Calming Signals and Dog Body Language
By nature, dogs are social animals and they very cleverly communicate with the world silently through body language. Dogs also use calming signals to express themselves to other dogs and people. As natural conflict-solving animals, body language and calming signals form part of their day to day social interactions in any environment.
As dog owners, we have a responsibility to learn what our pets are trying to tell us and other dogs. Dogs are experts at nuance and reading our body language, thus if through observation, we learn to recognise what they are saying, we can better understand and interact accordingly with the dog.
It is worth remembering that the whole body tells a story - the eyes, ears, mouth, body and tail all play a part in showing us how the dog is feeling in any environment or situation.
Verbal dog language includes, barking, whining and sometimes growling which is usually easier for us to interpret and understand.
The following are just some of the most obvious signals that dogs use as language and bear in mind that dogs quite often display several of these at the same time.
Yawning – when a dog yawns, they could be expressing their discomfort in an attempt to calm themselves down, such as if the owners are using raised voices, reprimanding the dog or any other tense or stress-inducing situation, like going to the vets.
A person could also yawn to a dog to help calm them if the dog is feeling a bit stressed or worried and this can be repeated to help further quiet and calm the dog. It is likewise quite common for the dog to yawn back to the person!
Dogs also yawn in anticipation of something happening, such as the owner getting ready to go out -this type of yawn is generally followed by a small howl (a yawn/howl).
Head turning & Look away – dogs prefer to be approached side-on, so if a person or other dog is moving towards them in a direct motion, the dog will most likely turn their head to the side to feel more at ease with the impending approach. It is never a good idea to ‘loom’ over a dog or use face to face contact – by looking away, this would be much better received, show good manners and make the dog feel less stressed.
In a dog group setting such as the park, it is likely that all the dogs would turn their heads and bodies away from each other to create a bit of distance and to show politeness.
Lip licking/tongue flicks – a dog can use a quick tongue flick as a way of becoming calmer if they are feeling a bit uncomfortable, such as when a person points a camera at them to take a photo.
Small children can be quite animated in their movements which could make a dog feel slightly anxious, so it is quite likely that the dog could use lip licking as a calming gesture in this situation.
Softening their eyes & face – if an unfamiliar dog or strange person is coming towards the dog directly, they may soften their eyes (almost squinting) their face to appear non-threatening. People could also use this gesture, combined with a look away or body turn to help a dog relax.
Freezing and slow movements – a dog can completely stand still and freeze as an appeasement signal to show another dog that there is no threat and nothing to worry about.
Slow movements can also be used if a dog feels a bit wary in an unknown situation with either people or other dogs – these signals are used to help calm the atmosphere. It is common to see freezing in the park when two dogs are quite far away from each other, or if an owner was trying to recall their dog in a raised voice, a dog may walk back over very slowly as a gesture to calm the owner down. Likewise, dogs will always feel more at ease when people act in a calm manner.
Sitting or lying down – a dog may sit or lay down if an unknown dog is approaching to show the situation is non-threatening. Also, sitting or lying down is an act of calming their surroundings.
Sniffing around – sniffing the ground can be used as a displacement behaviour if a dog is feeling uncertain of anything and will help to make them feel better. This nonchalant behaviour also shows any other dogs in the park that they are no threat.
Body curving – dogs curve their bodies (sometimes quite widely) whilst walking directly towards an unknown dog, otherwise the other dog could feel anxious and defensive. Curving is known as a polite calming signal. This is not unusual posturing - if the dogs were off lead, they would use curving on the approach.
Paw lift - dogs will often lift a paw when feeling a bit anxious. For example One dog is approached too directly by another dog which makes them feel uncomfortable, so they do a head turn and paw lift.
Sometimes a dog lifts a paw in anticipation of something happening, like when their owner is preparing food or reaching for a treat.
Shake off - a shake off is when the dog shakes their body as if they are wet and shaking water off their body. You may notice the shake off after an event that may have been a bit stressful for the dog. It usually signifies a break from whatever had just occurred, allowing the dog to reframe the event, pause and move on from it.
For example, two dogs are playing with each other; the play gets a bit animated. There is a slight pause, the dogs manage to break off from play - both shake off and then move away from each other, ceasing play. This way the dogs are lowering their adrenaline levels.
A dog could be hugged by a person. The dog communicates with some body language, such as lip lick, head turn or yawn to try and communicate they would prefer not to be hugged and did not enjoy their space being invaded. After the person lets go, the dog walks away and does a shake off.
Play bow – if a dog’s front legs go down in a bowing position, this can signify an invitation to play. Similarly, the dog could be standing still while bowing, thus using the signal to calm a person down. These signals often have double meanings and may be used in different ways – often the invitation to play is a calming signal by itself because the dog is making a potentially unsafe situation less tense as a diversion to something safe.
When two dogs quickly approach one another, you will often see a play bow. This is one of the signals that is easy to see, especially because they generally hold the bow position for several seconds.
Splitting - this can be seen when lots of dogs are interacting with each other, such as in the park. If tensions rise between two dogs, a third dog might try to put his body between the other two to help with calming things down. Dogs can also do this if they sense tensions escalating between people.
If a dog is getting worried about something he sees at a distance, a person could step between the dog and the disturbing view to "split" and achieve the same result.
It is easier to look for individual body language signals or calming signals, but it is ultimately important to consider the wider picture, observing what the dog’s body as a whole is saying – this may take a bit more practice and concentration. It is important to factor in the context in which the communication is occurring, including the environment and individuals involved. The same body language may have a slightly different interpretation in a different circumstance. Once you start looking at the dog as a whole, you will notice the amount of information that is communicated with each body part and by the entire body.
Reference: Turid Rugaas, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals