Developed to keep peace and harmony within the pack, calming signals may very well make up the largest part of a dogs communication system. These signals are used in most dog/dog interactions to avoid or cut-off conflict. They are often used with people too. When two dogs first see each other they usually begin to use these signals, they continue to use them during the initial meeting and play sessions. It unfolds something like a subtle dance that often goes completely unnoticed by people. Since our dogs do use these signals with us and believe that we understand them, I think it’s only fair that we try to understand them and respond accordingly as communication is a two-way street and our dogs are doing their best understand our verbal and body language. By acknowledging and using these signals we can also develop a deeper bond with our dogs. If you happen to notice that your dog is using these signals with you, you can let your dog know the signal has been received by reducing your intensity, taking a break or changing your approach. I should also point out that there are times when these actions are not being used as calming signals. Sometimes a dog just scratches because he has an itch or yawns because he is tired. To discover the true meaning behind the action try to determine if the action seems in or out of context, i.e. if your training or playing with your dog and he yawns there’s a good chance he’s not really tired. He is probably asking for a little less intensity.
Sitting, lying down, rolling over on back, freezing while turning the head away from the dog, completely turning back on another dog, sniffing the ground or digging at something, staring at the horizon, the play bow, scratching itself, the nose lick, licking the lips of another dog, lifting one paw and looking away, pretending to be preoccupied with something else, and above all: AVOIDING DIRECT EYE CONTACT OR BLINKING WHILE LOOKING INTO THE EYES OF ANOTHER. When two dogs first meet they normally avoid direct eye contact. A direct, unblinking stare between dogs is considered a challenge. If you taught your dog that it is okay to look directly into your eyes – neither of you takes that look as a challenge. However, if any dog ever goes stiff and gives you a cold hard stare in the eyes (this may or may not be accompanied by a growl), you should immediately avert your eyes and turn your head to the side or slowly turn your back on the dog. Never get in a stare down match with a dog that is threatening you – people have been bit in the face doing just that.
Though any of the signals mentioned above may be used with people, I feel the following are easy to see once you get used to looking for them and definitely worth responding to.
NOSE LICKING, YAWNING, SCRATCHING OR REFUSAL TO LOOK YOUR DIRECTION – These signals are often used to let people know they are petting, playing or training with too much intensity. The dog feels anxious or intimidated – reduce your intensity, take a break or change your approach.
USE CALMING SIGNALS TO RELAX YOUR DOG - If your dog is worried or restless you can YAWN to CALM. Try this at home with your dog if he’s pacing. Do several yawns in row without making direct contact until he calms down.
USE CALMING SIGNALS WHEN GREETING DOGS - When greeting a dogs, crouch down or stand with your side turned to the dog, keep your eye contact short or non-existent and wait for the dog to approach you. When it does, pet on the side closest to you rather than reaching over the dog. Dogs normally welcome and warm up to people quickly when greeted this way. People often greet dogs in a way that makes them uncomfortable – straight on with lots of eye contact followed by bending over the dog and petting it right on top of the head. Watch how dogs react when you try to greet them this way. They often backup and/or look away – they are uncomfortable being greeted in this manner. If you decide to touch the head of a dog it is much nicer to go for the side of the face or under the chin. Take every opportunity to teach children how to properly introduce themselves to your dog and other dogs.
USE CALMING SIGNALS TO DIFFUSE AN AGGRESSIVE APPROACH BY A DOG – If you ever find yourself in a situation where a dog is coming right at you growling and barking the first thing to do turn your head and avert your eyes, then slowly pivot to your side and put the majority or your weight on the foot furthest from the dog, and do your best breath normally.
Most play sessions begin with the ceremonial PLAY BOW – a dog that bends its front elbows and holds its rear-end high in the air is saying, “I want to play and everything you are about to experience is in the name of play.” Dogs use this signal with other dogs and people. I often do a human version of a play bow when trying to loosen up a dog that is a bit timid – it seems to be well understood and often results in play. Try it with your dog the next time you’d like to play a game.
Many dogs also use a PLAY FACE – mouth is wide open and relaxed with the tongue often hanging out to side, and they have a soft, goofy look on their face.
PLAY SNEEZE – Dog shakes head with eyes closed and blows hard through nose. This doesn’t seem to be common language to all dogs but some dog’s sneeze when they want to play or get excited. Try sneezing through your nose (not your mouth) in front of your dog and see what kind of reaction you get. I once had a dog that would go get a toy every time I sneezed this way.
There are many different play styles among dogs. There are dogs who like to nothing better than a good roll-n-tumble with lots of mouthing; dogs who like to make lots of noise when they play; dogs that get a blast out of games like chase or tag and still others who like to do the butt-bump…etc. The important thing to remember is that most dogs prefer to play with dogs that have a play style closely matching their own. Many purebred dogs develop a play style that is common to their breed and play well with other dogs of the same breed. My dog loves to play chase and tag but is very uncomfortable with roll-n-tumble games so I take her out of situations where that kind of play is taking place. If you find yourself in a situation where your dog is playing with another dog and either dog appears overwhelmed, fearful or anxious you should stop the play session. And always remember that any dog backed into a corner or against a wall should be relieved immediately. If a dog is frightened and has no way to flee it may decide it needs to fight its way out of the situation.
PAW LIFT – I’m a bit anxious - OR - there’s a thorn in my paw.
HIP/BUTT BUMP - I like and trust you – OR – would you mind scratching the base of my tail?
DOG SMILE – Dog is doing its version of a human smile. This gesture is only used with humans and is considered a sign of pacification. People who aren’t used to seeing a dog smile may think they are being threatened as the lips are pulled up and back exposing the teeth and the nose is often crinkled. If the dog’ body language is fluid and relaxed – it’s probably just a smile.
SIGHS – I’m content now and think I’ll settle here for a bit – OR - I give up.
ROLLING BACK/SHOULDERS ON THE GROUND – Life is great - OR – there’s something really stinky down here and I want to smell just like it!
KISSES - I’m your servant and friend - OR - I’m hungry.
MUZZLE NUDGE or SINGLE BARK – Please acknowledge me - OR - I want…
THE FULLY BODY SHAKE – Dogs often do this after being exposed to a situation that made them tense. They are quite literally shaking-off the left over tension. You will probably see this most often just after your dog has finished greeting another dog.
COCKING THE HEAD FROM SIDE-TO-SIDE – Dogs may do this when they hear a strange noise or when you try to tell them a story. It seems to mean something like “That was interesting – please do it again or tell me more…I’m not quite sure I understand the meaning yet.”
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