Understanding Dog Calming Signals

A Sudden Itch May Be a Sign of Stress
A Sudden Itch May Be a Sign of Stress

How Do Dogs Communicate?

Dogs are masters in body language. Deprived of the gift of language and with a limited array of vocalizations (compared to humans), dogs rely mainly on subtle body cues to communicate. It really takes an attentive eye to observe and attend to cues that last a fraction of a second at times. However, with practice, it is possible to learn how to speak "doggish" and interpret a lot of what they have to say.

As a dog trainer, I am often told by Cesar Millan fans how effective his training methods are and how dogs are drawn to and magically behave for him. They also claim that his methods are humane and the dogs are not harmed in any way. Yet if you press the mute button while watching Millan in action and you will see that the dog's body language is screaming stress and learned helplessness. Viewers often miss subtle cues that demonstrate stress. A vast array of stress signals are exhibited, but unfortunately, the dogs' threshold levels and communications are ignored.

Signals that are used to prevent aggression and calm nervousness in others are called "calming signals." Dogs use them to communicate with other dogs and creatures, including us.

What Are Calming Signals?

If these stress signals are not easily recognized, it may help to play the video in slow motion. A plethora of calming signals will be displayed. But what exactly are calming signals?

Dogs engage in the art of ritualized aggression most of the time. Instead of fighting, they usually make their stand with subtler cues. By nature, dogs are natural conflict-solvers because in the wild, so much energy is required for hunting, reproducing, and basic survival, there is little energy left to waste on fighting. To prevent conflicts, pack members therefore rely on body language. Calming signals are displayed to tell another dog, "I understood your point of view, so please do not hurt me," or "I am just playing, please do not take this seriously," or even "Hey guys, you are getting too close to a fight, please calm down!" Dogs do not speak as humans, however it is interesting to learn to read their body language and decipher the messages they are really trying to convey.

So are you ready to learn to speak some "doggish"? Below, you'll find a few of the many calming signals dogs exhibit. If you really want to get to know more and see many pictures, I recommend a book In Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. Turid Rugaas is a Norwegian trainer and dog behaviorist whom I call the "queen of calming signals." It is thanks to her studies and observations that we can decipher many of the cues dogs send to dogs and humans in their attempt to communicate. Let's take a look as some signals.

This paw lift is not casual... there are other dogs in the distance.
This paw lift is not casual... there are other dogs in the distance.

A Guide to Canine Body Language and Calming Signals

What are the main purposes of calming signals? They are used to prevent unpleasant things from happening and avoid conflicts, placate threats, defuse nervousness, calm others down, and reassure, "I am no threat to you." The best part of calming signals is that all dogs use them. It is a universal language. What means "I had enough" to an Akita is the same for a German Shepherd or a Neapolitan Mastiff.

Let's take a look at some calming signals emitted from these conflict-solving animals:

