Calm Submissive

According to the well known TV personality (I won’t call him a trainer) Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” is a very desirable state for your dog to be in.

A small dog is lying on her right side in the dirt. Her legs, belly, and face are tan. She is black elsewhere. Her legs are stretched out in front of her and her head is on the ground. At first glance she looks relaxed, but her front legs are actually stiff and one is being held off the ground.
Is Zani calm? Check out her left front leg before you decide.**

OK, I don’t even want to begin to address the word submissive. So far I’m just thinking about “calm.”

Here is a dictionary definition:

Free from excitement or passion; tranquil.

A black dog with tan on her face and front legs is seen to be sitting. She is looking down.
Zani shut down

My friend Diana and I were discussing seeing the difference between a shut-down dog and a calm dog. I have some video footage, soon to be published, of Zani in a shut-down state. (It was long ago and she had been rude to little Cricket, who snarked at her. For whatever reason, that time it upset Zani greatly. She shut down and tuned the world out for about half an hour afterwards.) Diana said it would be great to contrast the shut down state with photos or video of Zani when she is calm, so as to help demonstrate the difference.

So I started thinking how I would film Zani being “calm.”

First of all, I realized calm is not a behavior. It is an emotional state, but it can sometimes be observed by physiological signs. I would say they include:

  • slow to moderate heart rate
  • slow to moderate breathing
  • relaxed muscles or muscles being used smoothly
  • lack of signs of arousal or excitement

I tried to list positive signs first, but it is easiest to see calm as a lack, yes? Like the definition: free from excitement. In a dog we might notice:

  • lack of barking
  • lack of panting
  • lack of excitement
  • lack of trembling
  • lack of running around
  • lack of jumping on people or chewing the furniture
  • …ad infinitum.

Calm as Contrast

I’ve also realized that in English, “calm” is frequently used as a contrast word. What picture does the following sentence bring to mind?

Henry calmly got out his wallet and removed his driver’s license.

What did you visualize? I bet 9 out of 10 people visualized Henry being stopped by a police officer. The word “calm” in such a sentence would be emphasizing that Henry is cool under pressure, and/or innocent of any law breaking.

Did anybody visualize Henry sprawled on a couch, watching TV and drinking beer, reaching idly into his wallet to take a look at his license or show it to his girlfriend?  <<crickets chirping>>

Yet even if Henry were a really coolheaded guy, he would probably be much more calm in that situation than when being confronted by a police officer.

The more I think about it, the more examples I can think of where “calm” is used to in a situation where there is something exciting or stressful going on. “Julie was calm in the face of danger.” “David is calm under pressure.” We even say that dogs give “calming signals.” They are generally stress indicators.  Calm is usually noted as a (desirable) reaction to something stressful. Whereas the word relaxed, though related, describes a physical/mental state only and doesn’t necessarily imply as much about the surrounding environment. So it’s kind of hard to photograph “calm.” It’s comparative.

a sable colored dog and a smaller, black and tan dog are on the top step of a porch. They are both looking to the left. The sable dog's commissure is pushed a little forward. The smaller dog is just looking.
Zani and Summer look at a cat

Here’s a “calm by contrast” photo. Summer and Zani are looking at a cat. Summer is starting an agonistic pucker of her mouth and is standing up. Zani, by contrast, is sitting. She is watching attentively but not braced as readily for action. She is more calm than Summer. But is she “calm”? Maybe about as “calm” as Henry was when taking his driver’s license out for the cop.

Calmness in Dogs

At first I couldn’t decide whether to say Zani is calm most of the time or never. In a dog as well adjusted as she is, one tends to take a certain amount of calmness for granted.

But actually, living with Zani around the house, I would rarely call her demeanor “calm.” She’s either asleep, or she is active. When she’s interacting with the other dogs or me she is alert, in the game,  responsive, high energy, even wired. And it was pretty telling that I couldn’t find many pictures or videos in which she looks “calm.”

We Glupling Trainers tend to work on calmness with dogs for whom overstimulated emotional states are a problem. In other words, it’s for their benefit at least as much as it is for ours. My dog Summer is reactive. My dog Clara is feral and also easily overaroused. These dogs need help being calm. So we practice things like Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and straight-up relaxation, as in this video I made with Clara.

