Calming Signals In Dogs

Anxious Dogs

Calming Signals In Dogs

Calming signals

Dogs are man’s best friends, but we do not share a common language. Wouldn’t it be so easy sometimes to just ask our dog how he feels?
It is fairly easy to spot a happy dog. He has his tongue out,  appears to be “smiling”, his tail is wagging and his whole body is wiggly.

Unfortunately, correctly identifying when a dog feels uncomfortable is much more difficult. What may appear to only be a still or calm dog may actually be a stressed or anxious dog trying to communicate these feelings to us.

Luckily, dogs have a set of characteristic body positions called “Calming Signals” that can help us understand their emotions and react accordingly.

Overlooked And Misunderstood

Every time I get contacted by clients about a behavior “suddenly falling apart” – such as for example a fight between two dogs of the same household – and they tell me that they have never seen signs of animosity between the two dogs, I ask “Did you maybe see them yawn? Lick their lips? Shake it off? Squint their eyes?”

-“Yes! One does that a lot!”, is often the answer.

There we have it – the dogs had been trying to communicate all along that they were not happy with each other. Unfortunately, they do it in such subtle ways that unless we really look out for them, we miss the signs until actual growling, raised hackles or a fight happen.

Dogs NEED Calming Signals

These calming signals are necessary for dogs to function in their social groups – whether it be with other dogs or us humans. Calming signals prevent situations from escalating and group members getting seriously hurt in the process. Dogs are very skilled at recognizing and reacting to these signals in their interactions. Even very young puppies show calming signals around older dogs to let them know that they mean no harm and to keep interactions safe.

dog yawn

The next time you are watching dog-to-dog interactions, look for the body language described in this post. You will see the dogs making plenty of use of an array of different body language to let each other know that they mean well and have no interest in escalating the situation.

Dogs That Aren’t Skilled In Calming Signals

A lack of skill in showing calming signals is nearly always associated with troublesome dog-to-dog interactions. We see such lack of skill in dogs that haven’t had the opportunity to be around other dogs while growing up.

Singleton puppies (that means puppies that are the only one in the litter – not a common occurrence but occasionally dams give birth to a single pup) often are less adapt at using their body language to deescalate and are perceived as rude by other dogs. But also dogs that had littermates and after being placed in their forever home were not provided a healthy amount of polite dog-to-dog interactions can be less than skilled at showing calming signals.

(This is for example a problem for young, energetic dogs that tend to only interact with other wild youngsters – see The Problem With Doggy Day Care for more information.)

Sudden Disobedience

Have you ever been in a situation in which your dog seemed to spontaneously refuse listening to you? Maybe you took him out to the city center for the first time. Or your dog is in a group class close to other dogs that may make him feel a bit on edge.
Then, the disappointment: you have taught him how to sit, down and heel and practiced these behaviors many times. But suddenly your dog acts as though he never heard the cues before and instead sits down, intensely sniffs the ground or scratches his ear.

One reason why this could happen is because he is uncomfortable and unable to perform the previously known behaviors. This is comparable to a human with stage fright, or sudden stuttering or blackouts in for example an exam.

It has nothing to do with your dog not knowing the behaviors well enough, or with you having failed in teaching them to him. He is simply under too much stress to be able to perform them as well as he can when he is not stressed. Keeping on repeating cues louder and louder will only make everything more difficult for him.

A similar situation happens often while being at the vet. Even the best trained obedience champions can forget how to sit on the vet’s scales or how to stay when they get a shot. Again, this has nothing to do with your dog’s level of training or knowledge of behaviors. Like the piano student who practiced hard but is overcome with nerves during the recital, the dog is kept from performing at his best by his own body’s stress response.

Being aware of your dog’s calming signals will help you identify these moments and react appropriately.

Calming Signals – not only a Canine Behavior

Dogs are not the only species that uses calming signals to communicate to others that we are uncomfortable, mean no harm and wish to deescalate the situation.
We as humans use calming signals just as much as dogs. While we communicate via spoken language with friends, our communication with strangers is mostly non-verbal.

3 men in elevator

Think of entering a situation that is too crowded for our liking and does not allow us to have the personal space we would like around us. This could be stepping into a subway, bus or train, or a crowded elevator. Our instinctual response is to turn our heads away, not face anyone directly with our body and absolutely avoid prolonged eye contact. These are human calming signals – that in fact are very similar to our dog’s ones.

Recognizing and Reacting to Calming Signals

Try to watch out for all of the following in your dog’s interactions – of course his interactions with you, but also other dogs, other people, in training situation etc.

Dogs are very polite and often spend a long time doing nothing other than showing calming signals when they are highly uncomfortable before escalating a situation.
Being able to recognize calming signals means being able to help your dog not escalate interactions. 

