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A Yawn is Not Just a Yawn

How our pups calm themselves and others down through the use of "Calming Signals"

According to Turid Rugaas author of On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals our dogs have inherited behavioral signals from wolves and it is a "truly universal language" that allows us to communicate with them wherever we meet them if we familiarize ourselves with what to look for. Rugaas further states that there are 30 known signals used not only as calming signals but for other things as well in other situations.


So, with so many signals what are some of the major ones it is advisable for us to learn and what exactly do they mean? Here are some examples:

  • Did you ever notice how a dog turns his head away when you try to take a photo of him? He's telling you he's uncomfortable with this. Dogs will also turn their heads away when approaching another dog in order to avoid conflict and before happily greeting each other. You can do this when meeting a dog who looks scared and is growling; simply turn your head to one side to help him feel better.

  • When a dog wants to appear non-confrontational to another dog he will "shorten the eye" meaning he'll lower his eyelids a little making the stare softer. You can do this with a dog when you're at eye level with him and he seems uncomfortable stand up so your eyes will naturally appear "shortened" when you look down at the dog.

  • Turning the side or back to someone is very calming. Dogs do this to each other and you can do it to dogs when they show signs of aggression or nervousness just turn your back on them.

  • The tongue flick or licking of the nose is not necessarily one for human performance but for a dog, he will use it to calm himself such as when someone is standing over him or when someone approaches directly with an outstretched hand as well as at other times of discomfort

  • You may notice a dog will freeze and not move a muscle (ex. stopping standing, sitting, or lying down) when he feels uncomfortable, such as when a large dog approaches or when a human gets angry and he wants to calm the human down.

  • Moving slowly has a calming effect whether it be the dog or the human.

  • The recognizable "play bow" where the dog has his butt in the air is typical when one dog wants to play with another but can also be a way for a dog to express his desire to avoid conflict with another dog.

  • If a dog turns his back on you and sits down, or even just sits when another dog approaches he is sending a calming signal out. You can use this with your dog when he is stressed and cannot relax by sitting down yourself. (note- lying down is an even stronger signal)

  • Lying belly up is a sign of submission but belly down is calming. You can use this with a stressed dog by laying down on the sofa and allowing the dog to come to you.

  • Yawning is another calming signal you can use with our dogs and one that they use often to calm themselves down (for example, when they go to the Vet or ride in the car). If you yawn intentionally it can help when your dog feels uncertain, a little scared, stressed, or worried or when you just want him to calm down a little.

  • Although sniffing is commonly used simply because the dog wants to smell the area it can also be used when he feels uncomfortable. This is another awkward one for humans to perform but can be mimicked by sitting down and pretending to scratch or to look for something on the ground.

  • Instead of a dog walking directly head-on into another dog or even a person he will often walk in a curve or a little distant from the other dog. Mature dogs consider it impolite to walk straight toward each other. If you sense a dog is fearful or angry try walking in a wide curve around the dog to calm him down.

  • Position your body between your dog and whatever is making him tense in order to calm him down.

  • A wagging tail is not always a sign of happiness but can also be used to try and calm you down when you're showing signs of anger. You must look at the whole dog to interpret it this way. That means the wagging tail is accompanied by the dog crawling towards you and whining or peeing. He's trying to say create peace.

  • Finally, the paw lift is another often used calming signal in dogs.

For further information on this intriguing topic please read Turid Rougaas' book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. It's a quick, easy read and your dog will thank you for showing an interest in helping him to be more relaxed in potentially stressful situations.



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