While most people quickly recognise obvious canine body language like tail-wagging or snarling there are many more signals that a dog can give to indicate how it is feeling. Many of these signals or behaviours indicate a wish to avoid conflict rather than engage in it and may be more subtle and difficult for inexperienced people to pick up. In order to better train, socialise and handle our dogs it is important that we are aware of all the ways they may be communicating with us:
While dogs generally spend far more time using appeasement behaviours and generally avoid confrontation and the use of aggression, it is important that we do note those behaviours/signs which may indicate that the dog is preparing to defend itself with an aggressive display.
Canine Body Language
It is hard to miss vocal displays like barking, snapping or growling. However, any of the following may also be subtle indicators that all is not well: pulling back of the ears flat against the head, stiffening the body, lowering of body posture or standing up to full height, backing up when approached, creeping around behind a person, avoiding eye-contact or staring. These are all warning signs that the dog feels threatened and may consider farther action if you do not back off. It is never advisable to confront or approach a dog that is displaying such behaviour. Backing slowly away from the dog and avoiding eye contact (by turning your head to the side) is the best way to remove yourself from the situation.
Something which many people also notice is raising the hackles (piloerection). It must be remembered that this is a physiological response which indicates autonomic arousal and is something the dog has no control over. It could be as a result of the dog getting a fright or feeling uncomfortable.
A commonly misunderstood behaviour is “grinning”. Some dogs will lift their lips and display their teeth when greeting people they considers friends. Grinning differs from snarling in that the dog lifts the lips straight up and not back. The dog will also have loose body language and may often display other appeasement signals, so this will help to avoid confusion.
Tail wagging is a commonly misunderstood behaviour. While dogs do wag their tails when greeting others and indicating friendly intentions, tail wagging can occur in many situations as a result of various emotional states. Stiff, fast and high tail wagging can be a sign that a dog is about to engage in aggressive behaviour. It is always extremely important to observe the dog’s behaviour as a whole – loose, wriggly body movements with easy, but not constant eye-contact is usually friendly, while stiff, slow body movements, staring or avoidance usually means “stay away”!
Norwegian dog trainer, Turid Rugaas, is renowned for her observation and explanation of “calming signals”, the body language that dogs use in order to avoid conflict. In a world that refuses to let go of the long debunked myth that dogs are out to challenge everyone and rule the world, Turid’s work has great significance, as it reminds us that dogs are in fact not obsessed with fighting for rank and spend most of their lives avoiding confrontation and conflict. Here are some of the most easily recognisable calming signals:
Licking of the lips: Quite often one will observe a nervous dog licking its lips. A slightly bowed head and a gently wagging tail may accompany this behaviour. Owners often attribute this posture to the dog feeling guilty, but it is actually an attempt to placate an owner whose own body language is telling the dog that he is angry or uptight.
Yawning: This behaviour can often be seen when the dog is anxious or excited. If you observe dogs sitting in the vet’s waiting room, you will see that some of them will yawn frequently as they have negative associations with the vet. As their nervousness increases, tension builds up in their face muscles and yawning helps to relieve that tension.
Turning the head away/walking away: Dogs will often indicate that they are unwilling to enter conflict by turning their heads away or walking away from another dog that is trying to make eye contact with them or is growling at them.
Sitting/lying down: Dogs can use sitting and lying down to placate others. Pups quite often roll over in this manner. Lying down makes the dog seem smaller and therefore less threatening, and allows the other dog to sniff them thoroughly. Females will often sit as a calming signal for male dogs that are showing too much interest in them.
Sniffing the ground: When dogs don’t want to play or interact with other dogs or humans, they will sometimes walk away and begin to sniff the ground, showing great interest in the apparent smells and being careful to avoid eye-contact with those around them. Usually the dog or human that was trying to engage this dog in some or other activity will eventually give up and leave the dog alone.
