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Reading Dog Body Language:
Calming and Play signals

Reading dog body language can be tricky if you don't know what you are looking at. This is specially true with calming signals, which are body postures dogs use to calm other dogs or even themselves.

It is not natural for dogs to walk around other dogs they don't know, calming signals are essential to keep things cool and prevent unwanted fights. If you learn to read your dog's body calming signals, you will be able to take her/him out of a stressful situation.

Reading dog body language calming signals is also useful to take your dog away from a potentially dangerous situation, you can read these signals in your dog or another dog and separate them before things get worse.

You can also use calming signals yourself to appease your pooch or a strange and fearful dog. Dogs will also show calming signals to humans, reading dog body language will be essential to stop doing something you probably shouldn't.

Reading dog body language: Calming signals

Turid Rugaas is an expert dog trainer with over 25 years of experience. She has observed thousands of dogs in many different situations. This has enabled her to isolate specific behaviors that she calls "Calming Signals".

Calming signals are behaviors dogs perform in stressful situations to calm themselves and calm the other dog (or person) in that situation.

Because dogs do have a hierarchy, it is important that they have signals to tell each other things like "I'm in charge here, but I mean you no harm" or "I know you are in charge, I do not want any problems!".

Luckily these signals seem to have come from an evolutionary past and most dogs will know them from puppy-hood, although some dog trainer also suggest that many of these signals are taught by the parents, so puppies taken too early away from their mom and litter may have difficulty understanding them.

Other dogs may loose this knowledge because of certain experiences while some will be great at using them and staying out of trouble. So, all we need to do is learn how to recognize them and act accordingly.

For example: if you notice your pet is showing calming signals to a strange dog in the park, but the stranger is not recognizing these signals and continues being threatening...it's time to act and get your friend out of that situation immediately!

Reading dog body language: Facial calming signals

Photo courtesy of blumenbiene

  • Head turning: Just like giving your back to someone else can be a calming signal, turning your head is done as a pacifying cue. It can be a quick movement or a steady position. Notice when dog's meet that head turning is a common signal to keep the situation under control. Note: in the picture it is combined with the play bow.

  • Blinking/squinting: Because direct eye contact can be threatening, blinking or squinting is used as a calming signal to emphasize the point that "I am not looking at you in a threatening way".

"I'm uncomfortable"
  • Licking the nose or lips: A really fast movement done with the tongue sticking out vertically to the nose. It is a signal that the dog is uncomfortable about something.
    When reading dog body language, do not confuse with lip licking because the dog wants to eat!
This dog is yawning and avoiding eye contact.
  • Yawning: in the appropriate context, yawning means that the dog is also stressed or uncomfortable. This usually happens when owners hug their best friend. Most dogs don't like it but will tolerate it. You might also see yawning when you are particularly anxious and unintentionally being a little strict with your canine friend.

Calming signals postures

  • Laying down belly down: have you ever seen a dog that in the middle of play time just drops down to the floor? That is the kind of down that means "Time-up!, let's cool off".
dog calming signal laying down by El Caganer

Photo courtesy of El Caganer.

  • Laying down belly up: This is a passive submissive posture. It communicates "peace". It helps ease recognition between dogs. You will notice that most of the time, doing this posture will keep another dog calm. Sometimes big dogs will do it during play time to encourage a smaller dog to play too.
  • Sniffing the ground: Reading dog body language is about understanding certain behaviors too. When dogs feel threatened a great strategy is to sniff the ground and pretend that "I don't see you" or "Hey, I'm not sure who you are or what you want, but this bit of grass smells really interesting and I am going to stay here".
Dog calming signal sniffing the ground by blumenbien

Photo courtesy of blumenbiene.

  • Walking in a curve: Walking in a straight line is threatening. Instead, walk in a curve to signal friendship. Use this strategy when walking with your dog and approaching another person with their dog.
dog calming signal walking in a circle by Lil Shepher

Photo courtesy of Lil Shepherd.

I have seen this many times when testing dogs and owners for the Canine Good Citizen program. Owners that have come to my classes for 6 weeks and done beautifully suddenly fall apart on test day! The name "test" makes humans tense and dogs can tell. I have seen dogs come to the owner when called reliably, that suddenly find a piece of concrete a lot more interesting on test day!
  • Moving slowly: This can also be a calming signal. Slow movements tend to calm the dog itself and other dogs as well.
  • Turning one's back: If you see dogs turning their back on other hounds, this could be a calming signal. It is saying "I don't want trouble, I'll look the other way".

Happy and Playful Signals

  • Play bow: This is a canine's invitation to play. Specially if you see bouncing from side to side! If there is no bouncing, it might be a calming signal. Pawing can also mean playfulness.

Tail up- shoulders down
  • Puppy mouthing: puppy play tends to look rough but dogs are just having fun! Puppies learn how to use their mouth during play. This is the stage when they learn how hard they can bite before hurting...and they do NOT want to hurt! When you see puppies play mouthing make sure they are not using the whole mouth or pulling down while biting.
  • Yelping: Dogs will yelp to signal they have been hurt. This is how puppies learn. If you see a puppy yelping, but the second dog is not stopping, separate them!
  • Sneezing: I have seen some puppies start sneezing in the middle of a really fun play time. This, in the correct context, can mean that the puppy is having fun!
  • Chasing: Puppies and young pooches love to play chase. They might do a play bow and then run to entice you or another dog to chase them. In a healthy chasing game dogs take turns to chase each other. If you see that a puppy is being chased ALL the time, something is wrong. Stop them and let them take a break apart.

Reading dog body language is an important aspect of dog training.

What is YOUR dog saying? Ask your question or tell us your story!

Other articles in this series:

  1. Introduction to reading dog body language
  2. Fear dog signals
  3. Threatening dog body language

> > >

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