Where Eagles and Herons Watch Dogs (32KB)

Calming Signals

Lessons by Kumbi

Kwali does her share

Learning to see and use
canine calming signals

a quick primer

Article date: 7 February 2005


Turid Rugaas, who coined the term "calming signals," has spent most of her life studying dogs and their body language, and is kind enough to share her work, wherever she has the opportunity. I have studied her work in detail, and tried and tested it, and I use it all the time.

Calming signals are the canine Language of Peace. Ethologists were aware that wolves and dogs use certain signals to stop conflict in progress, but Turid Rugaas, with colleagues, discovered that they also use the signals to prevent conflict from developing in the first place.

Dogs use the signals any time they meet a new situation, a new creature, or even an old friend. The calming signals work like polite greetings, putting other creatures at ease.

Basic facts about calming signals

All dogs are born with the capability for using calming signals. They develop their skills while with their littermates and dam. Turid says that by the time puppies are six or seven weeks old, they are already experts with the signals.

Their learning does depend on the breeder allowing the puppies to be together and with their dam, and supporting the dogs by providing appropriate care and environments.

Common questions about calming signals

Question When a dog gives off calming signals, does that mean the dog is stressed?

Answer Sometimes it does. Typically dogs give off calming signals when they reach a certain, fairly low, level of stress. At other times, though, dogs use them as polite greetings. They do this to keep everyone, including themselves, friendly and comfortable.

Question If I yawn at my dog, or lick my lips, will my dog think I'm stressed, or become afraid because she thinks I am worried about something?

Answer Turid says, no, dogs don't think we are stressed or worried if we use the signals. I've noticed that, on the contrary, they usually respond with their own preferred signals. That shows us they are understanding us. We can see them becoming more, not less, comfortable with us.

Question What can I do to help my dog be less timid and afraid?

Answer First and always, do all you can to reduce stress in your dog's life. That means not teasing your dog into playing games that humans think dogs love because the dog pants and grins. Teasing dogs into playing games includes wrestling with dogs, throwing things for them to fetch, taking them into competitive dog-sports, playing tug with them.

If you are kneeling and your dog burrows into you, perhaps goes under you, that's fine! You can cuddle gently instead of trying to wrestle as though you're a dog. Dogs give wonderful hints, and respond well when we take their hints. When making physical contact, if you let the dog lead the way, you will find your dog responds well and remains comfortable.

Helpful stress-reducing games for dogs include anything that dogs naturally do when they are feeling fairly relaxed, but very much interested in the world they live in. Anything that involves using their noses or exploring is especially wonderful for dogs.

Question What's the difference between calming signals and signs of stress?

Answer Calming signals are deliberate communication with other dogs, or sometimes, from the dog to itself. Signs of stress are often involuntary physiological responses, such as such as losing hair or dander, trembling, sweating from the paws so you can see their tracks on a tile floor, panting a lot.

Question I can't see the signals. How can I learn to see them?

Answer The easiest way to learn is to go and watch dogs when they are together. I suggest leaving your dogs at home, so you aren't distracted by the need to take care of them.

When dogs are under stress and pressure, such as at dog-sports events, they will use the signals. But for the very best training in seeing what dogs can and will do with the signals, try going where they have plenty of space to move around in, and their humans aren't constantly interrupting them. Watch the dances dogs do, using the signals, when running free and comfortable with each other. When they have the space, without crowding, the exchanges of signals sometimes brings tears to my eyes, because it is so beautiful, and so very, very skilled.

When you go learning, pick one or two signals at a time to look for. It's too easy to miss some because we try to see all of them at once. You could decide,"I'm going to watch for head-turning away today, and lip-licking tomorrow."

Question Why can I see other dogs using the signals, but I can't see my own dogs using them?

Answer It's always harder to see the signals in our own dogs. We tend to make up stories about our dogs, and that makes it difficult for us to stand back and observe as though we didn't know our own dogs. Also, we are so used to seeing what our dogs are doing that we might not notice the signals until somebody else comes along and points them out. That's what life is like when we live very closely with other creatures.

Question All the calming signals have other functions as well, so how can I tell when a dog is using calming signals and when it's just doing the function?

Answer The easiest way to see is when dogs respond to each other with the signals. Then there can be no doubt. Also, you can tell if you try some signals on a dog, and the dog returns signals to you.

Question My dog gives off exaggerated signals, as though he were slinking past another dog. He looks as though he's afraid. Then sometimes, another dog, instead of respecting the signals by returning them, or by leaving my dog alone, rushes up and attacks my dog! What is going on here?

Answer Adolescent dogs, like adolescent humans, may ignore social communication, and explore the world they live in with exuberance. These dogs might pester other dogs, or try to play too roughly.

Dogs who actively attack other dogs have usually been badly frightened by other dogs, or by their humans in the presence of other dogs.

If you keep in mind the essential principle of how dogs and other animals learn, that they (and we!) learn by association, that will help you understand a lot of behavior you see.

