Canine Communication - Calming Signals

Canine communication is both fascinating and also essential when handling all types of dogs. It can help owners intervene in situations before they become problematic, and can give a huge insight into what a dog is really feeling.

As dog owners we often think that we know what our dog is thinking, we can tell by their body language how they are generally feeling, and in many cases we are correct. Dogs are pretty obvious with their intentions and feelings, but there's so much more to their language. Dogs have a highly complex and intricate body language that is fundamental for their co existence with both fellow canines and humans.

Calming signals

Calming signals are a dog's way of avoiding conflict with both humans and other dogs. They are how dogs communicate whilst stressed or feeling unsure, these signals are used to avoid unwanted conflicts and calm certain situations down for themselves and for others. We often look at a dog's tail and body posture to gauge how they are feeling in a situation, but there are so many other subtle signals dogs give to each other (and humans) to communicate their feelings.

We all see dogs at the park enjoying themselves, their tails are wagging and they're mostly engaging in play with other dogs or their favourite human. But when two dogs meet for very first time their body language is very different.

In order for two dogs to interact with one another they will always look to avoid conflict, this is know as conflict solving. When two dogs meet for the first time, there is an etiquette to how they meet and greet one another. If one or both dogs do not adhere to these signals or apply what is considered polite, there will most likely be a conflict between the two. So what are these signals and how do they work?

If you watch two dogs meeting for the first time, you will notice several micro discreet actions. Firstly, one or both dogs will avoid direct eye contact, both will angle their bodies so that they're not facing each other square on - if two dogs do display this, they will either want to challenge one another or are well known friends. Or they are a pair of puppy goof-balls that do not understand the correct procedures as yet! Always monitor your puppy during play, and always be their advocate if they are feeling overwhelmed or being bullied.

Other actions during first time meet and greets are the tongue flick. Many dogs will do this when approaching a new dog, it basically means 'Hi, I am not a threat and do not want to challenge you, I just want to sniff and greet politely'. (Watch your dog next time you're at the dog park and see how they interact with new dogs, look for the side angled approach and tongue flick).

Dogs also do this with humans, it's the same principle, but people tend to miss understand what the dog is saying. As humans we tend to behave as we do with other humans, lots of direct eye contact, which is often seen as threatening to some dogs, especially nervous or socially awkward ones. Many dogs are completely comfortable with this, but then there are ones who are not. (When approaching these types of dogs, always drop your eye contact away from them and allow them to approach you when they are ready).

Cameras & dogs

I have many dogs who will avoid the camera, and then there are the ones who are complete posers! Why do some dogs avoid the camera? Directing a camera into a dog's face to take a picture can be very intimidating to some dogs, you're directing your eyes, face and camera toward them, which can be portrayed as a challenge to some dogs. The introverted types tend to shy away from the camera and all direct eye contact, whereas the less introverted will happily sit and pose for the camera, but even then they may feel a little unsure (see picture below).

Although Axel knows and trusts me, he's still unsure of the camera being pointed at his face whilst I take the shot. Classic tongue flick.


Yawning is another calming signal that dogs use to resolve conflict. Your dog may yawn when at the veterinarian’s office or when being approached by a stranger, or when being told off. Again it's a way of saying 'I'm not comfortable with this situation and I do not want any conflict'. For example, you return home to find that your shoes have been eaten, obviously you're upset and angry, your dog will display many avoidance behaviours, such as tail tuck, hiding away from you and then a stress yawn. The stress yawn is very wide and exaggerated, dogs do this to relieve themselves when they feel stressed and to tell others of their feelings. (Please note that your dog does not chew and destroy your things whilst you're away to punish you for leaving them, they do this as a coping mechanism as they're stressed and experiencing separation anxiety, it's a way of alleviating the stress that they are feeling whilst you are gone. If your dog is doing this then you need to seek further guidance).

Another fascinating canine body language is the 'shake off', this often occurs after two dogs have had a conflict with one another. For example, one dog has a ball and the other dog keeps trying to take it away, the dog that has the ball gets annoyed and asserts himself over the other dog ... after a couple of seconds both dogs will shake it off. Again, this is a stress reliever and tells the other dog that whatever was the issue is now done and dusted. Lesson learnt.

Archie has no problems with the camera :)

We are so privileged to share out lives with dogs, they give so much, but are often misunderstood. We so often try and relate to them as we do to ourselves, dogs are amazing creatures that do mimic us and try to appease us in so many ways, but they are dogs not humans. As owners and guardians it is so important that we try and understand them the best that we can.

For anyone who'd like to look into canine communication further, there is a book by Turid Rugaas 'On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals'. This book is very insightful, and will give you a greater insight into your dog's behaviour. It's one of my favourite canine behaviour books as it's so informative, yet so simple.