Dogs have many ways of communicating with us and we are probably familiar with a few of them, for example a friendly tail wag to say hello, or a persistent pawing on your leg when they want a tummy rub. Dogs may also use calming signals, which describe a method of communication used to promote peace and stave off aggression within the pack. Remember, dogs are pack animals, like wolves, and they display calming signals to let others know that they’re friendly and to help diffuse stressful situations.
Calming signals in dogs can be quite subtle, so many owners may miss them altogether. Others may mistakenly punish their dogs for giving a calming signal in a case of miscommunication. Understanding this important method of canine communication is crucial to having a close connection with your dog.
Dogs are incredibly perceptive and can be trained to respond to a whispered command. However, there are many owners who reprimand their dogs with a firm loud voice. To your dog, this angry-sounding voice may elicit calming signals, which your dog may use to show you there’s no need to yell. In turn, an owner expecting a dog to obey a command, may get increasingly angry when the dog appears to blatantly disobey, e.g. by turning away or yawning.
The end result is a dog that may get punished for trying to communicate a useful message. Ultimately, if you fail to notice or respond to your dog’s calming signals, he may stop giving them altogether. Alternatively, some dogs whose calming signals are ignored become nervous, stressed or aggressive, and young dogs may go into a state of shock.
The problem is that, while all dogs understand the language of calming signals, and will generally respond by calming down, most humans miss these subtle cues from their dogs. We, as dog owners, need to learn these calming signs so that we can understand what it is our dogs are trying to tell us.
When a dog is in a stressful situation, such as being at the vet’s consultation room, or when a stranger walks directly toward it, or when there’s yelling, or even when there’s positive stress, e.g anticipating a walk, your dog may use calming signals.
There are about 30 different calming signals your dog may use. Here are some common examples to keep an eye out for:
If your dog gives you a calming signal, try to respond in a calm manner: e.g. lower your voice and slow your movements. In times when your dog is stressed, you can also try to calm your dog by sharing a calming signal such as blinking slowly, yawning, turning or looking away, or licking your lips.
Taking relaxing, deep, full breaths can also be beneficial for both of you. Keep in mind that you should not assume that calming signals will subdue an aggressive dog or ensure that an unfamiliar dog will be friendly. However, they are useful to communicate with your own dog to strengthen your bond and deepen your level of understanding.