What Are Calming Signals?

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Q: What are Calming Signals? 

A: Although dogs are pack animals that live according to a system of hierarchy and will often try to assert their dominance when given the chance, it is quite obvious that most dogs do not spend the majority of their lives involved in conflict and that even in wolf packs serious fights are rare. In fact, dogs spend most of their time using body language to signal that they are not looking for a challenge, so putting other dogs at ease and maintaining peace within the pack and, if well-socialised, with outsiders as well. By studying how dogs interact freely with one another, it is possible to identify ten clear “calming signals” which dogs use to avoid conflict or placate those around them. Being familiar with these signals can help dog-handlers and owners to know when their dogs are agreeable to something and also when they are feeling stressed or threatened, making training and socializing more effective. Calming signals can also be used by owners and trainers to modify/eliminate unwanted behaviours in their dogs. The ten calming signals are as follows: 

1. Licking of the lips: Quite often one will observe a nervous dog licking its lips. A slightly bowed head and a gently wagging tail may accompany this behaviour. Owners often attribute this posture to the dog feeling guilty, but it is actually an attempt to placate an owner whose own body language is telling the dog that he is angry or uptight. 

2. Tail Wagging: When a dog enjoys attention from people it will wag its tail to show that it is accepting of the way it is being handled. Tail wagging is often used when two dogs meet and indicates that all intentions are friendly. However, friendly tail wagging should not be confused with the tail being held stiffly up in the air with occasional movements side to side, as this is usually a sign of dominance. Other signs of dominant behaviour are staring at the other dog, standing or circling the other dog with stiff legs or placing of the head over the other dog’s back. 

3. Yawning: This behaviour can often be seen when the dog is anxious or excited. Go to a vet and observe the dogs sitting in the waiting area. They will usually yawn frequently as many of them have negative associations with the vet and yet are expected to sit and wait quietly for their turn. As their nervousness increases, tension builds up in their face muscles and yawning helps to relieve that tension. 

4. Turning the head away/walking away: Dogs will often indicate that they are unwilling to enter into conflict by turning their heads away or walking away from another dog that is trying to make eye contact with them or is growling at them. My two dogs eat out of separate bowls placed next to each other. It is quite noticeable that whichever dog finishes first will intentionally avoid eye contact with the dog that is still eating so that it is clear that he/she does not wish to challenge him/her for the remaining food. Sometimes the one who is finished first will actually move to the side and stare at the wall in order to avoid a challenge. As soon as the other dog finishes the meal and moves away from the food bowl he/she will then move in and lick out the bowl. 

5. Sitting/lying down: Dogs use sitting and lying down to placate others and indicate submission. Pups quite often roll over as well. Lying down makes the dog seem smaller and therefore less threatening, while rolling over exposes its more vulnerable areas (throat and belly) and allows the dominant dog to investigate the subordinate thoroughly with his nose. When one dog places its head over another’s backing in an attempt at dominance, the dog on the receiving end will sometimes sit very quickly to indicate that it does not want to engage in a challenge. Females will often sit as a calming signal for male dogs that are showing too much interest in them. 

6. Sniffing the ground and urinating: When a dog does not wish to play or interact with other dogs or humans, it will sometimes walk away and begin to sniff the ground, showing great interest in the apparent smells and being careful to avoid eye-contact with those around it. Usually the dog or human that was trying to engage this dog in some or other activity will eventually give up and leave the dog alone. Adult dogs seem to use this signal a lot with playful pups. Urinating will often accompany this behaviour, since the dog may wish to add its scent to those that it finds. 

7. Play Bow: Anyone who has a pup will have observed this behaviour when he/she meets another dog. After initial greetings (sniffing and tail-wagging), pups that wish to play will stretch out their front legs so that their chests virtually touch the ground and raise their hindquarters to display their wagging tails. This signal is carried on into adulthood as well. 

8. Walking in an arc when passing a person or dog: When a dog wants to avoid confrontation, it will arc away from the person or dog that it is passing. Sometimes dogs in obedience classes will do this during a recall if they have to pass a dog they are nervous of on the way to their owner. 

