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Calming signals – the right way to communicate with your dog

Calming signals, a kind of gesture of humility, are genetically rooted “polite phrases” that help a dog to communicate with its fellow dogs and people, get its message across in uncomfortable situations, and give in to others to avert potential conflict. They are also used for a dog to calm itself.

What calming signals are there?

All calming signals a dog displays have two meanings. This means they need to be viewed and interpreted in the overall context of the situation. A yawn, for example, can simply mean the dog is tired. But yawning is often also a sign that a dog is overwhelmed. Aside from yawning, other calming signals include turning the head or entire body aside, pawing, approaching in an arc, squinting, flicking the tongue or licking the nose or muzzle, sniffing the ground for no apparent reason, freezing in place, or crouching down with the front of the body.

This article addresses the five calming signals that are generally displayed most frequently.

Yawning

Dogs yawn when they are tired. But they also display this behavior in stressful situations and when they feel overwhelmed. Yawning is also something dogs to do calm down in stressful situations. You may also see yawning often during training, at the dog park, or when practicing tricks, when it is a sign of too much pressure from the owner or that the dog is overwhelmed. What your dog is trying to say is, “Could we please stop or go back a step? This is a bit too much for me right now.”

Turning the body or gaze to the side

When you observe your dog closely, you will also see it avert its eyes or even its entire body. If a dog feels uncomfortable or has no interest in an approaching dog, it turns its gaze away (more common in case of uncertainty or discomfort) or turns the entire body aside (more common with lack of interest). Dogs also turn away when annoyed as a polite way to tell others, “I don’t feel like interacting with you now.” Dogs whose person bends over them when putting on a harness also tend to turn their gaze, head, or body to the side. This behavior is also often seen when someone strokes the dog’s head.

Lifting the paws

Dogs often paw at the air when another dog approaches. In many cases, the paw is lifted while the dogs sniff each other’s rear in greeting. This is a typical signal often found in combination with other calming signals. Lifting the paws is also regularly shown when the dog feels slightly pressed and restricted, as in the case of putting on a harness. You can see this from a bend in the hind legs, with the weight shifted to the rear.

Avoiding eye contact

Looking deep into someone else’s eyes is a human concept. In dogs, this behavior is more of a fixing, challenging, provocative one involving staring, which would mean the exact opposite of calming. That means dogs consider it polite to avert their gaze and avoid eye contact. When dogs encounter each other and approach politely, they look in opposite directions or past each other. Constant blinking stands for uncertainty, incidentally.

Flicking the tongue

Flicking the tongue in and out and licking the mouth are also very common calming signals. Flicking the tongue has two meanings, since dogs do, of course, also lick their noses or muzzles after eating. Our dogs very often flick their tongues as a signal for calming purposes, especially when a person treats the dog a bit too roughly, for example by raising their voice too much for the dog. This calming signal is also used when a dog is overwhelmed and in general when there is too much pressure in a given situation. You might not always notice this signal right away as an owner, since it is very quick and does not last long. The dog also uses this signal to create a bit more distance. This helps dogs get to know and maintain their individual distance with others.

Calming signals for better communication between you and your dog

It is highly beneficial to your bond with your dog if you understand the dog’s calming signals. When it uses these signals, it is trying to communicate something. If we punish the dog or don’t respond appropriately, we aren’t perceiving its needs. If you learn to understand your dog and communicate clearly with it and perceive its calming signals, it will feel understood and secure. And that is the most important and lasting thing you can do for your dog – and, of course, the nicest thing as well, since each of you will feel understood by the other, and you will be able to communicate clearly with each other.

Our tip: take a video of yourself practicing with your dog

To understand your dog better, you can take a video of yourself and your dog during training and then watch it later. When did your dog use calming signals? Did it lift its paw or lick its nose? Did it avert its gaze at times? If so, the amount it was being asked to learn might have been too much, or the pressure might have been too great for it. Even if we didn’t mean it that way at all and didn’t intend to exert any pressure, the dog can still perceive it that way. This means it is highly worthwhile to take a closer look here so that your dog can feel secure with you as its owner and attachment figure and knows that it can count on you. This also leads to greater trust during walks and, in turn, to less conflict with other people and their dogs.

Calming signals and breed differences

In general, since calming signals are genetic in origin, all dogs can display them. Still, they should be viewed individually. One dog may use a certain calming signal more often, while another dog tends to use a different one, depending on which signal gives them a feeling of being better understood and which is more likely to yield the desired result. Breeds with long coats that make it harder to see when their hair stands up or when they blink tend to rely more on signals related to body language than on facial expressions and gestures in the long term. Dogs with docked tails cannot use their tails well for communication. And a pug, with its facial folds, is highly limited in its facial expressions, so it is more likely to use its body to communicate and send calming signals, for example by lifting a paw. When it comes to dogs with restricted facial expressions and gestures, this means it is a good idea to look more to their body language.

 

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