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Calming Signals

Brandy, a four month old Golden Retriever, spent the first night of puppy class hiding behind Mom’s legs. Mom noticed that Brandy was yawning an awful lot, especially whenever another pup looked in Brandy’s direction. Mom approached the instructor at the end of the hour and asked whether Brandy was bored with class. The instructor replied, “A bit fearful, yes. Bored, no.” Here’s why…

Brandy was exhibiting what author Turid Rugaas terms “calming signals.” Wolf ethologists have studied these same canine communications for years and term them “cutoff signals,” because they often diffuse a conflict before it escalates into physical violence. (It’s like one wolf crying, “Uncle!”) Whatever you choose to call them, these subtle behaviors are seen when a dog is stressed. They are often present when two dogs meet. One dog uses the signals to let the other know they are not a threat. The other dog recognizes the signals, and often responds with calming signals of their own. Conflict is avoided. It’s fascinating!

Once aware of calming signals, many owners are surprised to notice just how often their dog displays them. Two of the most common signals are yawning and lip licking. Sure, your dog will yawn and lick his lips for other reasons, but if you watch carefully the next time you’re at the vet’s office or in any potentially canine-stressful situation, I’ll bet you’ll catch your dog throwing one of those two signals. Remember our friend Bashful Brandy? She wasn’t bored, she was fearful of the other dogs in class and yawning because of stress.

Other canine calming signals include turning away with the entire body or just the head, averting the eyes, or developing a sudden interest in something fascinating on the ground. All of these physically turn the dog away from facing the Scary Thing head-on. (Tip: When you walk your dog, approaching another dog head-to-head straight on can be confrontational. Making a wide arc around each other is more natural, and allows a less threatening, sideways presentation.) Another turning-away type signal is the dog developing a sudden itch: “I’ll be right with you, Scary Thing, just as soon as I turn away to bite at this sudden itch on my rear!”

Believe it or not, people can use calming signals to help put dogs at ease. Try this: The next time your dog looks stressed, get his attention and then yawn exaggeratedly or lick your lips repeatedly. You might be surprised. He might reply with calming signals of his own, or simply visibly relax. Although you can use any of the signals, use your own judgment regarding scratching in public!

Learning to recognize stress signals in your own dog is immensely helpful. Doing so allows you to catch the first signs of anxiety so you can remove or distance your dog from the stressor before the situation escalates into something else, such as barking or lunging to make the Scary Thing go away. Being observant of these signals is also helpful during training sessions, to monitor when you might be pushing your dog too hard, or whether he needs a play break. Observe your dog as he meets and greets other dogs and people, and you’ll notice signals being exchanged. You’ll gain valuable information as to when he’s uncomfortable with the way someone is greeting him, or with the presence of another dog.

For more information on calming signals, read my book Help for Your Fearful Dog and Turid Rugaas’ book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Once you’re familiar with these signals, it’s like a secret world of canine communication has opened up!

Copyright 2001 Nicole Wilde.

(This article originally appeared in Simply4Pets Magazine.)

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