Calming Signals: Sleeping with a Reactive Dog



I don’t mind bragging; I’ve slept with some very fine dogs in the course of my long and blessed life. Some say I can’t tell a good dog from a bad one but of course, I can. How else would this have happened? It’s been six years now since my arranged marriage with this little yellow dog. Preacher barked his way across Texas and caught a flight here. We’ve been trying to sleep together ever since. It’s my annual report on the dogs of Infinity Farm.

There aren’t so many of us now. Just three dogs. It’s Preacher Man’s yap-a-versary. He has the soul of a pirate, the athleticism of a flightless bird, and the voice of an operatic tenor having dental work without anesthesia. Barking is his superpower. Preacher appointed himself my Warrior-Guardian and as such, growl-yips at the Dude Rancher each time he comes within ten feet of me. If we are all in the same room Preacher does an impression of every siren he’s ever heard, nonstop without taking a breath. My life is that valuable to him. (His primary calming signals are tense agitation, looking away, licking his nose, the air, and yawning. Correcting any of these is cause for panic peeing, usually inside the house.)

Jack is the newcomer, here three years. He’s a terrier who managed to pass himself off as a Corgi Mix, amazing right there. He lost his adopter to cancer and we inherited him. He’d like you to be clear, he’s not a serial rescue dog but was inherited like a family jewel. He didn’t make a peep when he was fostered here or when he came for stretches while his adopter had hospital stays. He was a saint but now I think he was on his best behavior through all the changes. He finally believes he’s stuck with us and has let down his guard. Seems it’s barking that makes him anxious. He self-soothes by barking back. (His primary calming signals are a frantic wag that uses his whole body. Wrinkling his nose, sometimes one side in a kind of sneer, other times he pulls his lips up above his teeth; that thing we call a dog smiling when it is anything but.)

Then there’s my dear step-dog, Finny. He’s a labradoodle but he got the bad end of the cross. He has a thick Lab body with skinny poodle legs. His mind was never burdened with big thoughts, but now less so. Our best guess is that he’s around fourteen. He walks like an old farrier, his eyes are cloudy, and he has a barely audible sneeze-bark, but he can still steal a loaf of bread off the kitchen counter.  When Finny came he brought the Dude Rancher with him. (His primary calming signals are subtle. He’s stoic but that isn’t the same as being fine. It means he’s as sensitive as the other dogs but knows it’s smart to hide his weaknesses. He dips his head, looks away, keeps his eyes half-closed. He stress eats, but be careful with the judgment on that one.)

Every now and then, it’s good to be reminded that the term Calming Signals was coined by Turid Rugaas in her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. For any of us who shared lives with animals, we’d been waiting for this small volume of immense wisdom that gave words to the body-voice we knew intuitively.

Last summer we had some good months. Sometimes the Dude Rancher and I could hold hands in Preacher’s sight. Jack spent the afternoons dozing in the sun with only a small grin on his face. Finny was all stove-up but we discovered some miracle “hemp chews.” Online people were asking me to give a clinic here at my home farm. I said if I did have people come, no one could stay here or even use the inside bathroom. My fragile pack took months to recover from a “visit” from the roofers. One person made it a joke, commenting that she was going to use that excuse so she didn’t have to clean her house for company.  Arguably funny and said with no bad intent. How is it that I can maintain a sense of humor with a dog who’s been peeing in the house (in somewhat designated areas) for six years but get all wound-up over this joke? (Seems I have calming signals, too. I get quiet, cover my eyes, bite my tongue and hold all that anxiety until I pant, rant, cry, or scream. Usually all at once, I learned it from Preacher, who would have us know they are all ways of breathing.)

