Learning Body Language and Calming Signals
Communication is Key
Communication is a key to relationships, be they human-human, animal-animal, or human-animal. The ability to relate to the other party is a way to bond and simply enjoy the other's company.
A large part of training a dog is developing an ability to understand what the dog is telling you and being able to communicate with your dog, and I don't just mean commands or your voice - your eyes, body, expression, and even how you move can give off signals to a dog about how you're feeling about the situation...or him.
How Dogs Communicate
Dogs are body language masters first and foremost. Almost everything from their emotional state to their feelings about what's going on at the moment can be read through their body language and posture.
No part of their body is exempt from communicating how they feel, including the "naughty bits" as those often give off scents to hint at their emotional state. Fortunately, we don't have to turn into bum sniffers to read our canines! The most visible movements are what I'll cover first. As always, Wally my gullible test subject...er I mean my canine companion will be the example I refer to. All dogs are individual and will have their own signals.
Importance of Neutral Position
Don't disregard the neutral positions because they aren't "saying" much. The neutral or relaxed positions are the standard all other signals are judged.
A dog that carries his tail lower isn't constantly afraid. Instead, it means that his "lower tail position" will be harder to see, or perhaps not used at all, while the "higher tail position" will not necessarily be as high as another dog's.
The same is true for the wagging. Dogs with long tails might look like they are always swishing with wide wags while dogs with docked tails or just naturally short tails will have a harder time giving very dramatic tail wags, requiring the handler (and anyone else) to look carefully to see the message from the tail.
To read canine body language effectively, you have to be aware of changes and the starting point of that is recognizing what's "normal" for your dog when he's in a relatively relaxed, at-ease state.
Ears, Eyes, and Tail
The ears, eyes, and tail of a dog can tell you a lot. Many times, these parts are used to give signs about the emotional state of the dog as well as their feelings towards whatever they are looking/sniffing at.
Wally's ears are very communicative. He likes to move them about in different positions and not always just to pick up sounds better. Here are some of the positions I've seen his ears in and what I've come to understand them to mean.
- Forward or Perked out sideways - Wally's ears move forward and back given how they are set on his head. At first, this made a lot of ear signals impossible for me to learn because most "ear guides" are for pointed-ear dogs like German Shepard Dogs, or floppy ears like Border Collies which are still largely upright. I had to learn that for Wally's ears - turned forward so that they look like triangles on the side of his head is his version of this signal. What this signal means is that he's alert and paying close attention to whatever he's looking at. Often time he'll sit up or freeze and look and if he was panting, his mouth will close.
- Flat against his head - This usually means he's submissive or getting anxious about what he's seeing. He's become unsure and his confidence is dropping. If his ears were perked, it can mean he doesn't want to pay attention to whatever any more, a way of saying "la la la I can't hear you!"
- Moving forward and back - This was a funny one when I first saw it. It happened while training him and I had no idea what it meant. Turns out, it means he's looking for more information. He doesn't quite know what to do or what I want so he's asking for a hint (or even a direct command) so he can know what I want from him. He'll also give me this signal whenever he'd like to know what we're going to do in a given situation.
- Just plain sideways - This is the relaxed position. He's not paying attention to anything, just soaking up the atmosphere, or is bored, or enjoying a toy, or sleepy (or outright sleep).
They eyes can be difficult because if he's looking at something else, you won't see them. It follows that the best way to read this body part is when he's paying attention to you.
- Cutting the eyes - The best way to illustrate this is to do it yourself. So look straight ahead, then look to your left or right without turning your head. This is what I mean by "cutting the eyes". When he does this, it's a sign of uncertainty about whatever he's cutting his eyes towards. In the photo, you can see him do this to the camera. His nose is pointing in a different direction, but the eyes are peering at the camera. This is less anxiety and more a wary curiosity.
- Whale eye - The origin of this term evidently came from how whale eyes are in that you see the white of their eye on only half their eye. Well, with dogs, usually, you don't see ANY white of their eye. When Wally does this, he's rather nervous about what he's looking away from. This is important because it's the same basic action overall, i.e., a cut of the eyes, but the orientation is the subtle difference. For example, If a dog is pointing her nose at you, but her eyes are in left field like she's trying to see behind her, she's nervous about you. This is often considered a "calming signal" - more on those later.
