Calming Signals: What they are and why they are important

Guinniss demonstrates a paw lift and a lip lick in response to Domi drinking from his water dish.

Turid Rugaas, a dog trainer from Norway spent years observing wolves, wild dogs and domestic canines to better understand how they communicate. She came up with the term calming signals when observing canine body language and determined they are a means of communication used by dogs to calm themselves, each other and even humans, other animals or inanimate objects.

Many behaviour problems develop or worsen due to miscommunication and a large part of this is that humans do not often see what our dogs are trying to tell us and each other. Calming signals allow us to better understand how our dogs are communicating. It is important for us to understand calming signals because we will know when to remove our dogs from situations they are uncomfortable with. They are critical to understand when working with fearful/reactive dogs as we will see warning signs before our dogs growl/bare teeth/snap/bite and can even use them to help calm our dogs in times of stress.

Below are a list of calming signals and when they may be used:

Blinking – This is done to avoid staring/direct eye contact. It can be full, slow blinking or just the lowering of eye lids.

Curving – It’s proper canine etiquette for dogs to approach each other by curving to greet. They do not greet each other by approaching straight on unless they know the other dog well. Approaching another dog straight on may cause conflict between the dogs. If your dog tries to curve when meeting another dog, let them do it – they are providing a clear message and proper dog communication. You can help your dog on walks by allowing them to curve away while on leash so that they do not send the wrong message or indicate a challenge to the other dog.

Licking – You may see your dog licking its mouth/nose when it is in a tight situation such as when another dog or person is walking straight towards it or when you are bending over your dog. This is most common in dogs with dark faces as it is harder to see their facial expressions.

Looking Away – This can be from the whole head or by just casting the eyes away. It is considered the most common calming signal that dogs will use. They will look away from anything that needs calming as staring directly at another dog can be considered a challenge or threatening.

Play Bow – A play position is when a dog has its front legs down and its bum in the air. It is used to initiate play as well as a calming signal. If a dog is uncertain with how to deal with a situation, it will often exhibit the play position. This is seen most commonly when a dog encounters a strange animal such as a cow or a cat.

Sitting/Lying Down – Dogs may do this to reassure another that they mean no harm.

Sniffing – Dogs will commonly sniff the ground to calm themselves or another dog down.

Turning Away – A dog who is feeling a bit nervous about an object, person or another animal will turn away from it. This can be by just turning the head, or they may completely turn away. You will often see dogs do this to each other if one is playing inappropriately or too forward/pushy.

Walking Slowly – Dogs will move slower to calm another dog or person down, or will do this if another dog is feeling uncertain about a situation. This is a common one to see in dog play and greetings.

Yawning – Your dog may yawn when he’s tired but it is also used to release stress and calm others. When the dog is using a calming signal when yawning, the yawn tends to be exaggerated.

Think of your dog’s emotional reactions as a traffic light. They are in green light mode when they are relaxed and neutral. This is the ideal time to work on training and modifying behaviour. Calming signals are when your dog is beginning to feel stress and feel unsure in a situation or with another dog, animal or person. This is when your dog is in yellow light mode and is your indication that pushing your dog further will create a reaction. This is also a good time to work a dog with a good foundation and thorough understanding of auto watch when modifying fear/reactivity concerns. A red light dog is a dog that is under too much stress so is reacting by lunging, barking, growling, baring teeth, snapping, etc. We must never train a dog within this state when they are first learning, as learning cannot happen. Remove your dog from the situation or create more distance and brainstorm how to set it up differently for them next time.

Calming signals may seem subtle at first, but as you being to observe them you will understand how strong of a communication tool they are. The best advice when first learning and observing them is to pick one to watch for. Then for a few days, watch all dogs in person or on video/tv and pay attention to just that one signal. Then progress through each of them this way and watch how quickly you see them with every interaction!