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What Your Dog is Telling You: Recognizing and interpreting calming signals

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

Have you ever taken a step back and observed the dogs at a dog park interact with one another? There is a lot of conversation happening between them. Most human communication is done verbally, while dogs communicate primarily through body language. Part of this communication involves “calming signals” where a dog is either telling another individual (dog, human, or other being) to calm down, sharing that they are feeling uncomfortable, or demonstrating a calming signal to ease their own stress level.

When dogs first meet, they may show calming signals as a peace offering such as a yawn, avoiding eye contact/head turn, lip licking, a paw lift, to name a few. This lets the other dog know that they mean no harm.

Look at the bigger picture

When observing calming signals, look at the whole picture and the context. This will help you interpret the communication. Take into consideration both dogs' energy levels, the environment and circumstances in this particular moment. The dog's whole body must be observed alongside the environment to help understand what is being communicated. Did your dog do a “shake off” because he is wet, or did he just see a dog pass by? Is he sniffing the ground because another dog has peed there or did someone approach him quickly?

Take into account the total body language picture of the dog. Is the dog’s body relaxed or stiff? Is the tail tucked or upright ? How are the head and ears positioned?

Common calming signals

Here are a few of the many common calming signals you may see a dog using.

  • Lip licking/ tongue flicks

  • Head turning away (with a lip lick)

  • Paw lift

  • Yawning

  • Sniffing the ground (avoidance)

  • Shake off

  • Scratching at their neck

  • Whale eye

  • Freezing or walking slowly

  • Panting when not hot

  • Squinting of the eyes

  • Kiss to dismiss

  • Play bow (more awkward than a usual play bow)

But what does it mean?

What might the dog be communicating to others by showing these signals?

The dog:

  • is stressed out

  • wants the situation to change as he’s not feeling comfortable

  • is very excited about the situation or an object and trying to calm himself down

  • wants others to know that he means no harm, so please be kind

  • is telling others to slow down and bring down their energy level (you are too hyper right now)

  • wants space

Avoid stressful or dangerous scenarios

When you see a dog mirroring these calming signals with another dog, it can be to help the stressed dog feel more comfortable. If a dog is showing many calming signals in a short period of time, they are feeling very uncomfortable and it’s time to give them more distance from what is causing discomfort. Not doing so can increase the level of stress in the dog and lead to a bite. It is important to listen to what your dog is communicating and avoid a bite from happening. Be an advocate for your dog!

Calming signals can also assist you in helping your dog with a behavioural change. Watching for these cues with a fearful, excitable, or leash reactive dog for example, may help you understand if you need to adjust your training plan, environment, or generally give you insight about how the dog is feeling.

We challenge you to learn more about calming signals and start watching closely. You will be amazed at how much your dog is telling you about how they feel in daily situations. There are many great resources out there!

Like our post? Leave us a comment, or please consider making a donation to assist Rosier Days Dog Rescue Society in our efforts.

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