  • Head turning. You may see your dog turn his head the other side when a dog is approaching, especially if the other dog is approaching head-on. Dogs prefer to meet in a curve. A head turn diverts a direct gaze which in the dog world can be perceived as a threat. If you take pictures of your dog, you may notice he turns his head away.
  • Softening the eyes. Again, a direct gaze is a sign of threat, so squinting the eyes softly is engaging in good doggy manners.
  • Turning away. Dogs do this often to avoid a threatening situation.
  • Nose licking. How many dog owners have pictures of dogs licking their lips? Very likely the flash of the camera or the camera itself made them uneasy and they licked their lips in a calming signal.
  • Freezing. Your dog may freeze into position when he feels intimidated. When a much bigger dog comes by and starts sniffing, many dogs will politely freeze and stand without moving a muscle. This is done to calm the other dog and signal no threat.
  • Walking slowly. I see this quite often at the dog park when an owner scolds his dog for not coming. The dog then comes, but at a really slooow pace which makes the owner even angrier! The poor dog is just saying, "I am coming, but please calm down!"
  • Play bow. A play bow is often seen as an invitation to play and it is basically saying, "I am playing, so everything I do should not be taking seriously, okay?" It is often used to make friends with a shy or suspicious dog, as well.
  • Sitting/laying down. During training, when an owner raises his voice a bit to ask his dog to heel but the dog instead sits down—although this may look like disobedience, it is often a sign that the dog is getting uneasy and is telling his owner, "please be nice with me, I am really trying hard."
  • Yawning. I understood my Rottweiler disliked being hugged because he licked his lip and often yawned. If your dog is yawning, very likely he is not tired but giving you a calming signal. When I was in Italy a while back attending classes to become a dog trainer, a trainer who trains dogs for television shows explained that dogs on the set were often trained to yawn by slightly startling them. To illustrate his point, he went 'boo!" to a Golden Retriever next to him, and the dog promptly yawned! He then put the yawn on cue and soon we had a dog who yawned on command!
  • Sneezing. A young Labrador which was being taught to do attention heeling used to get these sneezing bouts the moment he was asked to heel. These out-of-context sneezing fits were not a random cold. With time, we learned the owners were getting mad at the dog when he was not heeling as they wanted at home and on walks. Once we convinced the owner to use kinder training methods and introduce a clicker, the sudden sneezing fits disappeared and were replaced with an eagerness to get clicked and given a treat. After all, he could not get a treat if he was sneezing at the same time!
  • Sniffing. Sniffing is a calming signal. When I was given a shy dog to do board and training, my female repeatedly sniffed a spot a few feet away from her. There was really nothing to sniff and I knew it was a calming signal. I walk my dogs on loose leashes because they like to sniff when they see a dog at a distance. This helps avoid conflict as opposed to those who make their dogs heel with their heads high, which may actually cause conflict.
  • Curving. As mentioned, dogs in nature like to meet in curves rather than head-on. Head-on approaches are too confrontational for many dogs.
  • Splitting up. Not too long ago, my cats started fighting after moving to a new place. My dogs were reactive to my cats fighting, so for safety sake, I kept them out of it. However, one day I heard the cats fighting again from a distance... I rushed and what did I see? My dogs were in between the cats splitting them up, and my dog was also licking one cat almost as if checking if she was okay! Call them conflict-solvers!
  • Scratching. Out-of-context scratching may be a sign of stress, uneasiness, or frustration. My foster Lab was scratching every day by the door after I taught her to sit before I opened the door. She had no previous rules in her life and it looked like this request was maybe too much for her at this stage of training. I stopped asking for the sit, and just rewarded her for remaining calm and making eye contact while standing up and the sudden "itch" miraculously stopped!
  • Other signs of stress:

Whale eyes (when the whites of the eyes show)
scrolling the fur almost as an attempt to "shake things off"
suddenly closing the mouth and staring
dilated pupils

Note how my female turns her head away from the cat.
Note how my female turns her head away from the cat.

When Do Calming Signals Appear?

You can see calming signals pop up in a variety of situations where the dog feels uneasy, wants to demonstrate he is not a threat, or is trying to become friends with another dog. The following are some of the many scenarios where you may see calming signals in dogs.

Calming Signals Towards Humans:

  • After somebody looms over a dog.
  • After being hugged (nobody should ever hug an unknown dog!).
  • After a person goes face-to-face with a dog or looks directly in the dog's eyes (never approach a dog this way!).
  • After taking a picture (many dog feel uneasy being photographed).
  • When the owner starts getting frustrated.
  • When the dog is scolded. No, your dog is not acting guilty for having an accident on the carpet hours ago! He is just giving you calming signals!
  • When a dog is pushed by a handler in situations that are highly stressful.

Calming Signals Towards Other Dogs:

  • When a dog approaches too quickly or directly.
  • When a bigger dog sniffs a smaller dog.
  • To encourage friendliness in a shy dog.
  • To prevent two dogs from possibly fighting (splitting up).
  • To demonstrate that all behaviors at this point are not to be taken seriously (play bow).
  • To prevent conflicts and demonstrate peaceful intentions.

