Turid Rugaas, an internationally renowned trainer of and author on dog behaviour, has studied wolf and dog behaviour for many years and has researched 30 different body postures and movements that they use to communicate with each other. She calls this communication "Calming Signals" (see her latest book on the subject from our web shop - "On Talking Terms with Dogs").
Turid recognises that dogs and wolves are by nature non-confrontational animals within their pack and that they use these signals to diffuse stressful situations, communicate amongst themselves, and even display these signals to other species in their effort to avoid confrontation. I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for proof reading this page.
Dog communication is mainly visual, unlike humans who rely heavily on sound to communicate. If you begin to watch and understand how dogs communicate with each other, and how they try to communicate with the humans around them, you can start to forge a closer and more understanding bond with dogs and lead a more harmonious and happy life together.
A classic example of a dog displaying Calming Signals
Leo has just walked up to the woman. Because she is leaning over Leo and touching him near his withers, he uses calming signals (lip licking, turning first his head and then his body away) to communicate to her that although he appreciates her interest in him he finds her closeness rather overpowering. Ideally when greeting Leo, she should have crouched down sideways to the him, avoided direct eye contact and, if he looked relaxed about the encounter, gently stroked the side of his body closest to her.
Here are a few of the calming signals that you might like to look out for (not only with your own dog but those you see around you in your everyday life) -
THE SIGNALS THAT ARE WRITTEN IN GREEN CAN SOMETIMES BE EFFECTIVELY USED BY A HUMAN TO CALM DOGS DOWN, PARTICULARLY WHEN THEY SHOW SYMPTOMS OF STRESS.
|AVERTING THEIR EYES (which may progress to) TURNING THE HEAD are two of the most frequently used calming signals that dogs use to avoid conflict. Some dogs can diffuse a situation by just averting their eyes, while others give the more pronounced signal of moving their head (which is more effective at a distance). The amount of movement involved to get a response is fascinating to watch when dogs are communicating in this way. If these subtle signals are ignored (eg. by humans, under-socialised dogs who do not recognise these signals, over-enthusiastic adolescent dogs or children), the dog has to "shout" the signal "louder" by making it even more pronounced - turning its body away as well. The "loudest shout" of all is TURNING ITS BACK and LYING DOWN(see below).|
WALKING IN A CURVE *
is another strong calming signal and is another variation on those described
above. It is used when dogs are approaching one another (and sometimes when
approaching humans) rather than walking in a direct straight line towards
them (which dogs and wolves regard as being aggressive and "ill-mannered"
body language). This is why so many dogs have behavioural problems when
being walked on a short lead while their handlers are walking in a straight
line - the dogs do not have the opportunity to curve away as other dogs
are coming towards them. These dogs become anxious and feel unable to escape
the situation; they often become defensive, "insulted" by the other dog's
"bad manners" (walking directly towards them), and resort to aggressive
behaviour in order to resolve the problem. If, however, the dogs met off
the lead they would instinctively walk in large wide curves past one another,
allowing the other dog its own personal space so that it felt comfortable,
and would gradually make shallower curves until the dogs met sideways on
to each other. Sometimes it is impractical to let dogs off the lead (eg.
on a path by a road). In these cases both dog owners should begin making
a wide curve (eg. one crossing to the other side of the road) well before
the dogs are due to meet one another. This curving will greatly reduce both
dogs' apprehension and stress levels, and you
will soon find that the dogs will lessen the depth of the curve as they
relax and pass each other. When dogs are given the opportunity to curve
because the handler walks with them in a curve rather than in a straight
line, it is possible to gradually change their aggressive behaviour
as their confidence grows on how to approach other dogs - even when on a
* DISTANCE and SPEED are two very important factors when walking in a curve. Some dogs feel threatened by another dog (or human) approaching them too closely, or at too fast a pace (see SLOW MOVEMENT below). Be aware of this when walking your dog on a lead and follow your dog's instinctive curve - he will know the correct distance to be from the other dog and at what pace to walk.
|YAWNING - Dogs often use yawning as a calming signal (particularly when they feel apprehensive and stressed) either to calm themselves, or those around them (eg. when meeting strangers; when humans/dogs are noisy or show too much emotion/excitement, etc). Because this is another obvious signal, many dogs recognise it as a calming signal when done by humans. Your yawns may be more effective if you - exaggerate the yawn; make a soft yawn sound; stretch your arms forwards and downwards as if in a "play bow". An example of how humans can use yawning to communicate with dogs is when a dog is worried as we approach it - crouch down sideways to the dog, yawn, turn your head away and patiently let the dog approach you in its own time.|
RAPID BLINKING OF THE EYES is a more subtler signal that dogs use. This is a particularly useful signal for humans to use when confronted by an angry dog. By blinking, yawning and averting our eyes we can calm the dog down without having to alarm it by any sudden movements.