Question Aren't calming signals gestures of appeasement?

Answer Many people have said that and continue to say it. Humans who think in terms of power struggle, of winning and losing, commonly make this error in classification. Dogs actively and deliberately use the signals to assure a friendly venue in the first place, so nothing bad happens. It's preventive, not appeasing, action.

Dogs do this during any change of location or environment, during comings and goings. They lay the groundwork for safety and pleasure. And yes, they can use the signals to appease as well.

Question When I ask my dog to do something, he tries to bother me by doing everything as slowly as possible. Or he looks away, and even turns his back, ignoring me completely. Is he stubborn? Isn't he disobedient?

Answer Dogs watch us, their human caretakers, with precision and accuracy. They often know us better than we know ourselves. If we are tense or anxious, they do all in their power to calm us. One of the common signals is to move slowly. Another is to look away, a third is to turn the back to the anxious creature.

Question A few days ago, my young dog growled when I reached for his collar. Later, he tried to bite my husband when my husband went to put his leash on to take him for a walk. Is he getting aggressive? I'm really worried.

Answer We humans worry terribly about possible aggression in dogs, often with good reason; we can expect other humans to misunderstand our dogs sometimes.

A growl never hurt another body! It's an early-warning system. Do you never grumble at your spouse? Your children? Also, sometimes dogs talk with sounds that sound to us like warnings, but they are not. When you know calming signals, you can tell the difference between talking-growls and warning-growls.

It's important to allow warnings, and to change our own behavior accordingly. Dogs will tell us when they are worried or feel threatened, or are overwhelmed, just as humans sometimes will. It's quite possible your dog needs a bit of a rest and a break. Try letting him have some time to relax, without putting demands on him.

Maybe tomorrow, you will say, "I let him rest for the afternoon, and then I let him go find a few treats around the house. When I picked up his leash, I turned my side to him and looked away, and he came to me because he knew we were going for a walk. Then I took his collar without problems. My husband watched, and then did the same, and my dog let him put the leash on, too.

Question I have two dogs. Sometimes they start fighting. What can I do about that? I want them to get along easily.

Answer Again, do all you can to reduce stress for both your dogs. If a situation is getting tricky, you can use the splitting-up calming signal. Say nothing. Go very gently, easing your way, between the two dogs. You can hold the flat of your palm toward a dog to help calm, turning your side or back to the dog. See to it both dogs get adequate rest, and do your best to meet all the dogs' real needs. Doing that brings us the most wonderfully well-behaved dogs, with not a command in hearing or sight.

What you can do to learn to see and use calming signals
and have fun with your dog

First, study as much of the work of Turid Rugaas you can get your hands on. Study it once, twice. Set it aside, and go out watching dogs.

After you've done a lot of watching and had a break from studying Turid's work, return to her work and read, watch again. You will see all kinds of things you didn't see before.

It's easiest to see the signals well when dogs return signals to each other.

Once you have done some studying, you can try out the signals yourself.

You can practice with your own dog.

Ideas for practice

Stand at a little distance from your dog, facing the dog. Remember that face-to-face encounters with strangers cause calming signals to flow. Your own dog might be slow to give signals, because she's used to you, but you can probably start the flow by using some signals yourself. Watch your dog out of the corner of your eye, without staring directly at your dog.

You could probably start the flow by making slightly threatening gestures, but I don't ever do that to any dog. I want dogs to be comfortable with me. That's how I build trust in dogs, whether they are mine or not.

I have my own preferred signals to use. They are, turning my head to the side, looking away, sliding eyes somewhat. The sliding eyes let me glance quickly at my dog so I can see what she is doing.

Also, I like to turn my side or back to my dog. When approaching my dog, I curve, or even zig-zag, going first in one direction at a slight angle to my dog, then in another, at another angle. Or I make a big circle and come up beside my dog, facing in the same direction as the dog.

I don't much yawn or lick my lips, but those are good signals too. You can use them if you like them.

For sniffing the ground, you can crouch down and scratch the ground with fingers. For a play-bow, you can stretch your arms forward. For freezing, you can lean a bit backward. Sitting down is very easy to do. So is lying down on your belly. Depending, of course, where you are.

Encouragement for you!

Go have fun with your dog! Your dog will love you all the more for your speaking his language.

Useful World-Wide-Web resources

Calming Signals Community

Turid's Schedule

Copyright © 2005 by Carol Whitney

Permission granted to Magda Urban for translation, one-time magazine publication and use on her web site. All other rights reserved.

Index to Articles

Back to top

You are CoDog number

counter ocr2

Last modified on
Sunday, 12-Oct-2008 17:16:25 PDT

It is now
Thursday, 03-Dec-2020 15:48:33 PST

valid css!
Valid XHTML 1.0!

Back to top

Reflecting Stars
All material on this site except where noted is
Copyright © 1995-2014 by Carol Whitney. All rights reserved.
For reprint permissions, send email in plain text only, to Carol Whitney