Lip-licking is one of the most common calming signals. (Photo Credit: Dave Lindblom)

What is a calming signal?

Calming signals are behaviors that dogs naturally exhibit when they are feeling stressed and are trying to diffuse a situation. Norwegian dog trainer and author Turid Rugaas coined the phrase “calming signals” and she has identified approximately thirty behaviors as such. These behaviors include: licking the lips, showing the whites of the eye, sniffing the ground, turning away (either just the head, or the entire body), lifting a front paw, yawning, full-body shaking (as if the dog is trying to dry herself off after a bath), and panting. These are documented in her excellent book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.

Clearly, these signals need to be taken in context. A dog that is panting on a hot summer day, or a dog sniffing a popular fire hydrant, is probably not stressed out. Look for these signs when there is a sudden change in the environment, like a person or dog approaching.

Calming signals are crucial during interactions between two or more dogs. A thorough understanding of these signs can help owners prevent altercations and keep dogs safe. Dog fights rarely, if ever, happen “out of the blue” – video analysis almost always reveals multiple calming signals given by one or both dogs prior to the incident.

Also watch for calming signals if your dog is struggling during a training exercise. Someone or something may be stressing him out to the point that he is unable to focus on you. Take note if you see multiple signs at the same time, like panting and sniffing the ground.

Why do I need to know about calming signals?

Dogs naturally use these signals to communicate not only with other dogs, but also with humans. Failure to react to this body language can increase the dog’s stress level, and that stress could result in the dog escalating his body language to the point of a snap or a bite.

“By failing to see your dog using calming signals on you, and perhaps even punish the dog for using them, you risk causing serious harm to your dog. Some may simply give up using the calming signals, including with other dogs. Others may get so desperate and frustrated that they get aggressive, nervous or stressed out as a result. Puppies and young dogs may actually go into a state of shock.” –Turid Rugaas

Calming signals in reactive dogs

It is very common for a reactive dog to offer one or more calming signals immediately prior to having a reaction. By watching for these calming signals, we can potentially diffuse the situation. By rewarding the dog for demonstrating calming signals, we are promoting appropriate behavior (such as turning away) and not giving the dog a chance to practice undesirable behavior (lunging and barking at the trigger).

Ideally, a training session would be set up in such a way that the dog would exhibit few, if any, calming signals. These behaviors are indicative of stress, and our goal is to keep training as stress-free as possible. But, life happens, and stressful things sneak into even the most well-designed training sessions.

Regardless of the training method you are using, learning about calming signals will still benefit your relationship with your dog and help you make more training progress. If you notice your dog exhibiting calming signals, take note. Alleviate some of her stress by getting your dog out of that particular situation. Try again once your dog is feeling more relaxed and comfortable.

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