Understanding Dog Calming Signals
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.
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
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!
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.
© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli
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