I’ve always been sure Zani, like most dogs, would benefit from those exercises, but frankly, it hasn’t been high on my list. That is, until I recorded a bunch of footage of my dogs doing crate and mat exercises this morning. From watching the recordings, I saw that I have probably underestimated the stress in Zani’s life. Up till now, I haven’t worked on calm with her because she is a trouble-free dog for me. I’m feeling a bit like a self-centered jerk after watching that footage. Some dogs are amazing for putting up with us at all. She is very sensitive. But that’s a topic for my next installment.

Here are the “calmest” pics I could find of Zani, but in the ones where she is cocking her head, she is working me for a treat. She tends to snap to attention when I get the camera out.

Cesar is Confused

Isn’t that a nice way to put it?

Cesar often calls dogs “relaxed” or “calm submissive” when they are motionless but frightened out of their wits, as indicated by trembling, stiffness, rolling eyes, or the release of urine. You can see him do that in this video analysis of “Showdown with Holly,” if you can stomach it. At 5:12, he says, “So you see, just relaxation…” I think he says that basically because Holly is lying down. It’s clear when the camera turns her way that Holly is far from relaxed. But Cesar is not famous for his ability to read dog body language.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

In contrast, the most important state for my dogs to be in, at any time, is “happy.” After that, I value alert, responsive, cooperative. Excited some of the time, calm when appropriate.

As I write this, Zani is sprawled at my feet in the position I call “flounder,” as in the very first photo at the top. She’s lying flat on her side with her head down. Is she calm? No. She is completely alert, offering that funny behavior, trying to get me to give her a treat. And that’s perfectly OK with me. For now. But I need to observe and analyze just how much of the time she is “working.” Maybe I, too, have been  guilty of assuming that a dog that doesn’t bother me is “calm” a lot more often than she really is.

I really thank Diana for her part in helping me to see this.

How about you? Can you define “calm”? How would you take a picture of it? Have you observed or filmed your dogs being calm?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** A note about the first picture. This is not an appeasement display. But neither is Zani relaxed. She is offering that behavior because she thought it up and I have reinforced it. You can see that she is holding her right front leg stiffly out from her body. Her eyes are staring straight ahead and not soft. She is working for a treat.

26 thoughts on “Calm Submissive

  1. I think maybe dogs are calmer when they’re in motion than when they’re still. I was thinking about when my dog seems calmest, and it’s when we’re out on a long walk and there’s nothing especially amazing to see or smell – he just jogs along contentedly. When I first brought him home from the shelter and he was pretty much shut down for weeks, I noticed he was happiest on walks, so that’s what we did. (As an aside, he resource guards, and that Cesar video was incredibly upsetting. Poor Holly.)

    1. I really like that theory! What it brought to my mind was the “unnaturalness” of many of the stay behaviors we ask for. Staying on cue is intrinsically difficult for so many dogs. In the case of my dogs, when on their mats, they have either relaxed and gone to sleep, or are pretty alert, waiting for their treat or their turn. I need to work on “in between” I guess.

  2. I guess because Donna can get into a very excited state where she tunes people out, any state where she doesn’t stop listening is “calm” to me by contrast. And in this case where she herself decided she should flop on her belly and wait – – was a super zen moment for me. After reading your post, I’m wondering if it may be applicable to say that perhaps calmness is a measure of how good a dog gets at impulse control? Although this assumes the starting point to be the lack of calmness in all dogs in general.

  3. My dog Shelby is uber reactive, as I’ve said before. For two weeks when I first started seeing my herding trainer, I was instructed to reward Shelby 50-100 times a day for “calm” behaviors. Not mat work, that’s working, not a cued lie down (also working). Instead, I just carried treats with me all the time and whenever Shelby was just lounging around or had those soft, dopey, almost asleep eyes, I would toss her a treat. It really, really helped. The way my trainer explained it was that when the dog is “calm” the parasympathetic nerve system in the brain is working (that’s good), when the dog is aroused, be it “submissive” (as CM puts it) or reacting violently, the sympathetic nerve system is active (that’s bad). So basically rewarding the parasympathetic, while not conscious, is making that nerve system stronger (kinda like practicing the piano). Then when the dog encounters stress it will follow the system that has been most highly rewarded, if that makes sense. In conjunction with that was using management to limit the opportunities for the sympathetic nerve system to get all fired up. We’re still working, but she’s come a long way so far!

