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Canine Calming Signals

Calming signals

We all know that dogs are our best friends, but sadly we don’t share their common language. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just ask our dogs exactly how they are or what they are thinking? (i know if I was to ask Dave then it would involve food)

It’s quite easy to recognise a dog that is happy. The tongue hanging out, looks like they have a huge grin on their face”, the tail is wagging and the body is all wiggly and silly.

Sadly, being able to correctly identify when a dog is feeling anxious is a lot harder than the above. What might seem to be a dog that is calm and still, might possibly be a dog who is stressed or anxious, and they are trying their best to show us how they feel.

It’s fortunate for us, that dogs can use body language to communicate something called “Calming Signals”. These calming signals can help us to understand how the dog is feeling and behave appropriately.

Disregarded And Misread

Quite often I get call’s and email’s from clients regarding different behavioural issues – for example a multi dog fight from dogs in the same household – and the reply I usually get is “i’ve never seen any signs of hostility between either of them”, I reply with “Did you see any of your dogs lip lick? Shake off the stress? Yawn? Or squint their eyes?”

-“ Oh yes! One of mine does that quite often!”, this is normally the answer I get.

And there you go – these dogs have been trying to communicate the whole time that they aren't pleased with one another. Sadly, dogs do this in such a subtle way that unless we really watch for them, we don’t actually see the signs until the actual growling, hackles raise or an actual fight breaks out between them both.

Calming Signals are actually needed for dogs

Dogs need calming signals to be able to function in their social circles – whether that’s with us or with other dogs. Calming signals actually stop any situations from becoming more extreme.

..and of course any members of the group becoming badly hurt during the activity. Dogs are highly skilled at identifying and responding to these signals during their interactions. Even puppies who are very young will show calming signals around dogs who are older than them, to communicate that they mean no harm and to keep their interactions safe.

Why not spend some time watching your dogs interactions towards another dog, observe their body language that’s described in this blog. You will see that the dogs use a lot of body language to communicate between each other that they have good intentions towards each other and have no interest in allowing the situation to escalate.

Dogs That lack Calming Signals Skills

Lacking in skills with calming signals is mostly linked to annoying interactions between dog-to-dog. You will tend to see this lack of skills with dogs who haven’t had the chance to mix with other dogs whilst growing up.

On some rare occasions a pregnant female dog might give birth to just one puppy, and quite often the single puppy ends up not being able to adapt using their body language properly to de-escalate a situation and are deemed as being rude by other dogs. But this can also be the case for puppies who have siblings. If a puppy goes to their new home and is not given an adequate amount of respectful dog-to-dog greetings, then this can lead to the puppy being less than skilled at showing any calming signals.

(This can also be the case for young and energetic dogs who only tend to interact with other energetic youngsters. See my blog on doggy day care)

Unexpected Misbehaviour

Have you found yourself in a situation where all of a sudden your dog has decided to have selective hearing and refuses to listen to anything you say? Perhaps you’ve taken them out for the first time in the town centre. Or you decide to try your dog in a group class with other dogs but its making your dog feel a bit nervous.

And then, comes that awkward moment: you have taught your dog basic behaviours like sit, down and stay etc. And you’ve practised training these behaviours over and over many times. But then all of a sudden your dog starts to act like they have never heard these cues before and instead they just sits down, and starts to sniffs the ground or they start to scratch their ear.

One reason this might happen is due to your dog feeling nervous and isn’t able to do any of the behaviours that your dog has previously learnt. This is very similar to how us humans can get stage fright, or where we suddenly start to stutter or even having an anxiety attack before taking an important exam.

This has nothing to do with your dog not knowing what they’ve already been taught, or even you failing in your training with your dog. Your dog is clearly too stressed for them to be able to carry out the behaviours as well as they can preform them when they aren’t feeling stressed. Being repetitive with your cues and getting louder certainly won’t help and will only make this whole situation worse for your dog.

You may often get a similar behaviour when you take your dog to the vets. Even dogs that have been trained in competitive obedience or even trained to work in various different roles will forget how to sit properly on those weighing scales or won’t stay still whilst the vet gives them their vaccinations. Now, this hasn’t got anything to do with the level of training your dog has had. This is similar to the young singer who’s practised really hard but ends up being overcome with nerves and anxiety during their audition on Britain's got talent, your dog is unable to perform at their best due to their own body’s stress response.

Understanding and being aware of your own dog’s calming signals will certainly help you to identify moments like these and being able to react to these properly.

Calming Signals Are Not Only Used By Dogs

When it comes to using calming signals, its not just dogs that use them to communicate that they don’t mean any harm and they want to de-escalate a situation.
Calming signals are used by us humans just as much as our canine friends do. As you know we mainly communicate using a spoken language with our friends and family, but communication towards a complete stranger might be mostly non-verbal.

Imagine going somewhere that’s really busy and packed out with people and you there’s no personal space what so ever. This might be going to a concert, bus or train station, or a lift that’s full. Your response is to instinctively turn your head away, not directly face anyone with your body and you’ll avoid continuous eye contact. These are human calming signals and if you think about it these calming signals are very similar to the calming signals that dog use.

Acknowledging and Responding to Calming Signals

Try and observe all of the following interactions with your dog, and the interactions your dog has with you, with other dogs, with other people, whilst training etc.

Dogs are actually really polite, and they often spend a lot of time doing nothing but exhibit calming signals when they are feeling uneasy and before the situation escalates.
Being able to spot these calming signals will mean you’ll be able to help your dog not to escalate any interactions.