- Pinched "brow" - This one can be hard to notice because dogs really don't have eyebrows, though some breeds have markings where an eyebrow would be. I wonder if the breeder bred for that for purposes of communication. Hmmm... Anyway, this is a very worried expression and probably some fear involved too. I saw this mostly when Wally and I first started working together as he was clearly nervous about me.
- "Hard" eyes - Eyes that are "hard" are often their full size, non-blinking, and focused squarely on whatever it is without wavering. It's an intense stare that certainly indicates high arousal. Not necessarily hostility as Wally will certainly give me these eyes if I'm holding a tasty treat.
- Blinking eyes - Dogs don't blink a lot. You probably noticed that. When they do blink, it's a sign of relaxed demeanor. They are happy-go-lucky. They are just glad to be alive. They would kick up their heels if they could. At least, that's usually the case. It can also be a calming signal, indicating that they are slightly uncertain. In any case, they are trying to communicate "soft" eyes, an absolutely non-threatening expression in the dog world. It's basically the opposite of the stare. Wally will actually blink ONE eye - which looks absolutely freaky. Even worse is when he blinks one eye fast and the other slow. *shudder*
- No particular expression - If the eyes just look "typical" then he's not communicating much and is probably just in a placid state of mind. If they happen to look 'bright', then he's probably rather excited. Go have some fun!
The tail is usually pretty easy to see, but is often misunderstood. The problem with the tail is that it is hard to say just by looking at the tail. For example, the myth that a wagging tail equals a friendly, playful dog. The reality is that the dog is highly energized and aroused. Now, that could be playful energy - or the energy of "take one more step and you're gonna lose an arm!"
Also, wagging has been shown to be a communication method all to itself. Dogs can "half wag" their tails, meaning the wag goes from the middle to the left or right instead of a wide side to side swish. Keep in mind, all directions are relative to the dog . So when I say left, I mean the dog's left. If you two are looking at each other face-to-face, it would be your right.
- Wagging left - If the dog is wagging his tail from the middle towards the left, that means he's likely saying "stay back - I don't want to engage with you". This has been called the "avoidance axis" by some. I've seen Wally do this a few times, but never to me (even in the beginning). He's done it to a few cats, though, and to something he sees at night that I can't.
- Wagging right - If the dog is wagging from the middle to the right, this is usually a sign that the dog would like to interact with you. He's asking for your participation in whatever he's up to (or wants to be up to). It can also be a sign of curiosity about you. A sort of optimistic "hmmm...I wonder what's going to happen next."
- Fast wagging - If the tail is wagging fast, that's a strong opinion in canine language. Whatever he's feeling, he's putting an exclamation point (or three) behind it.
- Slow wagging - Slow wagging can be a communication of being unsure what's expected of him. Once, Wally got stuck outside the patio door and he couldn't move it. When he saw me, he whined and slowly wagged his tail. He didn't know what he was supposed to do. It can also be sadness/loneliness as well, especially if the tail is also lowered.
- High-carried tail - If the dog carries his tail higher than usual , then he's probably feeling especially confident and/or excited. I see this a LOT when walking and he's feeling good. During play, he'll give me this tail and even during training, unless it's a particularly challenging session. Even then, I'll get this tail when it's all over.
- Low-carried tail - If the dog carries his tail lower than usual , then he's not feeling highly energized. It could also be a show of deference/submission/wanting to avoid conflict as well. It does NOT always mean fear, but it can mean a sense of uncertainty as a high tail could be misunderstood as a challenge to other dogs (and yes, dogs sometimes misunderstand each other - instinct counts but with all the dog breeds, some have high or low tails naturally, but dogs don't know that that, they just know what instincts and social experience tell them).
- Normal-height, still tail - A still tail that at the usual height for the dog is a relaxed/indifferent signal. The dog is probably observing and reading the situation, or just doesn't really have an opinion of what's going on around him.
Dogs, in general, are peace-loving creatures. Some suggest this goes back to when they were in packs in the wild in which case fighting and discord in the group weakens everyone, lowering the chances to hunt, roam, and mate successfully. It is theorized that this group orientation led to the development of social signals that indicate the giver isn't interested in a fight and would like to appease the offended canine in question.
