What are calming signals in dogs?
You are having dinner, and your dog approaches: hopeful that you will share some with him. You say ‘No’ sternly, and proceed to ignore him, and he lies down grumbling softly. If you weren’t paying close attention, you may not notice, but a rapid flash of behaviors follows: Turning his head away from you, licking his lips, yawning, and finally standing up and stretching. What is going on here? It’s something you didn’t learn about in dog training class.
The short answer: Calming Signals.
Calming Signals are important for dogs, as a social predatory species. They would need to expend their energy finding food, not getting into fights and potentially getting hurt, and so a rich body language of peace-making was born. Calming Signals is the term used to describe canine social skills (body language) used to invite play, avoid conflicts, and communicate. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas is urging us to listen to what our dogs are showing: She invented the term ‘calming signals’. Her book on the subject can be found here: On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.
But dogs don’t just direct these signals to each other, they send them to us.
Common Calming Signals
(Watch for these, they happen daily and are frequently meant for you!)
This one is pretty obvious and easy to recognizing when it’s occurring. Wesley habitually yawns when I have come home from being out all day, and we are greeting. This, to me, is the easiest to replicate. Yawning is contagious between dogs and people (I’m yawning writing this), and Wesley yawning regularly propels me into yawning back.
Looking directly into a dog’s eyes (or a person, for that matter) is a challenge. Dogs, like us, find it unnerving and unnatural to stare into another’s eyes in anything but a confrontational manner. Therefore, if you are looking into your dog’s eyes, he will almost definitely begin deliberately looking away from you, saying ‘I am no threat’.
Head Turning/Full Turn
When a dog is uncomfortable with a situation, they will turn their head away from it. In a more extreme example, dogs also will completely rotate their bodies away from whatever is bothering them. This is used frequently to dissolve escalating situations when greeting dogs and people, and while being pet.
Dogs use smell as a primary sense, but this sniffing is a little different. Much like sticking your head in a book rather than saying hello to someone while they walk by. You will see this happen when a dog begins playing too rough and when a dog does not want to engage with another dog.
Walking slowly/Walking in a Curve/Freezing
I see this on a regular basis, firsthand, when at the dog beach. Every time Wesley meets a different dog (sometimes when he visits a dog for the 2nd time!), they stand 50 feet apart, frozen. Then, they slowly walk approaching each other, walking on a parallel curve, and finally ‘make contact’ and greet each other.
This happens a lot but is fast and difficult to catch it. If you watch for it very carefully, you’ll see your dog tongue flicking or licking her nose when she’s nervous.
I haven’t heard many people talk about stretching, but I see it paired frequently with yawning. Wesley time and again moves onto stretching after he has yawned while greeting me.
Calming signals are a powerful way for dogs to communicate that they feel there is tension, and to calm everyone. Your dog is talking to you, and you can be part of a conversation!
Watch your dog from this post to the next, and see if you can spot all of the calming signals listed above happening. If your dog is afraid of thunder, fireworks, men, or anything else, you’ll want to read the conclusion. You might be surprised when you see just how many signals are sent, why, and when.