The Language of Dogs: Calming Signals

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Dog use body signals that  defuse situations, an important ability for social animals living in groups. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas called these behaviours calming signals. They are a large number of behaviour patterns that Turid says dogs use to avoid conflict, to prevent aggression, to calm other dogs down and to communicate information to other dogs and to people. 

By using various body postures, dogs calm themselves and other dogs in situations of stress. The signals have the effect of decreasing hostilities before they have a chance to worsen into more serious conflict.

 

Here are a few situations where you might observe dogs using calming signals:

 

·         A person bending over him

·         direct, prolonged eye contact

·         a person’s face too close to his own face (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 (for instance by the door when you are about to go for a walk)

·         when you ask the dog to do something he doesn’t feel like doing

·         when your training sessions are too long and the dog gets tired

·         when he is confused

·         when a person hugs him

·         when he feels trapped

 

At least 30 behaviours have been described as calming signals. Here are a few of the main ones (check out Turid Rugaas’ Book - On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals for further information[1]):

·         Lip (or nose) licking - is a signal that is used often. 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. Any signal is always returned with a signal.

 

·         Sniffing the ground - is a frequently used signal that you will see when dogs are in a group, someone is walking towards you and your dog, 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, etc. 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. You often see dogs sniffing a lot in a group training class, something to be mindful of when working with your dog. Of course, dogs sniff a lot, in order to “check their wee-mails” and just for enjoyment. Dogs are pre-programmed to use their noses and it’s one of their favourite activities. However, sometimes it’s calming - it depends on the situation. So pay attention to when and in which situations the sniffing occurs.

 

·         Turning away/turning of the head – Dogs can either turn their heads 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 that is easy to see in dogs and occurs quite often. When someone is approaching your dog front on, 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. Allow your dog to use it! Dogs are experts at solving and avoiding conflicts - they know how to deal with conflicts.

·         Play bow – Everyone knows dogs offer a play bow to invite another dog to play however, this is only the case 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. 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.

·         Walking slowly – Dogs and humans running can be unsettling for dogs, triggering hunting behaviour which can make them want to go in to try and stop the one who is running. If the one running is coming straight at the dog, it involves a threat and a defence mechanism sets in. A dog that is insecure tends to move slowly. If you wish to make a dog feel safer, then you should approach them at a slow pace. Is your dog coming very slowly when you call him? If so, check the tone of your voice - do you sound angry or strict? That may be enough for him to want to calm you down by walking slowly. 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 - The dog stops abruptly and remains completely still, often looking out of the corner of his eye. This behaviour is believed to be related to 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 something. However, it also occurs 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. If your dog is in a conflicting situation with a human or a dog and can’t escape, freezing may be one attempt to calm the other dog or person. Bear there is mind and check out the environment if your dog suddenly stops and refuses to walk forward on a walk.

·         Sitting down - To sit down, or an even stronger signal, to sit down with the 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 that is approaching too quickly. Dogs may sit down with their backs turned against the owner when he or she sounds too strict or angry

·         Scratching – A dog that scratches himself even though he doesn’t have scratchy skin may be diffusing a potential conflict.

·         Walking in a curve - This signal is frequently used as a calming signal and it is the main reason dogs get over reactive when on lead where they are forced to approach head on, whereas they show no over reactivity when playing off lead. Their instincts tell them that it’s wrong to approach someone head on. 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. Some dogs need large curves, while others only need a slight curve. Let your dog decide what feels right and safe for him, then, in time, he can learn to pass other dogs closer. If you keep your lead loose and let the dog decide, you will often see that the dog chooses to walk away instead of getting hysterical. 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 – Often used to diffuse a potential conflict.

·         Smiling - either by pulling the corners of the mouth up and back, or by showing the teeth as in a grin

·         Urinating/marking

·         Wagging the tail - a wagging tail isn’t always an expression of happiness.

·         Making the face round and smooth with the ears close to the head in order to act like a puppy and appear nonthreatening.

·         Some dogs act like puppies, jumping around and act silly, throwing sticks around, etc. if they discover a fearful dog nearby. This is intended to have a calming effect.

 

It is important to never force dogs into meeting others. When meeting other dogs allow them to communicate in their own language 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, at least at a distance of several hundred meters - there’s no need to meet face to face.  

 

Rugaas’ has been describing calming signals since 2005 and many dog trainers, including myself, have learned a lot from her work. However, the term “calming signals” has been used without much analysis and without being subject to rigorous scientific study. So, are calming signals truly a form of communication to prevent hostile behaviour and are they really calming? Or are these signals simply automatic responses to stress and are not intentionally chosen by the threatened dog as a means of communicating. Some of these signals, such as lip (or nose) licking, turning away or yawning are also expressions of stress in the dog and not intended as communication at all. In addition some of the calming signals may simply be displacement behaviours which occur when an animal is conflicted between two drives, such as wanting to approach something but being unsure at the same time, they will sometimes engage in a behaviour that has nothing to do with the situation. Scratching, sniffing the ground, self-grooming or nail biting are some of the many forms of displacement behaviours shown by animals and humans. Studies in animals and humans have shown that these behaviours are directly related to the levels of anxiety experienced. So, is there a difference between thoughtful calming signals and instinctive stress signals? Or are we simply using different ways to describe similar behaviours?

 

Given the absence of scientific data showing that calming signals actually calm, it was great to recently read about a pilot study investigating the function of the behaviour signals that have been named as calming signals. The purpose of the study “Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): A pilot study on the case of calming signals[2] was to analyse if the behaviours that have been called calming signals are a form of communication and if they decrease potentially aggressive situations between dogs. The study showed that, calming signals do indeed convey information that will calm down another dog preventing conflicts. However, as always, things are never black and white and many if not all signals are also expressions of stress. What we still don’t know at this point is if these signals are truly displayed by the dogs in a conscious effort to calm down a situation or are they mostly expressions of automatic responses to stress, we still need more studies to truly understand their role in the dog’s communication repertoire.

 

What we do know is that dogs are experts at avoiding conflicts, these “calming signals” are a language that enables them to avoid and solve conflicts and live together in a peaceful manner, so let our dogs communicate. Start observing and you will see for yourself. You will develop a better relationship with your dog and other dogs, too, once you begin to realise what dogs are really telling you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Turid Rugaas (2006). On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, 2nd ed. Dogwise publishing, Wenatchee, WA

[2] Chiara Mariti, Caterina Falaschi, Marcella Zilocchi, Jaume Fatjó, Claudio Sighieri, Asahi Ogi & Angelo Gazzano (2017). Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): A pilot study on the case of calming signals. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 18, 49-55

 

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