These signals are often subtle and quick, so it can be hard to catch them in action. However, if you know what to look for, you can pick them out quickly and easily.
Whenever possible, try to comply with the dog's wish to ease up on the social interaction if he gives a calming signal. If you're looking at him, look away for a second or two (chances are, he'll reply with the same signal), or yawn at him. If you're walking directly towards the dog, try to curve around if possible. If you're correcting him. Stop and back off if possible. Encourage the use of calming signals so that he'll know his language matters. Otherwise, dogs have been known to give up on them, which could get them in trouble in dog-dog interactions.
Remember the canine calming signal rule. One signal is always returned with another. So if you give your dog a calming signal, chances are, you'll get one back.
This is often a quick hit of the tongue to the nose. Sure, the dog might just have a dry nose, but a lot of times, it's a signal of slight uncertainty. I get it a lot from Wally when I happen to walk right at him. In the dog world, that action could be considered a threat or a challenge. His nose lick is asking me not to continue and saying that he don't want to challenge me. Other times I see this is if I happen to turn and look at him and he's already looking at me. He'll nose lick to "tell" me he's not trying to upset me, he was "just looking".
This is one we humans can't really duplicate (our tongue are either too short or our noses are too far from our mouths) but licking your tongue out almost like mimicking a frog might do just as well as a variation of this is just that - a slight show of the tip of the tongue.
Wally loves this signal for some reason.
Again, could just be tired (or trying to get himself ready for action), but yawning also serves as a show of affection. Yes. Affection. It can also be a sign of nervousness (which is where it serves as a calming signal). Yawning is one of the signals that you have to use the context to really get the meaning. If it's 3 AM, he's probably tired, things like that.
This is one we can do, and when you do it, put some acting into it. Make a little noise, breathe out loudly, even if it's a completely fake yawn. Again, he won't know you just faked it if you do it right!
Wally will yawn a lot as well. I think he does this second only to the nose licking.
Sniffing the Ground
Oh yes, dogs LOVE to sniff the ground. However, depending on the situation, this can be a calming signal. It's the dog's way of saying "I'm minding my business, nothing to see here.". He really isn't interested in the ground, but the other dog (or human, or cat, or whatever) doesn't know that. He can only judge what he sees. You might see this during peaceful interactions as well as the dogs try to politely meet and greet.
We can do this one (I have on a few occasions - and Wally prompted started sniffing too), but usually it's inconvenient for us to do so.
Almost like the cutting the eyes, but in this case the dog will turn his head and look off in space. This is a rather strong signal that whatever the other dog is doing is not appreciated. It can also be used to break a seeming stare down and indicating that "I wasn't really staring so please relax."
We can do this easily. It's one I use a LOT with Wally, especially during shaping. My looking away is basically telling him "I'm not impressed/pleased with that"
Wally will do this one to other dogs quite a bit, especially when a stranger dog is very forward with him.
This one gets us in trouble because we can't help but to blink. On the plus side, it makes it really easy for us to use this to break a stare. On the down side, if you use staring to try to assert leadership or displeasure (both signals dogs do understand), blinking can get in the way.
As a calming signal, it's a "I wasn't staring" signal as well as a signal to avoid giving "hard eyes" which can be misunderstood in some contexts. Wally doesn't use this one often, and when he does, it's mostly because he's relaxed instead of trying to calm me.
Turning his back
The most obvious calming signal Wally ever gave me was when I was first starting to walk him. He had no desire to go with me. It got to the point in the struggle that he turned his back on me. He literally sat facing in the other direction. I don't think I fainted, but the look on my face would have made a nice "OMG" photo.
This is a very strong signal to "LEAVE ME THE **** ALONE!" Wally never again did it to me, but he'll do it to a dog in a minute. He'll do it to some kids too if they come at him too loudly or fast with arms flailing.
This signal is often misunderstood as the dog simply not wanting to comply with what she's been told to do. While, yes, sometimes a dog will reluctantly come away from something interesting, a lot of times, a dog moves slowly to show a non-threatening posture.
This is especially the case if a dog is being corrected and doubly so if the dog senses anger in the handler's voice (deeper than usual pitch, louder volume, etc.). The dog will comply but move slowly. This can be misunderstood and the handler becomes more emphatic...which makes the dog move slower and the cycle repeats.
