CALMING SIGNAL? IS THAT LIKE THE BAT SIGNAL?
Well, kind of. Calming signals are your dog's way of communicating they are uncomfortable / stressed and like Batman, we need to look for these signs so we can answer their call appropriately.
Since dogs respond to sight, sound, and touch it only makes sense that calming signals are a set of body language skills that use these senses. These actions help build and maintain healthy relationships, relieve stress, convey good will, and eliminate tension, all to make their feelings and intentions clear in order to avoid volatile situations.
Ultimately, it is good that your dog utilizes calming signals and they should NOT be punished for displaying them.
Much of what we know about calming signals comes from the work of Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian canine ethologist. Through her research we have learned the importance of dogs learning to display signals, either initially or in response to others, in order to avoid confrontation. In turn the other party hopefully recognizes the signal(s) and alters their behavior accordingly.
Though all breeds display calming signals, and many such signs, like panting or stretching, come naturally to most dogs, some signs are more obvious and / or developed in others in part due to physical differences. For instance, dogs with cropped tails or ears aren't able to communicate as clearly, if at all, with these body parts like those with un-cropped tails / ears. And have you ever seen a small dog or puppy yawn when being picked up? This is possibly a calming behavior because, well, wouldn't you be stressed if you were lifted so high off the ground?
To start, there are two important things to know about calming signals.
1) Give your dog the opportunity to learn and use their signals
2) Give yourself the opportunity to listen and respond to them with compassion — They are stressed and shouldn't be punished for it. More details about how to respond below.
Instead, think of it like learning to roller blade when you are a child and then returning to it 30 years later. You a little anxious about it but it's coming back to you little by little. You're staying up right, though you can only go straight forward and aren't able to control your speed very well. You're politely asking people to move over and at times using a bell. There's both a small hill and a group of people on motorized scooters ahead of you. You try to brake but it's not helping. They are getting closer. "Bbbring-bbring". They don't budge. "Excuse me", you shout. Nothing. "Hello, please move!" The aren't paying attention to you and to avoid them you ditch onto the concrete. Ouch!
Dogs will always have the knowledge of canine calming behaviors.
Just like remembering how to roller blade, dogs will always have the knowledge of canine calming behaviors. However, if they are punished for displaying them, or unable to practice them, then they may resort to other, more aggressive behaviors when put into a stressful situation to make their feelings more evident. I mean, since your clear gestures weren't acknowledged by the group on their scooters, the next time you go rollerblading, you might be tempted to push right past them, causing them to fall and thus leading to an avoidable confrontation. Not good!
So What Are These Calming Signals?
Here is a list of the most common calming signals. When deciding if a dog is exhibiting calming signals or not, always consider the context of the situation surrounding the behavior.
- Blinking/softening gaze
- Head turning/Averting gaze
- Play bow
- Hyperactivity / Frantic behavior (No, they are not always ignoring you or blowing you off)
- Leaning / Clinging (To humans)
- Sitting / Laying down
- Licking (Nose, lip, coat, genitals, etc)
- Tail wagging
- Sniffing (Ground, etc)
- Whining or barking
- Slow and/or stiff movements (Legs, body, and/or tail)
When Do Dogs Give & Possibly Stop Giving Calming Signals?
It's common to see dogs use calming signals in the following situations:
- Getting a hug
- Feeling trapped
- People are yelling (either at each other or at them)
- Someone bending over them
- Direct eye contact
- Tired (from a long training session, etc)
- Someone approaching them directly from the front
- Someone coming too close to their face (with or without physical contact)
- Anticipatory excitement (about to go for a walk)
- Asked to do something they don't want or like to do
- When meeting another dog (for the first time)
Ideal Signals from the Approaching Dog:
- Not approaching head on
Possible Signals from the Dog Being Approached (to attempt to slow down the other dog if they are concerned about their speed, angle, etc):
- Sniffing the ground
- Turning it's head, gaze or entire body
- During play
If it's getting too rough, a dog might stop and sit to convey they are stressed. Other dogs might come over to split*.
*Has your dog ever tried to do this when you hugged someone? They aren't jealous, they are trying to prevent what they feel might lead to a confrontation.
- When engaging with other species (humans, cats, etc)
- Play bow
- Looking away
- Movements of others, even subtle ones like leaning forward or larger ones like hugging (whether it's hugging the dog or another person)
- Looking away
- Visiting the Vet
- Nose licking
Dogs STOP using calming signals in the following situations if they were:
- Punished for displaying signals in the past
- Attacked when using them in the past
- Pulling on leash when they are giving signals to another dog
- Too stressed
WAIT DOGS CAN GET STRESSED?