If you find your dog displaying calming signals, help him out by moving him to a place where he can be more comfortable. Many dogs will do that themselves if they can, but often it is not possible due to physical restraints. This can mean a leash (if your dog is on a short leash, he cannot walk away from e.g. an encounter with another dog) a room setup (he could be backed into a corner by a person) or similar.

You are your dog’s advocate then! Calmly and friendly get him out of the situation.

If you are observant for calming signals and help your dog solve these problematic situations, he will thank you by having a high inhibition to escalate.

Dogs don’t want to “get mad”. Every confrontation (be it with other dogs or people) is a danger to them as much as their opponent. If they learn that there is always a peaceful solution and that their calming signals are taken seriously and acted upon, they will with a high likelihood be predictable and friendly in their interactions.

chihuahua sniffs ground


Calming Signals Of The Eyes

Calming signals of these eyes are:

  • Blinking
  • Squinting
  • “Soft eyes” (it truly looks like the dog is making an effort to make his eye smaller and less threatening)
  • Whale eyes (eyes that are so wide open that you can see a white rim around the edge)

dog squint

Calming signals of the eyes are visible even when the dog appears “frozen”. Sometimes their body gets rigid and still in situations in which they are stressed. This can be dangerous as the dog may look relaxed but is in fact anxious. It can often be seen in dogs that are not treated correctly by children, with the child for example climbing on top of the dog, pulling his ears etc.

The dog seems fine – he could walk away after all if he wanted – since his body is still. If we however pay close attention to his eyes, we will be able to tell whether he is truly relaxed or not.
(For more information on how to provide safe and joyful interactions between kids and dogs, see Kids, Dogs and Respect.)

Calming Signals Of The Head

  • Panting
  • Lip licking
  • Sniffing (especially spontaneous sniffing at a place where previously there was nothing that interested your dog)
  • Yawning
  • Turning the head to the side
  • Pinning back the ears

These calming signals can be tricky to distinguish from “normal” behavior, as dogs can use them in different contexts. A yawn can mean that the dog has just woken up from a nap – it can also mean that he is highly uncomfortable and should be removed from the situation as quickly as possible.

Calming Signals Are Contextual

It is important to view these signals in the context of the dog’s environment and general behavior. If you are preparing your dog’s dinner and he is licking his lips and sniffing while waiting for his bowl, he is likely just hungry and expecting his food.

If you pay closer attention you will notice that the stressed yawn actually looks a bit different from a normal yawn. The stressed yawn will have the dog open his mouth extra wide (it looks a bit exaggerated) or curl the tongue – and he might shake his head slightly as he closes it again.

dog yawn

When lip licking occurs in contexts without food (or the dog smelling pee spots) it is most likely a calming signal. These lip licks are very quick and can easily be missed.

dog lip lick

Spontaneous sniffing can often be seen in training situations in which the dog is uncomfortable. He suddenly seems extremely interested in the ground, even if there is no objective reason why he should want to sniff (such as treat crumbs, or other dogs having pottied there).

If you go to any dog sport trial you can probably see a stressed dog who needs more confidence exhibiting this sniffing behavior – the handler walking up to him to make him pay attention again unfortunately often only increases his interest in the ground. This is because he keeps trying to deescalate, and being approached in a swift way, maybe even having his collar grabbed and being brought back to the task on hand is in itself stressful for the dog.

If you walk your dog in your neighborhood past yards with barking dogs in them, you may have also noticed that a common reaction to being barked at is the dog becoming very engrossed in sudden sniffing of the ground.

Calming Signals Of The Body

  • Moving slowly
  • Walking in a curve
  • Sitting down and potentially starting to lick the genitals
  • Marking
  • Play bowing/stretching
  • The whole body “shaking it off”

Again, these need to be seen in context. If you dog has been napping on the couch and gets up, stretches and yawns, he is probably not stressed or uncomfortable – but just waking up from a nap. Once you start to watch out for it, a tired yawn actually looks quite different from a calming signal yawn: the latter seems exaggerated, and the dog often gives his head a small shake when the mouth is at its maximum opening.

Watch Closely! Your Dog Tells You A Lot

Go to any obedience class around the country and observe for calming signals. The dogs turning their head away from each other during group stays and avoiding eye contact – that is them trying to deescalate the highly uncomfortable situation of sitting so close to each other.

The dog who looks away or slowly gets up at the agility start line, shakes his whole body or wanders off to the side to sniff is not in his happiest place.

The dog licking his lips and squinting his eyes when he gets reprimanded for failing to respond to a cue is trying to appease his handler and tell him to not be threatening.

Look out for these signals – they appear long before a trained behavior falls apart, or a situation takes an aggressive turn. When you see them, back off, and try to make your dog more comfortable before moving on with your original goal.