“I never saw it coming”, “It happened out of nowhere”, just two phrases often heard when incidents with, and between, dogs happen. But did the incident really happen out of nowhere? In almost all cases, there are underlying reasons and signals have been sent by our dogs but were missed by us. Being able to read the language of our dog plays a vital role in keeping them, and those around us safe, and preventing incidents from occurring. When dogs are misunderstood, or signals are missed, they get put into situations which make them feel stressed, anxious, and uncomfortable, which in the worst case might have devastating consequences.
Calming, stress and displacement signals.
Dogs often send subtle signals when they are stressed, nervous and/or uncomfortable. If you are unaware of what these signals are, they can be easily missed and dismissed, causing your dog to result in more extreme behaviours, like lunging, growling and biting to get their point across. To prevent these escalated behaviours, it’s important to recognize these subtle signs and react accordingly.
These same signals often have a dual purpose, and they can also be used to prevent aggression in other individuals, calm others down, and avoid conflict. Because of this these signals are often referred to as calming or appeasement signals. A note that should be placed at using the term calming signals for these behaviours is that some sources are still being critical if these signals have a “calming” effect or are only used as stress signals. Even though current research points to this, some sources say more research should be done.
By responding to a dog’s signals appropriately, you can de-escalate situations and prevent serious incidents from happening. The behaviours listed below are signals that your dog might send when stressed and can be meant as calming signals, but depending on the situation they don’t have to be. It’s always important to look at the context in which signals are sent, and the rest of the body language of the dog. For example, when your dog meets another dog and lays down this might be intended as a calming signal, while if your dog is resting and laying down, this is not a calming signal.
Common signs of stress and calming signals seen in dogs
The following signals can be seen when dogs are stressed and/or trying to diffuse a situation. Some of these signals can also be seen when your dog is feeling conflicted about something. They are subtle signs, and they can be seen when dogs interact with each other, but also when we as humans interact with our dog. Some examples of situations where we as humans may trigger these signals in our dogs are during prolonged or direct eye contact, bending over your dog, yelling, being put in situations where your dog is uncomfortable, etc.
- Nose and/or lip licking
- Smacking of the lips
- Licking the recipient’s mouth
- Softening of the eyes
- Whale eye
- Making the face round by keeping the ears close to the head.
- Head turning
- Turning the body away
- Slow body movements
- Freezing of the body
- Displaying a play bow
- Lying down
- Reducing body size
- Sniffing the ground
- Walking in a curve
- Wagging the tail in a low position
- Paw Raise
Often several signals can be seen simultaneously and not all calming signals have the same efficiency in de-escalating situations.
Categorising the signals
Many of the signals named above can be used in the following context:
- Stress signal
- Appeasement gesture
- Displacement behaviour
When dogs are stressed and/or anxious they will show one or more of the signals named above. Some are a physical response to lower anxiety, while others are bodily movements seen when stressed. There are more signals dogs can show when stressed, but are not seen as an appeasement gesture, such as panting, whining, nervously pacing, and loss of appetite.
Appeasement gestures are used to diffuse situations that pose a potential threat. Behaviours as looking and turning away, smiling and lip licking, are all behaviours that can be seen as an appeasement gesture. Appeasement signals often get misinterpreted as a dog feeling guilty, though there is no such thing. An example of this is when a dog urinates inside and gets scolded. They may display appeasement gestures by making themselves small, looking away and giving a whale eye when the owner responds with anger or annoyance. When these signals are looked at through a human lens instead of that of the dog, they get labelled as feeling guilty, while the dog is actually sending out stress signals because their owner is angry/annoyed and calming signals to diffuse the situation.
The last category in which we can see the signals are displacement behaviours. We speak of displacement behaviour when a dog shows a normal behaviour at an “incorrect” time. This type of behaviour is seen when a dog is feeling internally conflicted and will engage in behaviour that has nothing to do with the situation. An example of a displacement behaviour would be if your dog wants to approach something, but is unsure about it at the same time, and suddenly starts scratching themselves out of nowhere. The sudden scratching is the displacement behaviour. Studies have shown direct links between anxiety and displacement behaviours. There are more displacement behaviours seen which are not considered stress and calming signals like suddenly biting the lead.
Dogs often send us subtle signs that are easily missed. Rightly interpreting those signals can even be harder. Whether signals are merely used as a sign of stress, or also as calming gestures, at least we can conclude that calming signals are often seen in a situation where dogs are uncomfortable. And to prevent incidents from happening we should react and intervene accordingly.