Wally will use this one on me if I correct him too firmly, especially since he's still a soft dog, even if he's no longer fearful. When I see it, I know to allow more time for him to do what it is that I want. If what I want is for him to come to me, I'll give a few signals to help assure him that it's fine to keep coming closer. I also know I need to dial it back a bit.
The follow-up to the above moving slowly signal might be to actually stop and lay down on the spot. This can ramp up the misunderstanding (especially during recall training) and can really cause things to do bad in a hurry if the handler is unaware of calming signals.
Wally hasn't use this one much on me, hopefully that means I succeed at not escalating things to that point. The few times I remember him doing it was back when he was fearful and it could have been not directed at me, per se, but just an attempt to "chill out" and needing some "me time" or in an effort to communicate that he's really in a anxious state of mind.
These are just some of the signals. It's been said that dogs have at least thirty-two calming signals ! Some signals are more commonly used by some breeds and it's been proven that black dogs will use nose licking a lot because other facial expressions are hard to see, but a pink tongue against black fur stands out like crazy. Makes me wonder if dogs really know what color they are!
Calming signals do not have to be used just one at a time. Dogs are more than capable and willing to combine signals. They will combine signals to help make the point that they are not threatening, and dogs will "pile on the signals" if they think that's what it's going to take to avoid conflict.
For example, a dog might yelled at for something and she'll respond with a nose lick while looking her person. She might blink an eye as well or move her ears back. If she's still not "good" and the yelling continues and she may move wherever but do it slowly, lowering her tail or she may lay down and look like she's trying to go through the floor (lay really flat...lower profile...head down on her paws, completely not threatening).
Several signals were combined in that scenario. It doesn't have to been in such escalated situations, either.
If Wally is looking at me and I happen to look over at him, I'll get a nose lick and a blink. If he's really wound up and barking at me, he might play bow when I look at him. He'll keep barking, bowing, and tilt his head so he can give me the "hard" eyes but "soften them" with the head position. He can then stare and watch me intently and bark fervently without being "impolite".
He used the following calming signals:
- nose lick
- blinking the eyes
- play bowing (maintaining the bow position is often a signal as is going into a slow bow that looks almost like he's stretching - the actual play bow is often quickly entered and exited, or entered and then activity begins)
- tilting his head slightly (another way to alter the gaze so it's not a direct stare)
Other than nose licking, he gave me all of them simultaneously to his eager barking.
Observing is Learning
The best way to learn to recognize the signals is to "speak" the language. Become immersed in canine culture, so to speak! Observe dogs. Your dogs, neighbor's dogs, random dogs, dogs on TV, dogs on Youtube, just look at as many dogs as you can and try to pick out signals.
I remember when I first learned about calming signals, I made it a point to look for them whenever I saw a dog or interacted with one. I would make a mental note of what I saw. When I saw dog videos, I would be watching for signals. For the purpose of learning, maybe even try to "force" your dog to give signals in low key ways. Suddenly meet her gaze if she's looking at you and hold it for a bit. See if you get a signal or two, then return one (looking away from her to whatever you were doing works) to follow the "signal for a signal" rule. Or, perhaps better yet, give her some praise for communicating with you!
Also, observe for the body language signals, especially changes as the interaction goes on. How are the ears moving? What is the tail doing? Can you read and predict what the dog is going to do or how the dog feels about the interaction?
As with most things - practice makes perfect.
Links to more information about calming signals and body language
- Canine Calming Signals and Stress - Dog Behavior and Training - Green Acres Kennel Shop
Canine Calming Signals and Stress - Dog Behavior and Training The Woof-Meow show is on every Sunday at 8 30PM on WVOM, 103. 9FM, the Voice of Maine.
- Calming Signals - The Art of Survival
Turid Rugaas, a noted observer and trainer of dogs, explains calming signals.
- Zoom Room Guide to Dog Body Language - YouTube
A brief visual guide, created by the Zoom Room, to better understand the body language of dogs. Facial expressions and posture are examined both with isolate...
- Turid Rugaas Calming Signals DVD Clip - DTB788 - YouTube
Available at www.dogwise.com. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas is a noted expert on canine body language, notably calming signals which are signals dogs gi...
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2009 Brian McDowell