Yes! Just like us, they can feel stress in a variety of situations like when in a new environment, hearing a strange noise, or encountering a change to their daily routine.
We have our own methods to reduce stress (taking a bath, doing chores, going on a walk, talking to a friend), and the same is true for our canine companions. The only trouble is they can't tell us with words, but they do tell us with these often subtle signs, and sometimes those are hidden in typical canine behavior, like running around with the zoomies.
Signs of Stress
The following are some of the signs that a dog may exhibit when they are experiencing stress:
- Hiding, avoidance, or escape behavior
- Changes in eyes and ears (pupils dilated, whale eye, ears pulled back, furrowed brow)
- Vocalizing (whining, growling, or barking)
- Shedding / Dandruff
- Scratching/Licking/Biting self
- Chattering Teeth
- Sweaty paws / Increased urination
- Increased sleeping
- Diarrhea / Urinating or defecating inappropriately (providing house trained)
- Circling / Restless / Pacing
- Chewing items
- Refusal of food / Decreased appetite
- Displacement behaviors / Increased reactivity
- Shuts down
HOW TO AVOID AND ADDRESS YOUR DOG'S STRESS
In order to differentiate stress signs from normal behavior, you must be familiar with your dog’s regular demeanor. Then you can tell if they're licking their lips because they're anxious or because they wants a treat!
When relaxed, they will have semi-erect or forward facing ears, a soft mouth, and round eyes. They will distribute their weight evenly on all four paws. Distinguishing normal behavior from stress signs will help you quickly and effectively diffuse an uncomfortable situation.
If your dog is stressed, first remove them from the stressor.
Find a quiet place for them to regroup. Resist the urge to overly comfort them. This will only confirm that their fears are justified and may make them less confident in the future. If you want to pamper them with petting or treats, make them earn them first by performing a routing activity, i.e. sitting. Responding to routine commands distracts the dog and provides a sense of normalcy. It’s amazing how comforting sit, down, and heel can be to a worried dog.
If your dog becomes consistently stressed, see your veterinarian.
After ensuring that your dog’s behavior does not have a medical basis, your dog’s doctor may refer you to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist to evaluate stress-related issues.
As with humans, exercise can be a great stress reducer. Physical activities like walking or playing fetch help both you and your dog release tension. It’s also good to provide your dog with a safe place in the home where they can escape anxious situations. Everybody enjoys a calm place to retreat.
And, finally, remember that stress isn’t always bad.
Fear is a stress-related emotion that prompts us to avoid potentially dangerous situations. So, stress may actually be a protector. Regardless, stress is part of everyday life for us and our dogs, so we should learn how best to deal with it.
INCORPORATING CALMING SIGNALS
At the first sign of calming signals, modify your behavior. For example, when approaching a dog, do so in a curved fashion if at all possible. This allows for your initial greeting to be polite in nature. Also, when training, if your dog is exhibiting calming signals, consider ending the session if you can't determine and make the appropriate adjustments to ameliorate whatever is distressing to your dog. Splitting can be used during classes and playtimes if your feel your dogs is getting too rowdy or you are concerned about a potential conflict. In order to show good will, one of the signals you should use the most frequently and one of the easiest to use is a head turn followed by turning sideways to your / a dog if need be. Some signals of course are easier for humans to imitate than others, such as averting eyes, turning, yawning and splitting.
YOUR BODY LANGUAGE
The most important thing that you can do when working with your dog is to simply watch them. Humans have a very different communication system from dogs and many things that we do our canine companions find offensive and distressful. When our pets show us calming signals, we need to observe these and cease what we are doing. All dogs are individuals and some will be more sensitive than others to particular situations. Some of the more predictable human behaviors that elicit calming signals are raising our voices (I hope that one is obvious), leaning over the dog, staring, patting the dog on the head, and physically manipulating the dogs body position. While dogs can be taught to tolerate some of these items, and even occasionally come to like them (not yelling), this does not come naturally for the dog.
Rugaas, Turid. On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Dogwise Publishing, Washington. 2006.
Rugaas, Turid. Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You. Dogwise Publishing. (DVD run time 48 minutes).
Calming Signals Community - http://www.canis.no/rugaas/index.php
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