If your dog is exhibiting calming signals, then help your dog by moving them to a location where they can feel more relaxed. Most dogs will do this themselves if they are able to, but quite often this isn’t feasible due to being physical restrained. This might mean being on a lead (if your dog has a short lead on, then they cannot just move away from say an encounter with another dog) in a room setup (your dog might be backed into a corner by someone) or something similar.

Remember! You are your dog’s advocate! Get your dog out of the situation on a calm and friendly manner.

If you are watchful for your dogs calming signals and help solve these difficult circumstances for your dog, then your dog will certainly thank you by having a high restraint before anything escalates.

Getting angry is something dogs really don’t want to do. Conflict towards people or dogs is quite dangerous to them, as much as it is to their opposition. learning there is a much easier and peaceful solution, and calming signals are not taken lightly and the appropriate measures are taken, your dog will be more than likely be friendly and predicable with their interactions.

Calming Signals With The Eyes

These Calming signals are as follows :

  • Blinking
  • Squinting
  • Soft eyes (this really looks like the dog is trying to make their eye smaller and none threatening)
  • Whale eyes (the eyes are wide open and you can see the whites of the eyes)

When a dog uses calming signals with their eyes, they are visible even when the dog looks like they are “frozen”. Occasionally the dog might look as though they have gone stiff and motionless when in situations that they are stressed. The dog might look as though they are relaxed but in fact they are quite anxious which can be quite dangerous. It is often seen in dogs that aren’t treated right by children, for example children that are allowed to climb all over of the dog, pulling at their ears etc.

The dog looks completely fine, they could get up and walk away after all if they really wanted to– since they’re body is so still. But if you was to actually pay close attention to the dogs eyes, you will be able to see whether the dog is actually relaxed or not.

Calming Signals From The Head

  • Panting
  • Lip licking
  • Sniffing (sniffing spontaneously at the place where there was nothing of interest to your dog before)
  • Yawning
  • Turning the head to the side
  • Pinning the ears back

It can be tricky to distinguish these calming signals from “normal” behaviour, as dogs can use them in different circumstances. A yawn could be because the dog has just woken up from being asleep, it can also mean that the dog is feeling really uncomfortable and needs to be removed from the situation as soon as possible.

Contextual Calming Signals

With these calming signals It is important to view them in the context of the dog’s environment and their general behaviour. If your in the process of making your dog’s dinner and they are licking their lips and sniffing the air whilst they are waiting for their bowl of food, then your dog is just likely hungry and is expecting their food.

If you actually look closer, you will see that the stress yawn looks slightly different to a normal yawn. With the stress yawn the dog will open their mouth extra wide (it looks quite dramatic) or they will curl their tongue. Your dog might also shake their head slightly as they close their mouth again.

When there is lip licking in the contexts that there is no food (or the stops and smells where another dog has urinated) it is more than likely to be a calming signal. Lip licks can quite easily be missed as they are really quick so bare that in mind.

Sniffing that’s spontaneous can be seen quite often in training situations in where the dog feels uncomfortable. They may seem all of a sudden extremely interested in the ground, even if there’s no actual reason to why they’d want to sniff (such as dog urine or a few crumbs from dog treats).

You’re more than likely going to see this type of sniffing behaviour from a dog who is stressed and needs to build more confidence at somewhere like dog sporting trials, an example would be the dogs handler walking up to them to make them pay attention, but unfortunately this can quite often increase the dogs interest in the ground. This is because the dog is trying to de-escalate the situation, and being approached suddenly, and maybe having their collar grabbed at and then being made to do what their handler wants them to do can be really stressful for the dog.

If you walk your dog around your neighbourhood, and you go past a neighbours garden and they have a barking dog, you might notice a familiar reaction from being barked at, is that the dog starts to become very absorbed and suddenly sniffs of the ground.

Body Calming Signals

  • Moving slowly
  • Walking in a curve
  • Sitting down and on some occasions starting to lick the genitals
  • Scent marking
  • Play bowing/stretching
  • “Shaking it off” shaking the whole body

Just remember that, these calming signals need to be seen in the right context. If you dog was asleep on the sofa and then wakes up, has a stretch and a yawn, then they are probably not stressed or feeling uneasy – but instead they are just waking up from having a sleep. When you start to observe it, you’ll see that a tired yawn actually looks a lot different from when its a calming signal yawn: the calming signal yawn seems to be quite excessive, and the dog will often give there head a little shake when the mouth is completely fully open.

Watch Your Dog Closely, They Will Tell You A LotIf you go to any obedience classes anywhere and observe the dog calming signals. You’ll see the dogs turning their heads away from one another during the group stays and avoiding any eye contact – these dogs are doing this to try and de-escalate the extremely uncomfortable situation whilst sitting really close to one another.

The dog who gets up slowly and looks away at the start line at agility, shakes their entire body or moves over to the side and starts to sniff is not in their feeling their happiest.

The dog starts to lick their lips and their eyes start squinting whilst getting scolded, all because they didn’t respond to the handlers cue and they are trying to appease the handler and tell them to not be intimidating towards them.

Keep an eye out for these signs – they will start quite a while before any trained behaviours start to fall apart, or if a situation takes an hostile turn. As soon as you start to see them, move away, and then try and make your dog feel more comfortable and relaxed before you move on with your first goal.

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