If Only They Could Talk - Calming Signals

As we saw in Part I, dogs have a complex, sophisticated non-verbal language which they use to communicate what they are thinking and feeling in any given situation. In addition, living in a group can be fraught and dogs are incredibly adept at using body language to defuse tension and avoiding conflict within their pack. Unfortunately for the modern pup, most of their pack wobble about on a mere two legs, and can be very obtuse and hard of understanding. This can lead to stress, fear and, in the very worst case scenario, aggression. Learning to read the calming signals of our furry family members can help avoid this and make for a happy, healthy human-canine bond.

Some common actions that dogs interpret as aggressive, and which will typically solicit a calming signal, are: being approached directly (in a straight-line trajectory terminating at the head), being grabbed at or loomed over, being stared at (especially straight into the eyes), and the use of fast and/or erratic movements.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many of the calming signals dogs use are the direct opposite of these threatening behaviors.

For example:

Turning Away or Averting the Gaze

When someone approaches in an inappropriate way, dogs will often turn their heads away to avoid eye-contact, and may even turn completely to present their backs and tail to whomever they deem is in need of calming. You may see this when your dog is approached from the front, when you seem angry (raised voice, for instance, or looming posture), when someone bends over to stroke the top of her head, when training sessions are too long or too stressful, or even when she is taken (or takes someone else) by surprise.

This strategy can be misinterpreted in a number of ways. People may feel their dog is being stubborn, disobedient, or even sulky, and may then become even more upset and threatening, causing their dog to intensify the calming signals, thus creating a horrible and confusing loop.

Walking Slowly or Freezing

Inappropriate high speed is threatening to many dogs, especially when the speedster is moving straight towards them. A dog who is insecure, or who wishes to calm someone down, will tend to move much more slowly than usual. Sometimes the dog will stop moving entirely (called freezing). Often these two behaviors are combined, so she may walk very slowly, then freeze, then move, then freeze again in an attempt to de-escalate what she perceives as a tense situation.

Again, this strategy can be misinterpreted by people. We may feel she's being lazy, or unresponsive, when in fact she is uneasy. Other times, we may think she's enjoying herself because she is not moving away from a situation, when in fact staying very still is her way of sending up a distress flare.

Walking In A Curve

Well-mannered dogs do not tend to approach one another in a straight line; observe them when they interact off-leash and you should see lots of curving approaches and wide angles as they get the measure of each other. Some dogs need more space, some less, but almost all do not appreciate a stranger making a bee-line for them.

Understanding this is particularly relevant in New York, where most dogs will spend the majority of their time outside on leash on very crowded, very straight, very narrow sidewalks. There just typically isn't enough space for nice, relaxed curve walking and dogs therefore find themselves forced into a behavior that makes them extremely uncomfortable. They may try to move in a direction other than the owner wants, or even slow down as a sign of distress. All of this can then make the owner angry and once again through misunderstanding a terrible feed-back loop of stress can be created.

Displacement Activity

Displacement activity can take many forms, including sniffing, (from short little head bobs to long, drawn-out snufflings), scratching and (where possible) drinking. Essentially, she is trying to take a break from the situation in which she finds herself, and is displacing her nervous energy into unrelated behaviors.

A classic example of this is the dog who, when on a walk, sits down in the middle of the street to scratch. She is not unbearably itchy all of a sudden, she is just tense and trying to deal with it. She is not trying to be annoying, although it may certainly feel like it on occasion!

Yawning and Licking

Both yawning and licking of lips can be symptomatic of stress, and are also calming signals. Of course, dogs also yawn when they're tired or lick their lips when they smell something delicious, but these gestures are often combined with others we've addressed above to show discomfort and an unthreatening mien.

Interestingly, dogs with faces that are difficult to read (black fur, very fluffy or smoosh-faced for example) often use licking more than dogs with easier-to-read faces. These licks may encompass everything from a brief tongue-flicker to a full-on face-cleaning, but they are all meaningful. Dogs really are the masters of silent communication.

As we have seen, understanding the signals our dogs are sending us can make a marked contribution to having a happy, healthy, confident relationship. We can also use these signals ourselves to show our intent in ways they can understand. For example, when approaching a stressed dog we could crouch to make ourselves smaller, move very slowly (freezing intermittently), approach from an angle, lick our lips and/or yawn as we do so.

The examples listed above are just some of the many signals dogs use; taking your new dog to a puppy class like those offered by Shelby Semel Dog Training can help you both to learn to understand each other better, as well as helping your pup to learn appropriate interactions with other dogs. If your dog is too old for puppy class, but you would still like to learn exactly how she communicates, a private session with a qualified trainer can be the way to go. After all, who hasn't wished that we could understand (and be understood by) our pets?

- Lily Klopsch