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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.

The Problem

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

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.