Introduction To Calming Signals
For any animal that live in groups (packs), it’s important to be able to communicate clearly with one another. Clear communication means they can cooperate when they hunt or escape hunters, bring up their young, and perhaps most importantly it gives them the ability to live in peace with each other. Conflicts are dangerous - they cause physical injuries and potentially weaken the group, which is something that no animal group can afford. Without this communication it would not take too long before the animal goes the way of the Dodo (extinct).
Dogs live in a world of sensory input; sight (visual), smell (olfactory), hearing (auditory) perceptions. They easily perceive tiny details - a quick movement signal, a slight change in another’s behavior, the expression in another’s eyes. Pack animals are so perceptive to signals that a dog can be trained to follow the contraction in our pupils or can be trained to answer your whispering voice. There’s no need to shout commands, to make the tone of our voice deep and angry. The only reason you need to shout is if your dog is far away, in a noisy environment or hard of hearing themselves. There are at least 30 recognised “calming signals.” Some dogs have a vast "vocabulary," while some use only a few. It varies from dog to dog. The signals are international and universal. A lab in an isolated valley in the Highlands of Scotland would understand a Spitz from the busy streets of Tokyo in Japan. They would have no problem communicating with each other.
That sounds great, dogs can travel all over the world and have no communication problems. That would be amazing if we could do the same. Where’s the problem?
Well, other than the fact dogs tend not to be able to travel as freely as humans, dogs try to use this same communication system with humans, simply because it’s the language they know and think everyone understands. When we fail to learn their language and react how we as humans think we should, we become like the tourist who thinks that speaking English louder and slower should work and then get angry when the waiter doesn’t get the order correct.
Much of the time when humans fail to recognise calming signals, and perhaps even punishing the dog for using them, we risk causing harm to our dogs. Some dogs simply give up using the calming signals, including with other dogs. Others may get so desperate and frustrated that they get aggressive, nervous or stressed out as a result.
Consider this example; Mary has travelled to another country for a vacation/holiday. She got separated from her family and end up completely lost. Mary then is approached by a security guard who starts to talk to her in an unknown language, he sounds serious, stern and a little threatening. As a result Mary tries her best to explain that she lost and needs help, at the same time she is trying not to seem a threat in anyway. The security guard thinks Mary has ignored his command and becomes angry, his gun is pulled and Mary is handcuffed and placed in a small holding room. This happened because Mary was in a situation in which no one spoke any of the languages she knew and the guard didn’t even try to understand her situation. Mary is being punished for a simple miscommunication.
Now let’s give an example with a dog; Jim has learned in a dog training class that he needs to sound strict and dominant so that Larry the Lab will understand who is in charge. Larry finds Jim’s voice to be threatening, so he instantly gives a calming signal in an attempt to show Jim he want no aggressive situation. Larry will perhaps lick his own nose, yawn, turn away - which will result in Jim becoming angry for real, because Jim perceives Larry as being stubborn and disobedient. Larry is punished for using his own language when Jim didn’t even try to understand the situation being explained by Larry’s calming signals. Larry is being punished for a simple miscommunication.
This is a typical example of something that happens on an everyday basis with many dog owners. As humans bringing a dog into our lives we need to learn to understand the language of dogs. Only this way will we be able to understand what our dogs are telling us. That is the secret of having a good bond and a happy life together.
When Dogs Use Calming Signals
Dogs will use calming signals on a daily bases. Some are more obvious than others and some situations make them easier to spot. As such the following is a list of some typical situations that dogs are naturally uncomfortable with and try to communicate their discomfort with calming signals. By seeing them during these situations you will be able to identify them your dog is trying to communicate during a more subtle situation.
• A person bending over them
• Direct, prolonged eye contact
• A person’s face too close to their own (eg, kissing on the nose)
• When someone sounds angry
• When there’s yelling and quarrelling in the family
• When someone is walking directly at the dog
• When the dog is excited with happiness and anticipation (you get home, about to walk ect…)
• When you ask the dog to do something they don’t feel like doing
• When your training sessions are too long and the dog gets tired
• When they are confused
• When a person hugs them
• When they feels trapped
The Calming Signals
1. Licking/tongue flicks
Licking is a signal that is used often, especially by black dogs, dogs with a lot of hair around their faces, and others who’s facial expressions for some reason are more difficult to see than those of dogs with lighter colours, visible eyes and long noses.
