We all know that dogs communicate through barks, whines and woofs, but in the dog world there is a much more subtle form of communication under the form of body language. Dogs are actually masters in this form of communication as they utilize it very frequently to manifest a vast array of emotions ranging from fear to happiness. Norwegian dog expert, Turid Rugass, actually found that dogs utilize special signals in their interactions among each other and with their owners. She called these signals “calming signals” and even wrote a whole book on the subject.
What are Calming Signals in Dogs?
Calming signals are appeasement signals dogs utilize to manifest a desire to maintain peace. To a person with little knowledge on dog body language, a dog may bite “out of the blue;” whereas, to a an expert on canine communication, the dog actually sent calming signals left and right to let the person or dog know that he wasn’t feeling comfortable in the interaction. Truth is, dogs are over all peaceful animals who would rather communicate displeasure rather than going straight to a bite. It’s up to us therefore to learn to speak dog so we can recognize these subtle signals and give the dog a break.
Common Calming Signals Used in Dogs
Well socialized dogs will learn the ABC’s of body language by frequenting their own species. Dogs who aren’t well socialized may sometimes have a hard time deciphering what messages other dogs may be trying to convey. For instance, to a well- socialized dog a play bow is a friendly signal indicating an invitation to play, but to a dog that was poorly socialized, this body posture may appear threatening. Following are some calming signals dogs use among each other and in their interactions with humans.
Sniffing the Ground
Showing the Back
If you put two well-socialized dogs together and let them meet off leash, you may notice how they tend to avoid a direct, frontal approach. Rather, they will take a lateral approach so they won’t be giving each other direct eye contact. This curvy, lateral approach is a way to appear less threatening which is in deep contrast with how we let dogs head-to-head meet when we walk them on leash.
Again, this is an approach to prevent confrontation. Instead of looking each other in the eyes, dogs may turn their head to manifest their wish to appear non-threatening. With human interactions, you may see a dog turning its head in an attempt to manifest displeasure and tone things down. Be wary of what you are doing at the moment and give your dog a break. If you continue interacting in the way the dog finds inappropriate, your dog may turn his head your way and even bite.
As in head turning, the dog may choose to avoid confrontation by turning his body away. This calming signal has a more relevant impact than head turning as the dog leaves the scene rather than staying on the spot. You may see this behavior when a dog meets another dog that doesn’t appear too friendly. The dog therefore chooses to do an about face rather than interacting.
A yawn may seem like a way to manifest boredom or tiredness in the human world, but in the dog world it’s often a way to pacify or communicate tension or stress. If your dog is yawning when you are trimming his nails, he may be getting “tired” of the procedure and manifesting some tension. It might be a good idea to give the dog a break and resume the trimming session later or on another day.
When Rover licks his lips, and it’s not because there is food around, there are chances it may happening because he is nervous about something. Whether he licks his lips or the nose, it’s a good idea to check what is happening during the interaction. You may see him lick his lips when a stranger comes too close for his comfort or when he is nervous about a dog coming near to what he considers his possession.
We often see the play bow take place in the dog park. The dog lowers his front legs and his rump is in the air with the tail wagging wildly side-to- side. In doggy language, Rover is saying “I am not a threat! Let’s play!” Often right afterward, the dogs will engage in wild play, but it’s all OK because it’s all part of the game.
Have you ever called your dog in an angry tone of voice and Rover starts walking very slowly your way? If so, your dog may be worried and willing to pacify you. His body language seems to convey “Am I in trouble?” In interactions among new dogs who do not know well each other, slow approaches with the dog walking slowly are preferred to rushed ones. If your dog starts walking slowly when he is on leash and notices barking dogs, he may be tense, insecure or he may be trying to calm the other dogs down.
This is a calming signal often seen when a dog sees another dog at a distance. Often, there is actually nothing to smell, the dog is just expressing a pacifying signal to make a statement that he means no harm.
In the human world, it’s rude to turn our back to somebody, but in the doggy world, it’s a sign of seeking peace. Indeed, a dog who shows its back appears much less threatening than a dog who approaches directly and makes eye contact.
This calming signal is often seen in multi-dog interactions. Two dogs may be getting in a squabble, or they may be playing in a rambunctious way, so here comes a third dog who just gets in between them in an attempt to calm things down. You may also see this behavior in interactions among humans, with the dog splitting two people in an argument or children engaging in boisterous play.
There are several more calming signals Turid Rugass lists in her book. “On talking Terms with Dogs, Calming Signals” While you may not be able to see them occur all the time, as sometimes they happen in a split second, knowing the basics of canine body language is already a step forward in learning how to speak dog.