When we think about dogs “talking” to each other most people imagine a hidden language in the barking of dogs. Some brush it off as figments of a Hollywood movie director’s imagination. Both are however inaccurate. Dogs have a rich language comprising of not just of vocalisations but also facial expressions and body language. Turid Rugaas coined the term ‘calming signals’ for this. An animal as social as a dog needs such a language. And the best part is that they use this language with us as well. Learning this language not only enables us to understand our dogs better but in some cases helps us reciprocate the communication too.
Calming signals are used by dogs when they are uncertain or want to communicate peaceful intent. They use it a bit like a polite ‘Hi’. It’s also used when tensions mount and they need to say “Calm down” either to themselves or to the stressed dog / person around. There are over 30 such signals. Let’s look at what some of the most common ones are.
Licking Lips: This is a very subtle signal, most times not much more than just a flick of the tip of the tongue. It’s often easier to observe when others are interacting with a dog, instead of trying to observe during your own interactions.
Yawning: A dog will often offer this when you get angry around him. It is often mistaken for the dog’s disinterest in the situation. But in fact it’s his effort to calm people down.
Turning away: This could be a subtle turning away of the head or a more intense turning away of the whole body. When people try to hug their dog or walk straight up to a dog, a dog will often do this. If a dog is approaching you, turning your head away is a good idea. It’s just polite.
Play bow: We recognise this as a dog’s invitation to play. A call to play is an attempt to diffuse a tense situation and hence is an effective calming signal too.
Sniffing the ground: The dog may suddenly seem to lose interest in the situation and start sniffing when things get tense. Of course, sometimes a dog is just gathering information with his nose. Look for context to know the difference.
Walking slow or lifting one paw: This is easy to see when a dog spots another animal at a distance. He might slow down or almost come to a halt with one paw in the air. You too can slow down when approaching a dog. It will calm nervous dogs down.
Sitting down: I have often seen this when people are pulling a dog on a leash and yelling at the dog. The dog sits down and people interpret this as the dog being stubborn, while in fact the dog is trying to calm the person down. The dog may also sit facing away.
Walking in a curve: The next time you see two street dogs observe how they approach each other. They never walk directly up to each other. They walk in an arc. It’s a polite way of approaching each other in the dog world. They appreciate the same of humans too. Never walk up directly to a dog.
While you can reciprocate with some signals, don’t assume that it will always be effective, especially when stress levels are high. Exercise discretion.
When do dogs stop showing these signals? Dogs stop giving these signals under certain situations:
- If they have been punished for these signals in the past
- If their signals are always ignored
- If the stress level is too much for them to signal (For example: meeting too many dogs at one shot, so they don’t have time to carefully signal to them and set up “polite talk”)
- If they are sick or in pain
- If they are depressed
- If they are suffering from chronic stress
So a dog might be “talking to you” more than you realize. We don’t always needs words to express do we? Well, our dogs need no words at all. They communicate so much in silence. But most of us listen only when they bark. Once you learn to listen to their silent language of Calming Signals, we might be pleasantly surprised with how chatty our dogs really our. And the irony of their language is that their words are much louder to us the quieter it gets around. So, enjoy hours of quiet observation of dogs or should I say “eves dropping” on dogs 😉