But anyone can use licking, and all dogs understand it no matter how quick it is. The quick little lick on the nose is easier to see if you watch the dog from in front.
Sometimes it’s nothing more than a very quick lick, the tip of the tongue is barely visible outside the mouth, and only for a short second. But other dogs see it, understand it and respond to it.
2. Sniffing the ground
Sniffing the ground is a frequently used signal. You will see this a lot in groups of dogs, when you and your dog are out walking and someone is coming towards you, in places where there’s a lot going on, in noisy places, or when seeing objects that the dog isn’t sure of and finds intimidating. Sniffing the ground may look anything like moving the nose swiftly down toward the ground and back up again, to sticking the nose to the ground and sniffing persistently for several minutes.
Is someone approaching you on the pavement? Take a look at your dog. Did he drop the nose down toward the ground, even slightly? Did he turn his side to the one approaching and sniff the side of the road?
Of course, dogs sniff a lot, in order to “read the paper” and enjoy themselves. Dogs are programmed to use their noses and it’s their favourite activity. However, sometimes it’s calming - it depends on the situation. So pay attention to your surroundings and what your dog is doing and in which situations the sniffing occurs.
3. Turning Away/ Turning Head
A dog can turn his head slightly to one side, turn the head completely over to the side, or turn completely around so that the back and tail is facing whoever the dog is calming. This is one of the signals you may see most of the time in dogs.
When someone is approaching your dog from in front, he will probably turn away in one of these ways.
- When you seem angry, aggressive or threatening, you may also see one of these variations of the signal.
- When you bend over a dog to stroke him, he may turn his head away from you.
- When the dog is taken by surprise or takes someone by surprise, he will turn away quickly.
- The same happens when someone is staring or acting in a threatening way.
In most cases, this signal will make the other dog calm down. It’s a fantastic way in which to solve conflicts, and it’s used a lot by all dogs, whether they are puppies or adults, high or low “ranking”, and so on. Allow your dog to use it, it could help prevent a situation you would like to avoid yourself. Dogs are experts at solving and avoiding conflicts.
4. Play Bow
Going down with front legs in a bowing position can be an invitation to play if the dog is moving legs from side to side in a playful manner. Just as often, the dog is standing still while bowing and is using the signal to calm someone down. These signals often have double meanings and may be used in many different ways - often the invitation to play is a calming signal by itself because the dog is making a potentially dangerous situation less tense and diverts with something safe.
Recently, in the dog park with a mix of different sizes and breeds of dog, one of them was afraid of the others in the beginning. The other dogs played chase and left him alone, respecting his fear. In the end he was daring himself to approach the others. When he did, he went into a play bow as soon as one of the other dogs looked at him. It was an obvious combination of slight fear of the others, as well as wanting to take part in the playing.
When two dogs approach each other too abruptly, you will often see a play bow. This is one of the signals that are easy to see, especially because they remain standing in the bow position for a few seconds so that you have plenty of time to observe it.
5. Walking Slowly
High speed can be upsetting for many dogs, and they might want to go in to try and stop the one who is cycling/ running. This is partly a hunting behaviour and is triggered by the sight of a running human or dog. If the one running is coming straight at the dog, it involves a threat and a defence mechanism sets in.
In this situation, a dog that is insecure tends to move slowly. If you wish to make a dog reacting to your fast movements feel safer, then you can move slower.
Is your dog coming very slowly when you call him? If so, check your voice - do you sound angry or strict? That may be enough for him to want to calm you down by walking slowly. Have you ever been angry with him when he came to you? Then this may be why he doesn’t trust you. Another reason to calm you may be if the dog is always put on a leash when coming when called. Take a look at your dog the next time you call him. Does he give you any calming signals when coming? If he moves slowly, you may need to do something different in the way you act.
"Freezing" is when the dog stops abruptly and remains completely still, often looking out of the corner of his eye. This behaviour is believed to have something to do with hunting behaviour; when the prey is running, the dog attacks. Once the prey stops, the dog will stop too. We can often see this when dogs are chasing cats or squirrels.