  4. As usually, a very nice blog. I think there is a marked difference between the first pictures you posted and the last. And good for you (and all of us) for realizing shut down is NOT clam.

  5. Great article and I completely agree! Watching videos of the Cesar’s so-called calm/submissive dogs upset me. Unfortunately, thanks to his show, people are very mislead about dog body language and appeasement signals.

    1. Thanks! I’m starting to feel bad that I posted that awful Cesar video though. You are right about the damaging effects of his show. Thanks for commenting.

  6. I have always been bothered by Cesar’s “calm submissive” thing only because the dogs seem so checked out and shut down. That’s not calm to me. For me, calm is relaxed and happy, not feeling the need to DO anything. I generally consider my dog very calm. She does little in a rushed manner and so when she DOES really get moving it’s quite a contrast (things that get her moving: geese! deer that run by! and now agility). This to me is a calm dog: I have many photos of her just laying on the couch relaxing. She’s looking at me only because I got the camera out, but I still consider her calm. And this, for amusement’s sake, is what a calm dog looks like doing agility. She’s perhaps the most sedate dog you’ll see doing it.

      1. Thank you! She really enjoys agility. She might not be fast. She might not be what you expect, but she’s happy and it’s made her a more confident dog. One who is able to think for herself and try new things without any fear.

  7. Cesar confused…you’re too kind Eileen! I think his mode of opperation is to baffle them with bull#*@! You are bang on in that the dogs in those programs are in fact “shut down.”

    1. Right as usual, Marjorie. I just have no words for how much damage Cesar and his methods have done to individual dogs and their people. Not to mention setting back good training so badly. So I’ll just keep it at “confused.” Although that may not even be true. I’ve seen a “behind the scenes” video where he and another man were deliberately getting a dog worked up for filming and laughing about it.

  8. Very insightful! I have not seen anything like this discussed anywhere before. I think you’re right, that by calm we mean “calm in the face of stimulation/distraction/etc.”

    I was mindful with my Boxer puppy to reward calm behavior like relaxing in his bed or crate, or for lying down away from the table while we’re eating. At 1.5 yrs, he now “begs” for food from the table by lying down on a rug a few feet away, then heaving a big sigh and plopping down flat on his side (head down and everything). He will hold that “relaxed” position for a good 5 or 10 minutes before popping up again to check if something is coming his way 🙂 It’s a good behavior that works for us, and anyone looking at him would think he was exhausted and about to fall asleep, but I know that it’s a trained behavior that he is performing. It makes me wonder, can we really teach dogs to be relaxed, as Crystalpegasus1 suggests, or do we only teach them to act relaxed?

    1. Thanks for writing, Christina. Your boxer’s behavior sounds just like Zani’s “flounder.” In a “relaxed” position but not relaxed at all.

      I think absolutely dogs can be taught to relax. I’ve seen my teacher do it, and I got a pretty good start on Clara. Sue Ailsby in her Training Levels has a good method, as do some other well known trainers. And there is always Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and methods for teaching dogs to take a breath. All of the above have in common that they are not teaching a “stay,” but reinforcing gradually more and more physical relaxation. I think the mental tends to follow.

      I don’t know if you saw my own video progression of working with Clara (the baseline vid is very funny), but I think they begin to show relaxation as opposed to duration. See what you think. Here’s the beginning: Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge. Links to two updates are at the bottom of the post. I should do another update. It’s been a long time.

      Thanks again!

  9. I agree that CM is misreadimg dogs all the time. You only have to look in their eyes and at the body language to feel how wrong he is. People that van read dogs have an innate sense of how the dog is doing. We need to learn to trust that and not fall for the so called experts.

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