The thing about change is that it’s dependable. Nothing stays good or bad forever. Our lives are built with dominoes. The recent topple was Squirrel, the ancient tabby who was tiny and boney and mainly slept all day, but her passing shook our foundations. Then the other cats had to debate politics all over again. Finny got confused. He pretends to ignore the cats, but somehow losing her made his limp worse. Now, he stares too long and gets lost in the back yard. He forgot where he sleeps and moved into my tiny studio with two other very concerned dogs. It’s their territory; they just let me write there. So they glare at Finny and over-bark which confuses him a little more. He asks us to open doors for him and a second later, asks again. Finn pushes his gray snout into my leg and wags the very tip-end of his tail. Change is impartial: It’s as if he has two paws in this world and two somewhere else. Has there ever been, or will there ever be, anything as precious as a limping, half-blind elderly dog who is always underfoot and in the way?

It’s snowing as I head outside for the late-night barn check, Preacher leaves his bed and waits at the door. I bundle up and tuck my chin against howling prairie winds. You can tell it’s spring because the snow is blowing in all directions at once but I can see a crescent moon. While I check the horses, Preacher stays in the yard. He likes a poop-snack before bed.

Like I said, we’re working out this sleeping together thing. Preacher is a worrier; too much anxiety to be so close, too much fear to go out of sight. The first few years, Preacher slept under the bed and darted out like a snapping turtle when needed. Then for years, he got off the bed as soon as I coaxed him up. Finally, a boudoir photo.  Now a few mornings a week he’s still sleeping when I wake up at 4 am. Seems I’m a restless sleeper by human standards, but sleeping in a dogpile is a calming signal for me. Finny is already awake wondering if it’s breakfast yet. Jack tries to get under the covers one last time. Preacher is am-bark-tious, greeting the pre-dawn sky doing scales to warm his vocal cords.

The truth is that we’re all inconvenient creatures. Calming signals take the blame out of behaviors. That’s what Preacher and the dogs like; they aren’t wrong for being who they are. Labels of good and bad lose importance because in the big picture, we’re all just breathing here together for a little while.


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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35 thoughts on “Calming Signals: Sleeping with a Reactive Dog”

  1. This is one I cannot share.
    My family (who don’t live near), would say “WHO COULD LIVE LIKE THAT???”
    I would seal my lips, raise my brows, and look away …

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I think of Preacher often and wonder what he is up too. He is definitely one of a kind and I love you for taking him in and giving him a wonderful life.

  3. People I share this blog with understand completely. Whether its a cousin & her husband who feel the same way about their two cats or my granddaughter who just went thru a back injury with her little guy & is so very grateful he came out of it almost normal.
    My Suzie girl in dog years is right in my age bracket (81) which is scary for me – more for her welfare than for mine.
    Yeah, I know people who would have the feelings that H20dogs mentioned. But thats THEIR problem!
    This blog is a place of comfort & empathy – always makes me feel at home.

  4. Anna, I think I’ve commented before that I live with a distant relative of Preacher. Her endless barking can sometimes reach a pitch similar to fingernails on a chalkboard. Her calming signals beyond maniacal barking include neurotic licking of dog beds, furniture, and fur or skin (her fur, my other dogs fur, any available human skin). And, not last and not least, she rakes the carpets with her toenails clandestinely; I can never catch her in the act, but often find her slinking out of a room only to find a new crop of slashes. I love her still, to the bottom of my heart. She’s 15.

  5. We have six large sighthounds, five rescued from Spain with many issues. On any night, two sleep in our bed, a California king, two sofas in the bedroom accommodate the rest. One of ours is reactive, especially if woken. One night he was in bed with another, the most timid. A leg startled him and he woke with a vicious attack. Instinctively, I interjected my arm between them. I spent four hours in the ER getting several stitches. Not his fault. Now if any two are in the bed, I place a pillow between them. So far, so good, I also put pillow ‘insulation barriers’ on the sofas. Love and patience have healed so much, but their past sometimes rears its head. Not unlike us.

  6. Loved this, Anna. Thanks for sending it along. We have 2 dogs, a great Sheltie, very well-mannered & behaved, and an 8 mo. old Corgi (we call him a little devil). I can so relate to your dogs and the stories. Never had a Corgi before and don’t plan to have another one-too much work and not enough “good dog”s. Guess I enjoy reading about someone else and their dogs, then mine doesn’t seem so terrible!

