Don’t know I could cope with the barking. This little terrier thing is not a yapper. Grrrrr……woof her low warning and deserved of at least a look out the door. Enjoy Dunedin. Thanks Anna, you are always worth a read.

  5. Another reason why you are such a gift. Preacher barked his way to you in his own way, knowing all along that you would hear and insist on joining him in life. That you see his true self and let him be it must be something he simply can’t believe has become his good fortune. He was always destined to be a horse trainer’s supervisor. Hence the voice. Love to you from all of us in Texas.

    • Thanks again for sending him this way. I’m kinda barking about my good fortune, too. Love right back to the Texas family.

  6. What a wonderful perspective. Had a German Shepard who would follow me everywhere too. Miss him soo much. What a presence!! Always a joy to read your posts. Thank you.

  7. Lucky, lucky Preacher Man! A beloved Cardigan corgi stole my heart with his bossy, nippy, protective love and complete devotion. Miss him always.

  8. Loved your story of Preacher Man! Most of the dogs we’ve shared our lives with over the years have been herding dogs, Shelties, Aussies, Collies, so barking is a sound we associate with home. One of our dogs had a dad-dog named Sir Barks-a-lot. I know what you’re feeling about missing your 4-legged roommate as we miss ours too when we travel. We have been known to ask friendly strangers if we can pet their dog to get our ‘dog fix’. Thanks for posting this.

  9. My farm collie/grade Aussie came as an eight-week-old puppy, but was never happy-go-lucky or eager to make new friends. On our way home that first day he crawled up on the back of the pick-up seat and stared out the back window towards what he was “torn” from. Now he is that attached to me (not the boy we got him for), and he barks to warn and protect ME – when I’m not home, my husband and son say he isn’t “reactive.” I don’t think he follows them to the bathroom, either….

  10. You always leave me mentally “thumbing” through memories of dogs (and before, cats) rescued over the years. And then I turn to the horses who have come to stay, or who were just passing through, and see, essentially, the same … Wounds? Black holes? Coping mechanisms? Tics? Cries? Lines in the sand?

    Thanks for laying bare your insides … so we have the strength, support, and insight to look at ours.

  11. Preacherman makes me want to barkbarkbark in recognition. My Romeo, a Aussie/Huskie blue-eyed beauty, earned the nickname “Velcro” because of his attachment to me. No major travel for me for the past two and a half years. He’s now 15, nearly stone deaf, eyesight failing, arthritis impinging on the body that still has the willing spirit that wants to be with me always. Two and a half years ago I was gone to Europe for ten days. My good pet sitter did all that she could, but he spent time crying by the front door and spewing diarrhea. The separation anxiety was that bad. I decided I could not leave him again for the duration. Xanax and my husband get him through and overnight or two here and there. I’ve never had a dog live this long before. He doesn’t want to leave. He likes it here with me. And I’m fine with that.

    Preach! Woof.

  12. My bathroom trips seem to appeal to my cat more than my dog! Suzy(dog) is cautious about the linoleum floor. My son also has the cat visitors (FOUR!) he says they assist with his shower too!! A little crowded to me..Love the nose in the corner picture. I used to have a hound/shepherd who was “put upon” by one of my cats & he would walk into a corner & just stand there till she left!

  13. Just love this. We have rescue dogs too, and yes, some anxieties are deep rooted but its so wonderful to see them relax in your company and be as happy as they can possibly be….

  14. This one gave me new insight into Preacher but also into some beloved canines of my past. It is good to realize when a behavior, which we might perceive as irritating, is coming from a place of anxiety and fear.

    • I think understanding Calming Signals is the best tool for being with animals. Seeing their side is crucial, dogs and horses. Cats? Who knows. Thanks Rebecca.


Leave a Comment