You’re stressed out and your dog seems to be going out of his way to do the opposite of what you want. He may simply be using canine calming signals to help ease your anxiety.
You’ve slept in and are running late. You’ve let Rover into the backyard to relieve himself and now you really need him to come in so you can get ready for work. Opening the back door, you call him urgently. But what does Rover do? He turns, glances at you, then looks over at the fence. You call him more loudly and he responds by yawning and sitting down. What’s wrong with him? you think. Can’t he tell I need him to come in right now?
The stress is really showing as you shout at him. Rover turns away. Is he being uncooperative, lazy, dominant or just plain uncaring? Impatiently, you step out in the snow in your slippers and bathrobe to pull him into the house. Now you’re both stressed and unhappy.
What Rover’s really saying
Rover enters the house very confused. From his point of view, he’s done everything he possibly can to calm you down. He recognized your anxiety and used many signals to show you he’s not a threat. He’s done his very best to try to alleviate your stress. He’s not aware your anxiety is caused by the fact you slept in and has nothing to do with him. He’s merely trying to calm down a potentially explosive situation the best way he knows how.
These kinds of interactions are at the very root of many canine-human misunderstandings. If these misunderstandings continue, they can eventually lead to fear and unwanted behaviors in a dog.
Polite dog society
In every animal society, individuals incorporate calming signals into their interactions with one other. Well-adjusted dogs and other animals know that misunderstandings may lead to fights in which they could sustain physical damage. They have an innate understanding that these issues are to be avoided whenever possible, since fights can be fatal. When dogs meet, they try their best to reassure each other that they are not a threat, thereby de-escalating any anxiety between them. This is done via calming signals.
What are these signals?
Dog trainer Turid Rugaas of Norway has spent decades studying and recording the calming signals dogs use with each other, and with us. She travels the world teaching these signals to others. She’s even written a book on the topic called On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals (Dogwise Publishing, 1996, 2007).
There are about 30 calming signals in all. Some are very quick, which means we humans can miss them. There are “big” signals and “little” signals. Here are a just a few examples:
- An example of a little signal would be a dog averting his eyes. Many humans interpret this as a sign the dog is being shifty or feeling guilty. But he is actually trying to calm someone down. It may be you he’s trying to calm, or himself, if you’ve brought stress home with you from a rough day at the office.
- A bigger signal would be a dog turning his head away. An even bigger one would be to turn his entire body. When two dogs meet, they don’t do it head-on because that’s threatening and confrontational. Instead, they’ll approach each other in a semi-circle, sometimes at an angle, or even perpendicular to one other. This is a polite and respectful way of meeting.
- Other common calming signals include licking the lips and/or nose, sitting or lying down, suddenly sniffing the ground, yawning, blinking and softening the eyes, freezing, giving play bows, and moving more slowly.
We can talk “dog” too
We would do both our dogs and ourselves a huge favor by becoming familiar with calming signals. In fact, it would increase our mutual understanding exponentially. By praising a dog when he uses a signal, you reinforce that behavior and he becomes more adept at resolving potential conflicts with other dogs.
Poorly socialized and stressed dogs usually don’t use calming signals well and their lives (as well as their families’ lives) are more challenging because of it. By taking a well-socialized neutral dog along on your walks, the stressed dog can learn appropriate calming signal behavior. If you’re not able to do this, you can help your dog learn by turning his head or body away from others, or from situations which may feel threatening to him, or by asking him to sit or lie down. You can even use some of the bigger signals yourself, such as turning your head or body, or yawning when he’s watching you.
Signals may vary between breeds
Black dogs use a lot of lip-licking as a calming signal. They may sense that the sight of their tongues against their dark hair makes quite an obvious sign, probably because they’ve had many successes with this particular signal in the past.
Many breeds have tremendous difficulty giving natural signals because of the changes made to their bodies through selective breeding. For example, tails that don’t move freely, ears that are long and difficult to maneuver, and deeps folds of skin on the face definitely make signals more challenging. Docked ears and tails also affect a dog’s ability to use some calming signals.
Becoming more sensitive
By learning to understanding your dog’s calming signal language, you will gain great insight into his feelings and emotions not only during times of stress, but also in his everyday life. It will clear up misunderstandings on your part as well as confusion for your dog. Ultimately, you’ll build more trust between you, enhancing your relationship and your lives.