Calming signals

Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour.

“Calming signal” is the term used by Turid Rugaas, author of On talking terms with dogs, to refer to the movements and body language dogs use to maintain the social hierarchy and resolve conflict within the pack. Turid Rugaas has been studying how, by using various body postures, dogs calm themselves and other dogs in situations of stress.

Dogs also use calming signals in reaction to stressful behaviour by their owner. These have often been misunderstood in the past. For example, looking away can be a calming signal. Trainers have interpreted this as a refusal to pay attention, and have responded by punishing the dog. Rugaas is now teaching people to imitate canine signals and use them to better understand and communicate with their dogs.

Calming signals can be given by the more dominant or confident dog as a way of saying “don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you”; or they can be used by submissive dogs or dogs feeling threatened as a way of saying “don’t attack me, I’m not going to challenge you” or by one dog who wishes to communicate (in effect) “cool it, guys” to other dogs. The natural calming signals used instinctively by dogs include:

  • moving slowly
  • moving in an arc rather than approaching head on
  • sniffing the ground
  • sitting or lying down
  • licking the lips
  • turning the head aside
  • blinking, averting eyes, turning away
  • yawning
  • placing themselves in between conflicting parties

Knowledge of calming signals comes from observations of dogs interacting, an approach to animal behaviour known as “ethology”.

Valley gives a huge lip lick.

Rescue dog to be trained as a therapy dog, publicity shot (note the calming signal)

Sniffing the ground can be a calming signal

According to Joyce Kesling, Calming signals are used “to communicate non-aggressive intent. According to Aloff (2002), dogs use these signals with known, unknowns and during play when play escalates and the dog is uncomfortable continuing at that level.

Woodard says that Calming signals can be similar to displacement behaviour however displacement behaviour is directed towards the dog itself whereas calming signals are directed at the other dog or person. The behaviour may include:

  • A paw lift
  • Moving slowly
  • Sitting or Lying down
  • Sneezing
  • Blinking.

Another poster starring Boogie.

For an interesting article with illustrations of calming signals, go to this link calming signals – understanding your pet’s silent language.


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