This behaviour, however, is used in several different situations. When you get angry and aggressive and appear threatening, the dog will often freeze and not move in order to help you calm down. Other times the dog may walk slowly, freeze, and then move slowly again. Very often a dog will stop and remain still when someone is approaching. Should your dog be in a conflict situation with a human or dog and is unable to escape, freezing may be one attempt to calm the other dog or person.
7. Sitting Down/ Back To Someone
For a dog to sit down randomly on a walk or in a situation which is not common for them to do so, or an even stronger signal, to sit down with their back turned towards someone - for instance the owner - has a very calming effect. It’s often seen when one dog wants to calm another dog who is approaching too quickly. Dogs may sit down with their backs turned against the owner when he or she sounds too strict or angry. It is a strong signal that the dog wants to avoid any stress or aggression.
You can use this signal too to calm your dog or have guests in the house do it to show your dog that everything is ok and there is no need to feel anxious.
This signal is frequently used as a calming signal, and it is the main reason why dogs may react so strongly towards meeting dogs when they are forced to approach head on. Their instincts tell them that it’s wrong to approach someone like that. Forcing dogs to approach each other head on can cause them to feel anxious and defensive, and can eventually result in aggressive behaviour like barking and lunging at other dogs.
Dogs, when given a chance, will walk in curves around each other. This is what they do when they meet off leash and are free to do things their own way. Allow your dog to do the same when he’s with you. Allow the dog decide what feels right and safe for him, then, in time, he can learn to pass other dogs closer. If you keep the leash loose and let the dog decide, you will often see that the dog chooses to walk away instead of getting hysterical. If this is not an option you should stop and relax your dog with redirection.
For the same the reason, people should not walk directly toward a dog, but walk up to it in a curve. The more anxious or aggressive the dog is, the wider you should make the curve.
Yawning is one of the most intriguing and widely used calming signals by humans. I use it quite regularly myself.
Dogs will use it to calm a situation down at the early stages of a stressful situation or within a more controlled environment. This is why you regularly see dogs yawning at the vet or in the home when young children hug them without notice. It is an obvious yet subtle indicator that the dog would prefer the current situation change to a more comfortable one.
If you notice that your dog is showing signs of stress you can yawn to show them that you are not stressed and that they should not be either.
10. Other Calming Signals
By now you have learned about some of the more common calming signals. There are many more that have yet to be described.
Here are a few more briefly so that you can make further observations:
• Splitting Up – A dog may put itself between two other dogs or a humans in an attempt to stop a confrontation.
• Smiling – Dogs do this either by pulling the corners of the mouth up and back, or by showing the teeth as in a grin.
• Wagging the tail - should a dog show signs of anxiety, calming or anything that clearly has little to do with happiness, as well as a wagging tail isn’t always an expression of happiness. If you get mad a dog may wag its tail in an attempt to make you happy again.
• Making the face round and smooth with the ears close to the head in order to act like a puppy. (No one will harm a puppy, is what the dog believes)
Playing Puppy - some dogs act like puppies, jumping around and act silly, throwing sticks around if they discover a fearful dog nearby. This is intended to have a calming effect.
Allow dogs to use their language in meeting situations so that they feel safe. Sometimes they will walk up to each other and get along, other times they feel that it’s safer to stay at a distance, after all, they have already read each other's signals, they do so even at a several hundred meters distance, if they already know they won’t get along there’s no need to meet face to face.
Calming Signals are effectively a language that is there to make sure that dogs have a way to avoid and solve conflicts and live together in a peaceful manner. And the dogs are experts at it. Most incidents with any aggression happen due to the actions or environment created by humans.
At this stage it is important to highlight that dogs, like humans, have a variety of different experiences that shape the way they react to different situations. If a dog has been abused or lived in a situation where the calming signals have not been effected they may have simply given up on the initial calming signals and go to protection reactions. This can result in aggression and lunging. If you are dealing with this do not panic, these dogs can be rehabilitated to be relaxed again. There is no such thing as an untrainable dog.
Start observing and you will see for yourself. Most likely, you will get a much better relationship with your dog and other dogs, too, once you begin to realise what the dog is really telling you. It’s likely that you will understand things you previously were unable to figure out. It is incredibly fun, as well as educational when you finally have a better communication with them.