These are just a few examples of the many calming signals dogs display in their day-to-day interactions with humans and other dogs. Keep in mind that dogs also display these signals to other animals, as well!

This dog is lip-licking because feels uneasy being hugged.
This dog is lip-licking because feels uneasy being hugged.

How I Use Calming Signals

  • In my profession, I use calming signals to my advantage in many ways. For instance, I am always screening the body language of dogs in my classes to make sure they are happy and not getting stressed. If I notice one that is signaling a lot of calming signals, I do my best to give this dog a bit more space or put a barrier up between it and the other dogs.
  • Of course, I rely heavily on calming signals when performing behavior modification. Timing is of the essence here. You need to readily recognize when a dog is being pushed over the threshold and get him back to normal and calm ground fast before things take a turn for the worse. Dogs are really good at telling you when things are going south.
  • I often also employ my dogs in cases of inter-dog aggression or fear aggression because my dogs are good in delivering calming signals. Many dogs do not react aggressively towards my dogs because of their balanced energy and ability to solve conflicts and calm others down.
  • Last but not least, I also use calming signals myself to help a dog that needs some encouragement or is a bit too shy. Last year, my local shelter had a very shy dog that categorically refused to walk out of the run. I use calming signals and crouched down to her level, and she came up to me! The staff was amazed and gave her a chance at life. They saw hope and she was sent to rescue where experienced foster parents would help her open up to the world. Just the right approach made a difference between life and death. Just one of those stories that makes training dogs so worthy and amazing.

My female Rottie sending calming signals to a dog sent to my board and training program. Here she is sniffing.
My female Rottie sending calming signals to a dog sent to my board and training program. Here she is sniffing.

© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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Comments 16 comments

wetnosedogs profile image

wetnosedogs 4 years ago from Alabama

Enjoyed this so much. I love reading how your dogs split up the cats.

My youngest dog thinks she is the pack leader and I do see my other dogs freeze. I try to distract her so the other dog can get moving again. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. The dog will stay put. This only happens in the house though. Am I right to try and distract the pack leader or just let things take their course? There are times one of the dogs has had enough of her bossiness and they will let out a growl. (After all, poor roscoe just wants to get to the couch so he can resume his couch potato role.)

Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 4 years ago from USA

I had learned about yawning and sneezing as a calming signal but not some of these others. My dog exhibits these frequently, even when there isn't a stressor (i.e. we are walking in a park far from everyone else). It is very disconcerting, because I don't know what I can do to calm him.

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 4 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

Nice article!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Wetnosedogs, unless your dogs do not have a history of fighting (not ritualized aggression, actual fighting) there is no need to intervene if it stops at this. Dogs are pretty good to sort things out and engage in ritualized aggression. The most balanced " social groups" are formed when dogs recognize their position and demonstrate subordinate behaviors. Trouble arises when close ranking middle-rank members engage in altercations or younger members challenge the older and the older does not want to give up their role. If you intervene by distracting her, your other dogs may stop freezing one day because there is no need and they feel safe. If they get bold though and move about freely, one day your female may feel like "correcting them". Let's remember that the Association of Professional Dog Trainers claims that "dominance comes into play in a relationship between members of the same species when one individual wants to have the first pick of available resources such as food, beds, toys, bones, etc. Even between dogs, however, it is not achieved through force or coercion but through one member of the relationship deferring to the other peacefully" Your dogs sound like they are deferring peacefully so far, if that is all there is to it. Of course, take my words with a grain of salt since I would really have to see their interactions to see the dynamics of your pack and give the right advice. There are many things to consider. Is this younger dog a recent addition? Are your older dogs getting sick/frail? Are your other dogs suffering from her excessive 'bossiness"? Is she establishing herself through force or coercion? If your dogs show calming signals towards her, does she accept them and life goes on? Are you giving priviledges to subordinates in presence of her? If so, how does she react? There is really so much into it that only a person coming into your home and watching can give you the best course of action.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Millionaire Tips, at times we think there is no trigger but there is. Like if you are walking at the park, could it be you are holding the leash a bit tighter than usual? Could it be you loomed down a bit? Could it be you said a word your dog has associated with something negative such as "no"? Could it be he is showing stress signals from something he is anticipating (ie he knows he is getting close to an area frequented by dogs? Could a noise you cannot detect be bothering his ears? there are so many reasons and at times over interpreting can be tedious and at times not even worth it because we may never exactly know what is going into a dog's mind..yet it is so fascinating.

handymanbill profile image

handymanbill 4 years ago from western pennsylvania

Great hub and Great advice. I see things that my dog does.

