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Understanding our Dogs - Basic Dog Body Language – Calming Signals

Updated: Jan 4, 2019

Dogs are very good at reading our body language, but we are really not great at reading theirs. One of the areas to look at when looking at canine body language is Calming Signals.

Calming signals is a term coined by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas, it describes the signals used by dogs to communicate with one another. These signals are universal, meaning all dogs understand them, however not all dogs choose to use them. Some of the reasons dogs may stop using their calming signals are:

· If they have been punished for using the signals in the past

· If they have been attacked when using them in the past

· If their stress levels are too high

Dogs have also been shown to use these signals with humans which is why its important we can at least recognise some of these signals.

There are many occasions a dog may omit a calming signal, often these are shown when we bend over the dog or get too close to the dog’s face (e.g. kissing their nose), looking them in the eye for too long or in a threatening way, get angry with the dog, trap the dog in a corner, hug the dog or even if the dog gets tired from a training session that is too long or that they don’t understand.

Because there are so many situations in which a dog may give off these signals, it is important we can read at least some of them. Some of them are obvious to us, such as raising their heckles, pinning their ears back, tucking their tail between their legs or growling. Often when a dog bites they have given off these signals, we just don’t know how to read them.

So, what are the main signals, there are thought to be over 30 signals but some of the most common are shown below:

- Lip licking/tongue flips when there is no food around

- Yawning when they shouldn’t be tired – A lot of dogs will use this calming signal if you try and kiss their head or face. Take a look if you see someone doing this to their dog and see if they yawn, if so it’s a sign the dog isn’t comfortable being kissed on their face and should therefore not be done again

- Moving slowly or as if in slow motion across the floor

- Hypervigilant – looking around in an alert manner in many different directions

- Panting when they are not too hot or thirsty

- Turning away, turning the head away – you will often see this if someone goes to stroke your dog by going over their head, the dog may back away or move their head round to avoid being stroked this way. Many dogs are fine being stroked by strangers, but they need to go under the chin rather than over their head, as this can be quite intimidating to your dog.

- Freezing in place

- Brow furrowed with their ears to one side

- Scratching themselves – this is often seen in training classes when learning new things, if the dog gets tired or confused they may stop and have a scratch, this could mean they need a break so are trying to tell you this. If you see this from your dog, give them a break and try again later

- Whale Eye is called such because during this calming signal you can see the white of your dog’s eyes like a whale. It is a behaviour that suggests that your dog feels threatened or afraid. It happens when the dog might be afraid to look at you, they will physically turn their head away from you, while at the same time not wanting to take their eyes off you

So what should we do if we see our dog giving off one or more of the above signals? Its always worth checking out the situation they are in when they omit these signals. Is there something around that they may not be comfortable with such as another dog, or maybe it is something that happened immediately before the signal, such as kissing the dogs face. When you find out what the dog isn’t happy with, we can work on changing things so the dog won’t feel as uncomfortable in the future.


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