  7. I love your writing Miss Anna. Horses, birds or dogs, it’s all good. I live in Redding Ca. where is it gets HOT in the summer. I cannot wait for those warm nights, of the hot days, so I can sleep outside, on the futon, with my dogs. They are not allowed on the inside bed and it’s ok to have some human space, but come late spring it’s outdoors for all of us. It’s funny to hear my 65 year old,
    6’2″ bear of a husband baby talk to lure one of the girls away from me, to the other futon. They give in on occasion, but mostly it’s me they cuddle with and I love it. Don’t tell my mom!

  8. Well, I used to be a “dog person” until kitties captured my heart. Actually I am just not home enough to have dogs, but hope to have them when I retire. ( a date that is being perpetually postponed due to the entrance of horses back into my life)…

    I love how tolerant you are of the quirks and superpowers of your dogs ! Like H20dog above, most of my family back in VA would cringe in horror at this blog. And that is sad because they are the ones missing the rich part of life !

    Oh, and of course, your word craft is always so enjoyable to me, no matter what you write about, I’ll read it !

    • Trust me, no one in my family thinks I am even remotely sane. You’d think at some age, we’d age out on the criticism… Thanks,Sarah.

      • My family may have felt that way many many years ago but the ones remaining are just as insane animal wise as I am! People who have no conception of how much animals bring to your life probably wont ever understand. Aging out – probably not!

  9. Such a vivid, real description of your life with your dogs. It is their quirks, inconveniences and reminders of mindfulness that steal our hearts. We too, enjoy the calm they bring to our slumber. Thank you for sharing.

      • I’m sure they do, Anna. And . . . they take advantage of them. I can not imagine life without a dog . . . or two or three. We just adopted the most expensive small rescue pup ever. All 14 lbs of her. She is adorable, affectionate, came house trained, rides perfectly in the car and plays with our little schnauzer boy, which was the main reason we got her. He needed a playmate after losing his buddy to kidney disease. (Doesn’t everyone get a dog for their dog?) So what’s the issue? She is an escape artist and has taken the other two, who have never tried to escape before, with her. Therefore, we have had to replace our entire elderly fence with a more secure one for $$$. Is she worth it? You bet!
        Your post will have me smiling for the rest of the day . . . and beyond.

        • Shaking my head, Jean. I wonder what percentage of “home upgrades” fall under this heading. And I love her already. Good luck, Jean. Happy for you!

  10. “He walks like an old farrier…” oh, help, I am laughing so hard I can’t breathe . . . (while the 15-yr-old setter sobs at the door)

  11. A king size bed is not big enough! The two Bostons usually pick us to sleep with. Sometimes add in a cat or two. I’m usually the last to bed so I get whatever piece of bed is left. The 3 big girls choose from other assorted beds. It’s comforting at night to hear everyone snoring peacefully. Thanks for a good dog story. ? TAZ

  12. Beautifully written. We have a 10 month old border collie pup that will sleep on the bed if there’s one human in it, but on a chair in the bedroom if there’s two. The older collie/Belgium shepherd prefers the couch outside the bedroom window. He is easily offended if anyone is touching him when he wakes, even if he happens to fall asleep against them.

  13. I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one. It’s been almost 2 years since Eli lost his human and I my husband and his anxiety hasn’t lessened in the least. Part of my morning routine now is dragging my mop around checking out the ‘pee spots’ in the kitchen. I feel badly for him, he seems to worry that I’ll disappear too even and though he was present at the end and as a dog I would think he recognizes death but he can’t seem to accept his loss. Thankfully he has a small buddy who bosses him around and keeps him company. I don’t advertise the poor guy’s issues, I’m sure many would think me nuts for dealing with them.

    • Sorry for both of your losses. I guess I talk about pee because none of us know when we might be the next one. I hope someone is as tolerant of me! Thanks, Sherry

  14. we’re all just breathing here together for a little while. love that
    and i now too have yet another “limping, half-blind elderly dog who is always underfoot and in the way”
    precious indeed.
    loved this thank you
    i am learning with a relatively new pack, and they make me laugh all the time.
    well mostly


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