I know when my wife tells our dog she wants to give here a bath she gives her, I call it a grin (Snarly look) cause she would not bite but it is funny. Then she goes and jumps in the bath. She is a great dog White Lab.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you Dr. Mark.

Handymanbill, that's funny, I bet you get many laughs from that funny expression!

handymanbill profile image

handymanbill 4 years ago from western pennsylvania

Her Snarly look I really think she is trying to smile. It is funny.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

In dog training circles we often refer this as "submissive grin" it is mostly used as an appeasement signal..

wetnosedogs profile image

wetnosedogs 4 years ago from Alabama

The pack leader is the last of this bunch. She is the youngest and she came home a year after bella and roscoe. No harm is being done. I just find it amazing how they do freeze when she wants to display her leadership. I don't know how she determined she's the pack leader unless she has a stronger personality. Bella and Roscoe are laid back. Sometimes I think Jenny, the pack leader, is a worker. She worries when one of the dogs is outside. She doesn't want to go out, but feels she needs to remind me there's a dog out there and shouldn't she(it's usually bella) come in now? From actions, too, I can see that she would be lost without the brother and sister. Jenny was a stray and maybe she thinks(after all this un-stray time) she can finally be a boss of sorts. That girl is something else. None of us could be without her now.

Ghost32 4 years ago

Interesting, especially since I don't think much of Cesar Millan's so-called success at all. Good to see I'm not the only one.

We don't have any dogs--only cats and a leopard gecko--but have become friends with some of the local coyotes in our Arizona desert setting near the Mexican border. It's easy to recognize some of the calming signals you describe in these "wild dogs" for sure...but there's one obvious difference.

The coyote who interacts with us the most easily will stand square-on and is very comfortable with eye-to-eye contact. Doesn't mind the camera a bit, either.

Of course, this is from a distance of maybe 150 feet between us. Could make a difference.

Sherrye Barrow profile image

Sherrye Barrow 4 years ago from Duncan, AZ

Very interesting hub. I have 2 dogs mother and daughter and i see a lot of these calming signals between them and when they interact with other dogs and people

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 4 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

Sorry about my short and snide comments that last few days; I had to have my mother board desalted since every time I tried to type much the computer kept crashing.

I was trying to tell you the other day that I appreciate reading your behavior articles since you have a keen sense of perception. You must be an excellent trainer as you can tell what the dogs are telling you. I really appreciate your articles and your perception!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you Dr Mark, I really appreciate your input! I also have been enjoying your articles about heartworm prevention and learned some new things I was not aware of. Kind regards;)

MyHollyDale 4 years ago

Very interesting. I have been aware of some of these "Calming signals" from my dogs as well as other dogs but didn't realize what they were. I knew they were a signal from the dog to keep a situation neutral. Other signals I was not aware of but will be now. Thank you for the eye-opener.

Rice Girl 2011 profile image

Rice Girl 2011 4 years ago from Southeastern United States

Very interesting hub. One of my rescue dogs came from a farm. The owner stated very matter of fact, the dog (a beautiful Great White Pyrenees mix) had no name, no leash, and was a working dog - not a pet.

Bo has taught me a great deal and I am quite sure it took more patience on his part than mine! When we go for our walks and not on level ground, he stays by my side. And if I stumble, he will move closer so I can lean against him. He is a wonderful dog and I am glad we were blessed enough to find him.

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    Adrienne Janet Farricelli (alexadry)1,687 Followers
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    Adrienne Farricelli is a former veterinary hospital assistant and now a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of dog books.

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