Dogs by necessity have developed a form of communication that can be understood by dogs around the world. Sadly, people, relying more on speech for communication, frequently are not aware that the dog is trying to communicate with them, can not fully understand the communication, or especially in the case of small children, misunderstands the communication. It is vitally important for dog owners as well as the general public to understand at least the basic language of dogs.
One type of signal is the calming signals. Calming signals are used by dogs to alert those near him that he is not a threat or that he would appreciate some consideration and quiet if those around him are becoming too wild and obnoxious. They also help to calm the dog down when he finds himself in a stressful situation.
While Turgid Rugas has identified thirty different signals in her research in Norway, there are several which are the most common and more easily identifiable. These are head turning, turning away the body, sniffing intensely, lip licking and yawning.
HEAD OR BODY TURNING
This is one of the most commonly used of the calming signals. The dog will turn his head away from someone who is approaching or is too close, or another dog. This can include turning the head, body or turning his back to the possible threat. Some dogs may actually turn their backs and sit down. A more subtle version of this signal is when the dog moves his eyes from side to side. A dog may do this if they feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. Instances where dogs may use physically turning away include someone leaning over them to pet them, a person or dog walking up to them, or someone approaching who is obviously angry or threatening.
When a dog sniffs very intently at one spot, even briefly, he may be trying to calm himself down or calm a fast approaching person or dog. This is different from the normal sniffing around for “news,” as they are more focused on this one particular spot and do not move from it. They may use this in a large group of dogs, such as at the training center or dog park, or when they are in a new situation that they are unfamiliar with.
Lip licking can be used in greeting or for calming, so it can be confusing or misinterpreted. Most dog owners are very familiar with the enthusiastic licking when they are greeted by their dogs after being away, but are less familiar with the smaller lip licking when a dog is trying to calm themselves, another dog or person. Sometimes it is just a quick flick of the tongue, so can be easily missed.
Yawning can have several meanings. A dog can yawn when he is bored, tired or stressed. You might see your dog yawning if you are trying to train him something which he doesn’t understand. He will also yawn to show friendliness towards another dog or is insecure.
If you train yourself to pay attention to the signals that your dog is offering and note what is happening at the time, you can develop a closer relation to your dog, as well as understand what an unknown dog may be trying to say. Understanding that what he is offering may be simply his stress or insecurities in a situation will help you to look at how you can change your personal reaction to your dog and work more closely with him. While this may take some work and dedication, it will be well worth the time.
To learn more about other signals of the dog, read Clarice Rutherford’s book A Dog is a Dog available from Alpine Publications.