Have you ever wondered about your dog’s communication skills? How they communicate with other dogs, how they communicate with us, or do you just wonder about their body language in general? The Homeward Bound team would like to provide you with some quick answers. Below you will find a brief explanation of some “calming signals” that dogs use when communicating. This term was coined by Turid Rugaas, an international dog trainer based out of Norway. This blog post is based on her works and more information about calming signals can be found in her book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.
Common Dog Calming Signals
Calming signals are behaviors exhibited by your dog that are meant to calm themselves, calm the person or other animal making them nervous, and to communicate that they are scared, but they have good intentions. A dog displaying these signals is trying to diffuse a situation and make everyone more comfortable.
The first calming signal that we will delve into is a lip lick. Like with other calming signals, lip licks have to be read in context. If your dog just finished a bowl of food and they lick their lips, they are most likely not worried or trying to calm anyone. If your dog licks their lips in a new situation that might be nerve wracking, then they are using proper communication skills to tell you how they are feeling. A dog might lick their lips when at the vet, when meeting another dog, when in a crowd of people, etc. The next time that your dog is in a new situation, study their body language and try to read what they are telling you. Dog behavior signals tend to be easy to identify once you know what you are looking for.
This calming signal is exactly as it sounds. When a nervous dog is trying to make a situation less intense, they may avoid eye contact and look to the side. The dog will turn their head away from you or whatever is making them nervous as direct eye contact is a threat. This look to the side communicates that while they are uncomfortable, they do not want the situation to escalate, they want it to diffuse. The dog in this picture has a camera pointed directly at him which makes several dogs nervous. He is looking away from it hoping that the threat will pass. He is nervous, but trying to avoid conflict.
A yawn is another calming signal that has to be looked at in context to interpret it correctly. A dog who just woke up from a nap is probably just yawning, where as a yawning dog who is surrounded by small children at a park is probably stressed. Look for this behavior the next time that your dog is in a situation that may make them nervous. You might be surprised at their great communication skills!
Communication is a Two-Way Street
Body language makes up most of a dog’s communication repertoire. One of the great things about this is that even though humans primarily use language to communicate, we can also use body language that is often exhibited by dogs. If your dog is nervous and you want them to know that they are safe, use some calming signals such as yawning, look aways, or lip licks. Try all three repetitively to get the message across and see if your dog responds by either mirroring your actions, or calming down themselves. You can also use calming signals to communicate with a dog who is very excited. If you need them to calm down, try using some signals yourself and if they have good communication skills, which most dogs do, they should respond accordingly to your request for peace.
Advocate for Your Dog
If you are noticing that your dog is displaying these calming signals (they often happen in a series when a dog is stressed), do not hesitate to speak up for them or help them out of the stressful situation. You may have a dog who exhibits these signals when surrounded by people who want to pet him/her. Do not be afraid to let people know that your dog is uncomfortable and needs some space. Not only are you helping your dog out of the situation, you are also are helping to educate people on dog behavior who may not know what signs to look for or what your dog is trying to convey. Translating for your dog is one of the best things you can do for them as a dog owner.