9. Separating people/dogs: This is quite an interesting signal, apparently used more by the herding breeds. The dog will usually run and place itself between two dogs that are playing or even fighting in order to prevent or end conflict between these two dogs. Often the dog will focus more on the aggressor, attempting to chase him/her away. Dogs can use this calming signal with humans as well. My Border Collie cross German Shepherd decided to separate our neighbours who were play-fighting on the beach! 

10. Lifting of one paw: When a dog is stressed it will often lift a paw in the air. This is quite often seen when a dog has retrieved an article, wants to drop it, but is told by the handler to hold it – the conflict between what the dog wants to do and what it knows it must do in order to receive its reward creates stress and immediately the paw lifts up. 

Calming Signals and Socializing

It is not possible to over-emphasize the importance of socialising our dogs; particularly while they are young pups (see The Importance of Socializing your Puppy). However, what we need to be aware of is that some of the people or situations that we expose our dogs to may cause them to experience anxiety. If you observe any calming signals from your dog, examine how you can alter the situation in order to put him at ease. For example, if a child is hugging and squeezing your dog so that he looks away or lifts his paw in the air, ask the child to move away slightly and rather stroke him on the sides of the face. When out for a walk, you can also observe the body language of other dogs in order to determine which dogs may be suitable playmates for your dog. However, your dog will probably best determine this for himself, as he can read and speak his own language far better than you can! Remember, though, that you should also display calming signals during social encounters, as this will put your dog at ease, by indicating to him that his parent sees no reason to feel threatened and therefore neither should he. 

Calming Signals and Obedience Training

I have already mentioned the retrieve and the recall as examples of exercises where dogs may use calming signals. If your dog moves in an arc when you recall him and there are no other dogs nearby, it is quite likely that he is trying to placate you and does not feel secure enough to approach you boldly from the front. If this is the case, try lightening the tone of your voice and crouching on your haunches so that you sound more encouraging and appear less threatening.

If you try to perform an exercise with your dog and he lies down instead, it is probably because he does not understand what is required from him and so resorts to a calming signal to avoid your displeasure. If your dog displays a lot of calming signals when you are training him, you are probably being too harsh and not praising enough. Avoid stress by returning to simple exercises that your dog does well and use this as an excuse to praise him enthusiastically. A relaxed dog that enjoys training is a pleasure to work with. As a point of interest, it is often noted that dogs are more inclined to successfully complete a long down stay when they do so as a group. Perhaps this is because they observe the “lying down” calming signal in the dogs around them. 

Calming signals and a few common problem behaviours

One of the most common problem behaviours in young dogs is jumping up at people. Using the “turning away” calming signal is one of the most effective ways of eliminating such behaviour. As the dog is about to jump, turn and take a step away from him. He will either stop what he is about to do as a direct result of this calming signal or he will land with his paws on the ground, because you have stepped out of his reach. Repeat this, being sure to avoid eye contact, until he gives up and settles down or finds another interest. You can then call him to you and greet him on his level by going down on your haunches. Any over-excitement should result in you turning away again. 

Some dogs have difficulty settling down inside the house and their constant attention-seeking can be a nuisance. A combination of turning one’s head away and yawning usually helps to settle such dogs. Sit down in a comfortable chair and treat all attempts by the dog to get your attention by turning your head away. Close your eyes and yawn regularly with a wide open mouth. Even the most exuberant dogs have been known to lie down and go to sleep with this treatment. Patience is needed, as it can take time to achieve this. If you are reading, placing the book in front of your face can work just as well as turning your head away. 

Dogs on leads quite often display seemingly aggressive behaviours towards one another and, although it is usually just posturing (all talk and no action), walking past strange dogs in public can be unpleasant. When you have to pass another dog use the “walking in an arc” calming signal to let both your dog and the other dog know that you wish to avoid conflict. Placing another person between you and the dog (the “separating” signal) can also help to minimize aggression. This is also a good calming signal to use at training when two dogs in the class dislike one another. 

Although dogs are born with the ability to use calming signals, socialising plays an important role in helping to develop these skills. Pups that are taken away from the litter too soon sometimes have difficulty in communicating effectively with other dogs later in life. Once you have adopted your pup, the best thing you can do for him is to allow him to interact with as many other pups and tolerant older dogs as possible. This will ensure that he is well-educated in “doggy-language” and will help him to avoid trouble later in life. 

Taryn Blyth

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