Markedly SLOW MOVEMENTS and SUDDEN CHANGES OF DIRECTION are other calming signals that dogs can use to resolve conflict and reduce either their stress levels, or those they are with (whether animal or human). An example of these behaviours is when a handler gives a command such as "Come" to the dog and it feels overwhelmed by their human's emotional state (which can be heard in their voice). The dog will very slowly walk towards them often accompanied by lip licking, averting their eyes, slight turning away of the dog's head, and even changing direction at the last moment rather than go closer to the handler.
An extreme variation on these is FREEZING ON THE SPOT,with the dog suddenly coming to a halt in a sit, stand or down. The leader of the pack often LIES DOWN with his belly on the ground in the background as a calming signal to the rest of the pack when situations are getting out of hand. These are very strong calming signals.
|LICKING OF THE LIPS OR NOSE is one of the first calming signals a puppy uses. When puppies play they sit, look away and lick their lips to calm the other puppies down. Many dogs use this signal but you must watch very carefully or you may miss it! Black or dark faced dogs often use this signal as the contrast of their pink tongue against their dark muzzle is very obvious for other dogs (or humans) to see. This signal is so subtle that many dogs do not recognise it when it is done by humans as there is less colour contrast between our face and the tongue. Another reason may be because our tongues are not as long as dogs!|
STRETCHING THE FRONT LEGS (bowing) out in front but not bouncing from side to side (which is an invitation to play) is another calming signal. It is sometimes possible for humans to use this signal but is only really effective in specific situations (eg. While yawning, or when they are kneeling on the floor).
Some dogs have learnt that humans use SMILING as a form of human Calming Signal. The dogs copy this behaviour when they approach humans (and even other dogs!) as it usually results in attention (a very powerful Life Reward), being stroked and the humans smiling back. Our little bitch has perfected this signal to such a degree that she smiles and squirms up to strangers she meets knowing that this behaviour will be rewarded with their attention and petting. She is so good at it that she can charm even the most nervous person into bending down and stroking her - even those who have always been afraid of dogs! Be aware, however, that some dogs perceive human smiles as an aggressive signal (particularly when our teeth are visible as we smile). Also do not confuse dogs baring their teeth (a Warning Signal) with "smiling". A dog bares it's teeth when it feels threatened and cannot cope or escape a situation - it feels its only option to resolve the situation is aggression. If the baring of teeth is ignored the dog will resort to snapping or biting.
Another subtle signal that we can use as well as our dogs is WALKING BETWEEN two dogs (or a dog and a human) when stressful situations are building up. For example, if two dogs are coming into conflict another dog may walk between them to calm the situation down. This splitting up acts as a temporary barrier, breaking the dog's thought processes and giving it the opportunity to turn and walk away from the situation. Always approach the dogs from the side or from the back when you are walking between them; never approach them from the front as this is confrontational behaviour.
|Dogs can use a variety of REDIRECTED BEHAVIOUR - see Symptoms of Stress (eg. Sniffing (see below), drinking, relieving themselves, scratching, picking up a stick, "digging" or investigating a particular place) to diffuse a situation. We can use behaviour such as tying our shoelaces (sideways on to the dog), looking at our watch, humming or singing softly, blowing our nose etc.|
|SNIFFING the ground, although a very natural and enjoyable behaviour for all types of dogs, may on occasions be used by dogs as a calming signal when either the dog or those around it are stressed. It is a classic canine form of redirected behaviour which dogs use to diffuse awkward situations (eg. Wolves sniff the ground when they are close to prey to give the impression they are not interested in them and are calming the animal's fears). You will often find that dogs sniff the ground when approaching a strange or fearful dog - they will avoid eye contact, sniffing the same places that the other dog has either sniffed or left his scent, and curve around one another until they feel confident enough to approach each other. We humans find this sort of calming signal too difficult to copy - our noses are too far from the ground and are too delicate!|
PAW LIFTING, as though the dog is begging, is another calming signal. It is often accompanied by head turning and lip licking.