Play Bow: Anyone who has a pup should have observed this behaviour when the pup meets another dog. After initial greetings (sniffing and tail-wagging), pups that wish to play will stretch out their front legs so that their chests virtually touch the ground and raise their hindquarters to display their wagging tails. This signal is carried on into adulthood as well. Sometimes it may be accompanied by high-pitched yapping. *
Walking in an arc when passing a person or dog: When a dog wants to avoid confrontation, it will arc away from the person or dog that it is passing. Sometimes dogs in obedience classes will do this during a recall if they have to pass a dog they are unsure of on the way to their owner.
Separating people/dogs: Dogs may run and place themselves between two dogs that are playing or even fighting in order to prevent or end conflict between these two dogs. Often the dog will focus more on the aggressor, attempting to chase him/her away. Dogs can use this calming signal with humans as well.
Lifting of one paw: This can be an appeasement gesture or sign of mild stress. While intentionally pawing at someone in order to get attention or because the behaviour has been rewarded is another matter, lifting of a paw without any apparent intention usually indicates anxiety or stress.
*While most of the signals above indicate mild stress and usually a wish to avoid something, play bows indicate a willingness to engage in friendly contact.
Calming Signals and Socialising
While socialisation is extremely important, we need to be aware that some of the people or situations we expose our dogs to may cause them to experience anxiety. If you observe any calming signals from your dog, examine how you can alter the situation in order to put him at ease. For example, if a person bends over your puppy and pats him on the head and your puppy turns away and licks his lips, ask the person to rather go down on their haunches and allow the puppy to go to them so that the experience is less threatening.
When out for a walk, you can also observe the body language of other dogs in order to determine whether they are comfortable with you or your dog approaching. In the same way, observe your dog to make sure they are comfortable with dogs that are approaching them. If they are not, then give them space to move away and get out of the situation or ask the owner to remove their dog. It is very important that we protect our dogs from bad experiences and DO NOT allow them to be put in situations where they are pushed to a point where they have to use an aggressive display to get away from something they don’t like, because no one is paying attention to the subtler signals of their discomfort!
Calming Signals and Obedience Training
If your dog moves in an arc when you recall him, it is also quite likely that he does not feel secure enough to approach you from the front. If this is the case, try lightening the tone of your voice and crouching on your haunches so that you sound more encouraging and appear less threatening.
If you try to perform an exercise with your dog and he lies down or looks away instead, it is probably because he does not understand what is required of him and may sense your frustration. If your dog displays a lot of calming signals when you are training him, you are probably putting too much pressure on him and not having enough fun! Avoid stress by returning to simple, fun exercises that your dog does well and use this as an excuse to praise and reward him enthusiastically. A relaxed dog that enjoys training is a pleasure to work with. By using positive, science-based training methods only, we can avoid our dogs feeling stressed during training – calming signals are a sure sign that you are intentionally or unintentionally using punishment in training!
Calming signals and a few common problem behaviours
One of the most common problems in young dogs is jumping up at people. The “turning away”
signal can be used to show the dog that you do not wish to engage with it. This action on your part also means that the dog is not rewarded with any attention at all for jumping. Do not speak to, shout at or shove the dog at all - just turn away and ignore him.
Some dogs have difficulty settling down inside the house and their constant attention-seeking can be a nuisance. A combination of turning one’s head away and yawning can help to settle such dogs.
Dogs on leads can often feel quite defensive around other dogs, because they can’t get away if they want to. When you have to pass another dog, use the “walking in an arc” calming signal to let both your dog and the other dog know that you wish to avoid conflict.
Although dogs are born with the ability to use calming signals, socializing plays an important role in helping to develop these skills. Pups that are taken away from their moms too soon sometimes have difficulty in communicating effectively with other dogs later in life. Once you have adopted your pup, the best thing you can do for him is to allow him to interact with other socially healthy pups and tolerant older dogs. This will ensure that he is well-educated in “doggy-language” and will help him to avoid trouble later in life.