Everyone has thought it would be nice to know what your dog is thinking at some point or another. While we may never be able to hold a meaningful conversation with our dogs, we actually can communicate with them in an impactful way. Dogs have always had a genetic and universal language that they use to communicate with each other and humans. Most of what dogs are “saying” is through body language, using small movements of the eyes, ears, and mouth. We call these body language cues calming signals. This language is commonly used between dogs (and towards humans) to communicate their peaceful intentions, diffuse tense situations, and generally ease stress in themselves or others.
Knowing what cues to look for will help you better understand how your dog is feeling.
“While we may never be able to hold a meaningful conversation with our dogs, we actually can communicate with them in an impactful way.”
Are You Missing the Signs?
Dogs can use calming signals as young as 7 hours old, but some dogs may seem to have lost their language. No dog ever truly loses their language, but it can be suppressed by repeated instances where the dog was ignored while trying to communicate. Imagine if you were effectively yelling how you were feeling and no one ever listened to you, then totally disregarded your attempts at communication. It might be enough to make you give up on trying to communicate with whoever was ignoring you.
Another reason a dog might “lose” its language is if it was punished for using certain cues, like a lip curl or snarl. Those are actually cues letting other dogs or people know that a dog needs more space and is very uncomfortable with a situation. If a human saw that lip curl and punished the dog for it, that dog might be less inclined to give that warning cue next time since it was ignored and punished the time before. In the rest of this article, I will give you 5 commonly missed cues your dog sends you that you miss, and how you can also communicate with your own dog in their language!
Tongue Flick/Nose Lick This calming signal is a very easy one to miss or misinterpret. The tongue flick is typically a short cue that dogs send to us in an attempt to calm us down or to self-soothe themselves. We see tongue flicks from dogs when they are trying to tell us they are overwhelmed, such as being handled at the veterinarian’s office or when a person bends over a dog (a very intimidating position) to pet them.
If you want to pet a friendly dog, try kneeling down on their level and aiming to pet their chest or shoulders instead of the top of their head. What many people assume is their dog licking their chops may actually be your dog trying to calm you down with a nose lick. Even if you or someone was not yelling at the dog, your canine friend may still send this “louder” cue in an attempt to ease tension and calm everyone down. He also may send this cue after being told off for getting into the trash again.
Head Turn/Body Turn Dogs consider staring to be rude behavior, along with being approached directly head-on. If you think your dog is ignoring you in the park as you are calling him back, he may actually be hearing the strain or annoyed tone in your voice and he wants you to ease some of that stress, so he gives you the calming signals he knows. A head turn is a smaller cue and might be accompanied by displacement behavior such as sniffing the ground. Your dog is trying to show you, “Hey, we are all happy here, you don’t need to be worried!”
If your dog starts coming back to you and then veers off in a curve, that isn’t necessarily him blatantly ignoring you, it is a body turn cue. A body turn can be understood as the all caps version of a head turn. A body turn is commonly seen when two dogs greet each other and one seems to not be interested, when in reality he is being polite. He also may be letting the other dog know he is a little uncomfortable with how the other dog greeted him. Dogs that are particularly good communicators may see these cues and return the cue with a head turn or different calming signal of their own, letting the first dog know the message was received.
Softening of the Eyes and Excessive Blinking Since blinking is a normal bodily function, this set of signals can be hard for the untrained eye to pick up on. We usually see these signals in conjunction with one or more other calming signals. These signals help let other dogs and people know your dog isn’t staring in a threatening way. Alert, focused, wide-eyed staring will likely make dogs tense or stressed. Softening of the eyes looks like your dog is squinting, even if it is not bright inside the house or sunny outside.
Excessive blinking can communicate that a dog is very uncomfortable with a situation and is trying to show others he is totally non-threatening and needs some space. A perfect example of these calming signals can be seen in a video of Cesar Milan and Holly the Labrador, where Cesar ignores every single cue Holly gives while staring her down, trying to make her submit to him. Milan ends up getting bitten, and I should say he deserves it as he was given every signal Holly knew and he just ignored them all. That situation is one way a dog may give up on using its genetic language; Holly was effectively screaming, “I need space, please leave me alone,” and no one was listening to her.
Sitting/Down Often, dogs will sit or lie down in the middle of playing to let their playmate know they need a break. Lying down on the belly is a calming signal; lying down on the back is submission. In general, lying down is a very strong cue. Lying down is also used by adult or larger dogs when young or small dogs seem afraid or overwhelmed. The bigger dog is trying to get down on the smaller dog’s level to appear less threatening and intimidating.
You can lie down yourself to help alleviate your dog’s stress or to show an unfamiliar dog who is scared of you that you are nothing to be afraid of and they can calm down. If your dog is restless, try lying down on the sofa and see if your dog comes over or settles down himself. I was a dog walker for several years, and in an emergency visit, I had to enter a totally new house where the dog had never met me. He was rightly upset by my presence in his home and put on a big show trying to get me to leave. It took me a while, but I was eventually able to leash what was previously a barking, snarling, snapping, and scared dog by lying down and sending him other calming signals.
Yawning Yawning is one of the most commonly seen calming signals. You can easily use this signal, as well. When your dog is uneasy, nervous, stressed, worried, or when you think he needs to calm down, send several yawning cues to your dog. This, coupled with lying down on the couch, is a great way to help your dog ease some stress. A dog may use this signal when they are held too tight, picked up in the air, being hugged, or when people nearby are arguing/being loud. Yawning is used as a self-soothing act that helps relieve tension as well as a communicative act. Of my two dogs, my dachshund uses tongue flicks and licking more often than my terrier mix, who uses yawning quite frequently.
“Dogs are always communicating; are you listening?”
Give Dog Language a Try!
There are many more calming signals dogs use. I have merely gone over a handful and given you a few examples of the commonly missed and misinterpreted signals. Hopefully, I have equipped you with a better understanding of dog language and a desire in yourself to look for these signals from your own dog and others.
You can easily try all of the signals I have gone over with your own dogs, or even unfamiliar dogs. Try to send calming signals to a new dog and see if they return your signals or even come over to say hello! During my time as a dog walker and pet sitter, I used all of these signals and more when meeting new dogs, and their owners were commonly surprised at how quickly their shy or nervous dogs warmed up to me! The emergency situation I described earlier just goes to show how effective calming signals are if only we take the time to learn this simple language and understand how to use it.
Dogs are always communicating; are you listening?
Works Cited: Rugaas, Turid. On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Dogwise Publishing, 1997.
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