Calming signals in dogs consists of a vast array of behaviors that are carried out by dogs with the intent to reduce tension and therefore pacify a potentially tense situation.
Unable to talk, dogs must rely on their own body language to communicate their peaceful intentions so that no miscommunications occur.
By displaying calming signals dogs can get out of a situation that may have otherwise turned into conflict, with the potential for a fight.
Understanding a dog's calming signals can make you a better owner because you'll be able to understand when your dog feels threatened by somebody or a particular situation.
As Coined by Turid Rugaas
The term calming signals was coined by internationally acclaimed Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugass who dedicated an entire book on the topic. Indeed, in her book: "On Talking Terms With Dogs, Calming Signals" she describes into detail a variety of these signals.
Let's face it, being unable to talk, and having to share their lives with people and other dogs, isn't easy. There are risks for incomprehension and miscommunications which can turn costly in tense situations.
A little misunderstanding could cause dogs to fight and his could lead to even life threatening injuries. Dogs must therefore depend on some type of communication that is easy to understand and that can emphasize a desire to mean no harm.
Calming signals therefore accomplish just that. They allow dogs to use their body language to convey a pacifying message, the equivalent of "raising a white flag."
Dogs are masters in body language and are very attentive to the slightest bodily cues and various tones of vocalizations. A lot can be communicated in this way.
A List of Calming Signals in Dogs
In her book "On Talking Terms With Dogs, Calming Signals" Turid Rugass lists several calming signals. Here is a brief rundown of the most common ones, likely to be observed in dogs.
- Head turning
- Softening of the eyes
- Turning away
- Licking the nose
- Walking slowly
- Sitting Down
- Lying Down
- Splitting up
- Tail wagging
- Lowering the body
- Licking faces
- Smacking the lips
- Paw lifting
- Making themselves small
Being aware of calming signals in your dog can help you better understand your companion. They allow you to comprehend your dog at a deeper level so that you can have a glimpse of how your dog perceives the world around him.
Human Behaviors That Evoke Calming Signals
In what contexts are dogs likely to exhibit calming signals? This is important, so that you are better able to understand your dog. Following are some examples.
Certain human behaviors such as looming over a dog, approaching too quickly, staring at the dog, hugging the dog, holding them tightly, delivering leash jerks or giving commands in a demanding, authoritarian tone, may cause dogs to use calming signals.
Calming signals may also be seen when you are trying to take a picture (more on this is discussed on why do dogs hate cameras?) or when you are having a loud discussion with another person.
Many dogs exhibit calming signals when around children due to the fact that they often move quickly, run around and talk in loud, excited voices.
Even well-meaning owners may trigger calming signals in sensitive dogs when they move around excitedly or jump up and down and move their arms to train their dogs to come when called.
Dog Behaviors That Evoke Calming Signals
Dogs will also use calming signals in their interactions with other dogs. After all, this is how dogs communicate among each other and resolve potential conflict. If you are attentive, you may witness various calming signals delivered by your dog and how other dogs respond to them.
You may notice calming signals in a variety of contexts and situations such as upon spotting an unknown dog moving towards your dog or when dogs approach your dog too quickly.
Calming signals are also often used when a dog acts pushy and starts sniffing another dog all over or when play gets a bit out of hand.
Many dogs will use calming signals when another dog stares at them directly or when engaging in any potentially threatening behavior.
Even when two dogs are getting tense, which may escalate in a potential fight, a third dog may get in between "splitting" in hopes of reducing the tension.
When Do Dogs Start Showing Calming Signals?
Dogs are an altricial species, meaning that they are born in a rather helpless state. In other words, unlike precocial animals, altricial animals such as dogs depend a lot on their mother during their first weeks in order to survive of life.
This isn't surprising considering how puppies are born blind, deaf and barely able to walk. Newborn puppies are also unable to eliminate their waste or regulate their bodily temperatures for some time. Discover more on dogs being an altricial species here: Dogs are an Altricial Species
With little control of their bodies, it therefore makes sense that, during their first weeks, newborn puppies aren't capable of utilizing many calming signals.
Interestingly though, newborn puppies are capable of displaying one calming signal as early as the day they are born. That calming signal is yawning.
Those very first yawns are therefore one of a dog's first “words." Dog breeders are very used to seeing this, as many day-old pups will let out a yawn upon being picked up to be handled and weighed. This is likely because it must be stressful for such young pups being lifted and suspended in the air and then placed on a cold metal scale.
As puppies mature and gain more control of their bodies, other calming signals will start popping up.
Are Dog Calming Signals Ultimately Stress Signals?
Many dog lovers wonder what's the difference between calming signals, displacement behaviors, appeasement gestures and stress signals. They also may wonder whether calming signals are primarily used by dogs mainly to calm down others around them or to calm themselves.
To differentiate all the above it helps to take a closer look into each of these categories and deduce what differences or similarities are found among them.
Displacement behaviors are out-of-context behaviors that dogs engage in when they're faced with conflicts. The dog basically has a desire to do something but suppresses this desire and engages in a displacement behavior to sort of "vent" and find a way to cope.
For example, a dog may want to play with another dog, but feels tired, so he'll suddenly decide to take a break and go sniff or pee. Or a dog may feel like biting a child who handles him roughly, but decides instead to attend to a sudden "itch" by licking or scratching himself.
Sniffing, urine marking, scratching, licking, yawning are all examples of some displacement behaviors in dogs.
Appeasement gestures are behaviors carried out by dogs for the purpose of reducing tension in certain situations. The goal is to "calm down" another dog or person and prove to them there is no threat.
For example, a dog may decide to roll over on the back and pee as a way to diffuse a potentially tense situation.
Rolling over the back and peeing, lowering the body, keeping the tail tucked, turning the head and yawning are just a few examples of appeasement gestures in dogs which denote a no intent to harm.
Stress signals are signs that dogs show when they feel stressed. They are carried in stressful contexts when the dog feels a sense of uneasiness or deep distress.
For example, many dogs may yawn after being startles of scolded. Back in time when I was undergoing mentoring from a dog trainer who specialized in training dogs for movies and commercials I learned from him that a quick way to evoke a yawn from a dog for filming purposes was yelling in his face "boo!"
Please don't try this at home. Nowadays, there are other better training methods that don't cause this type of negative stress.
Lip licking, nose licking, scrolling the fur as if wet, whale eyes and yawning are a few examples of stress signals in dogs.
The Bottom Line
As seen, dogs may engage in a variety of behaviors and these behaviors may have different purposes and meanings. For example, yawning can be used as a response to stress, as an appeasement gesture or as displacement behavior. One behavior may therefore have more than one function and sometimes they may even overlap.
As much as this may sound confusing, us humans often engage in something similar. Just think about the English word "to". We can use the word to say “Are you going TO the store?” or “I am going, TOO or “I have TWO of those," remarks Brenda Aloff in the book: "Practical Management, Prevention and Behaviour Modification."
To better understand whether a behavior is a displacement behavior or a calming signal, you would therefore have to pay attention to the context in which the behavior occurs and identify what function the behavior may be serving the dog at that time.
It may not always be easy at times to interpret what the dog is trying to convey. Is the dog consciously performing the behavior to obtain a desired response, or does it take place at a more reflexive level?
Until the day dogs can talk, we may never know for sure what's going in their mind, but the more we are around our dogs and understand their language, the more we can at least try to take a shot.