JUMPING UP is a perfectly friendly calming signal that many young dogs do to show appeasement and welcome to people. This is mimicking the behaviour of the young puppy when it greeted its mother and licked her face to stimulate her regurgitated and chewed food while it was being weaned. As Life Rewards explains, if we look at the dog or speak to it we are giving the dog attention and it will keep repeating the behaviour as it is so rewarding. However, if we CONSISTENTLY use calming signals (eg. Turning away, averting our eyes) and do not speak to the dog, it will stop jumping up at people as there is no reward of attention.
SLOW WAGGING OF THE TAIL FROM SIDE TO SIDE - So much of a dog's body language, showing a variety of different emotional responses, is done with the movement and position of the dog's tail in conjunction with its other body signals. I give the analogy of docking a dog's tail as being similar to cutting out a human's tongue - communication is very difficult without them! Carefully watch your dog's tail movement and position when it is displaying other more obvious calming signals - you will then come to recognise this movement as a calming signal in itself.
Now watch this You
Tube Clip and see how many
Calming Signals you can see the dog doing
|Puppies are born with the instinctive ability to display both
calming and threatening signals - these are their only form of
communication. Turid's research has found that dogs that have been
born blind, dogs that have never seen any other dogs, or dogs that
have never known their mother, will also display these signals. The
signals can be suppressed from fear of the consequences, but they
will come back when given a chance as they have always been part of
the dog's underlying instinctive behaviour.
For instance, from the first day puppies will yawn when picked up, as the inability to touch the ground with their feet is very scary (as it is to most animals). Puppies and wolf cubs are only picked up by their mother when they are old enough to leave the den. Before then they spend all of their time very close to each other and protected. If their mother is very calm and laid back it may take 3 or more days for the puppies to start to use calming signals as they have little need to use them.
They need to be introduced to being handled by humans at an early age, so as to desensitize them to this experience. Do this by gently sitting by their side, petting them by stroking them on the side of the body nearest to you, while using a nice gentle voice. Increase the amount of time and petting as the puppy gets used to the experience. Make sure that very young puppies have their feet on your arms for reassurance when you pick them up, as they need to feel the "ground" beneath them at this age. Gradually change how you pet them and approach them so that they can cope with most situations.
One of the benefits of calming signals is that an older dog with good calming signals can be introduced into a puppy class to teach them to how to communicate with other dogs. When puppies pester older dogs the older dogs often sniff the ground to calm them - the puppies follow their example and stop pestering them. Lack of early socialisation with a variety of dogs can leave a puppy ignorant of other dogs' body language and make it either fearful, aggressive or prone to confrontation with other dogs as it does not display "polite" calming and greeting signals when meeting them.
TO SUM UP THIS WEB PAGE -
Without realizing what we are asking our dogs to do, we often push our dogs into situations that they find stressful and threatening (eg. Making dogs walk on their lead past each other in a straight line). Dogs living in multi-dog households spend a lot of time and energy giving out calming signals in an attempt to disperse the tension that has built up within this "man-made" pack - none of the dogs have the opportunity to escape or relax from the situation and have to rely on these body signals to avoid confrontation. Dogs also use calming signals for friendliness, and when the owner is overexcited and the dog feels compelled to try to calm the human down.
|Calming signals are part of a dog's heritage and are extremely valuable. If another dog is close by, dogs feel the need to watch each others' calming signals for reassurance and to avoid conflict. If a dog doesn't use these signals a well-adjusted dog will use even stronger signals to try to illicit a response. Some dogs have forgotten or are scared to use calming signals (eg. If these signals were ignored in the past by humans and the situation became more confrontational). However, when these dogs are given encouragement and the opportunity to use the signals they can build up the confidence to communicate not only with other dogs but with humans as well.|
- Never punish a dog for using calming signals (eg. slowing down while doing Heelwork, or averting its face while
you stare at it) - it is up to you to assess the situation and change your
training so that the dog is able to cope.
- Avoid bending over your dog - it is a threatening signal.
- Pat a dog on the side closest to you - not over their back.
- Fast movement is threatening to a dog. Humans should use slow movement
when approaching a strange dog, as this is a strong calming signal. They should
also move towards the dog in a curve - yet another strong calming signal that
the dog will recognise, helping it to relax and be less fearful.
- Manners before obedience - If a strange dog is nearby, a dog will
first display calming signals as it greets an approaching dog before returning
to its owner when called. Not only is the dog displaying social greeting skills
with the other dog, it is also averting confrontation with it as well.
- Do not walk your dog in a straight line towards other dogs - it is very "bad manners" in calming signals!! It cannot be stressed how important it is to allow a dog to curve around an approaching dog - especially when on a lead.
For in-depth information about Calming
Signals we recommend you read -
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