As we all know, our dogs can understand us. Not only do dogs learn our strange human words, but they also are in tune with our emotions and often know what we are feeling maybe even before we do. Since our dogs do a great job learning how we communicate with them, it is important for us to know what they are saying to us, especially if they are feeling scared or stressed. Dogs who may be anxious, nervous or afraid use specific behaviors not only to calm themselves down, but to signal to other dogs and humans how they are feeling.
Understanding your dog’s language
Dogs are wonderful communicators. They talk to us with their paws, they bark or howl, and sometimes they use their entire bodies to show us what they are feeling. The challenge is to be able to interpret what is happening. Is your dog wagging his tail because he's happy or because he's nervous? Is he rolling over because he wants to play or because he feels he needs to remind another dog that he's no threat?
International Dog Trainer Tuurid Rugaas coined the term "Calming Signals" to describe the specific behavioral cues dogs exhibit when they are in a stressful environment. Over the years, she has published several books on dog behavior including On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals which outlines the kinds of signals dogs use to diffuse what can be a potentially problematic situation.
More recently, additional studies such as this one published in 2017 in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior confirm that dogs not only use specific calming behaviors as Ms. Rugaas suggested, but that they are more likely to engage in these behaviors when they are around unfamiliar dogs than familiar dogs. Essentially, dogs use calming signals to de-escalate a situation or if they feel threatened or upset.
Some calming behaviors to look out for:
Perhaps surprising, but yawning is an example of a common calming signal. Do you notice that your dog yawns when you tell him off for bad behavior? Or does he yawn a lot at the vet's office? If that's the case, he is yawning to help himself feel less stressed out.
Avoiding eye contact or turning head
Another common calming behavior is avoiding eye contact. If your dog is looking away from you or other dogs, it is her way of communicating that she doesn't want any problems. To just keep cool. Looking away from an aggressive dog is one of the fastest and easiest ways your dog can de-escalate a potentially confrontational situation.
This calming behavior is particularly common when dogs are playing with other dogs and it is starting to get a little too rough. If that is the case, you might see a dog simply turn its entire body away from the other dog. If your dog does this to you, especially if you are reprimanding her after she, say, completely destroyed your couch while you were away, she's not being sassy, she's simply trying to get everyone to #ctfd.
Licking or nose licking
Do you notice your dog tends to lick objects obsessively? This is a sign of stress, and the act of licking is your dog's attempt at calming himself down. When it comes to sending a calming signal to other dogs, dogs will lick their noses or the air quickly a few times not only to calm themselves, but to let the other dogs know that everyone is on the same page.
Bowing or play position
We might recognize this as the signal that your dog wants to play, but it is also a way to let others know that your dog is having a good time in the event that another dog gets aggravated. You know the position, where your dog's tail end is in the air, her head is low to the ground, and she looks like she's smiling at you?
When dogs are meeting each other for the first time, it goes against their instincts to approach head on. Instead, they will walk in a curved path, around one another getting closer and closer until they are within sniffing distance. Moving in this curve pattern shows that there is no aggression, only curiosity.
There are about 30 different calming behaviors that dogs will employ, but some of the most common are:
Standing very still
Putting ears back close to the head
When do dogs use calming behaviors?
The simple answer is any time a dog feels like a situation may get out of hand or if he is feeling anxious or stressed. There are certain environments such as when you and your canine companion visit the vet's office, walk along a crowded street, or spend the afternoon with strangers that you will see more of these behaviors come out. Your dog might also use some of these while playing, specifically to signal that play is getting a little too rough for his taste and he'd like to cool off a little. By paying attention to what is triggering these behaviors, you can help create an ideal environment in which no dog--or human--harshes anyone else's mellow.