Understanding Your Dog's Language: Calming Signals

Have you heard of "calming signals" in dogs? This is such an important topic for anyone who shares their life with a dog because calming signals are a type of canine communication and recognizing them will help you better understand your dog.

Calming signals are a communicative concept introduced by Norwegian dog trainer, Turid Rugaas in her book that was published in 1996 called, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. In her publication, Rugaas introduces and describes about 30 different forms of body language or communication which dogs use in their social interactions with other dogs.

Particularly interesting to those of us living or working with dogs, Rugaas's work on calming signals demonstrate that these signals are observed when one or more of the dogs aren't comfortable with the interaction or perceives an intended threat by another dog. Rugaas was the first to talk about the use of calming signals by dogs to avoid conflict or aggressive acts by another dog.

Rugaas's observations also gave some important insight into how dog's communicate with humans when they are uncomfortable or feeling stressed. Dogs respond to human interactions the only way they know how, which of course is through the use of body language; so although Rugaas wrote about dog-dog interactions and the use of calming signals, dogs communicate with us by using the same signals. 

Any list of the most common calming signals should include:

  • Looking away [turning the head to the side away from the other dog]
  • Turning away [here the whole body is turned so that the side or back faces the other dog]
  • Yawning
  • Making a "soft face" [including ears back, eyelids lowered, forehead smoothed, mouth closed]
  • Freezing [stopping all movement regardless of whether the dog is standing, sitting, or lying down]
  • Lip licking [or nose licking, or just flicking the tongue in front of the face]
  • Sniffing the ground [as if interested or exploring something there]
  • SittingLying down [belly against the ground, paws out in front]
  • Raising one pawScratching [as if the dog is simply responding to an itch]
  • Shake off [this can be a slight shake or involve the entire body as if it was wet]
  • Play bow
  • Blinking
  • Slow movements
  • Slow tail wagging with the tail held low
  • Moving in a curve [when approaching or leaving the dog shows its side and does not approach the front of the other dog directly]
  • Lip smacking

Behaviour is simply a way your dog can communicate something and calming signals will indicate to you when they are feeling uncomfortable. Calming signals will be observed when a dog is at or has passed the threshold of aversiveness which is above a level 6 on the arousal scale. Generally they will use very subtle signals at first but if they are ignored, unintentionally or with intention, the dog can escalate up a ladder that leads to a more intense way to express their discomfort. 

At this point the defensive mechanisms in the nervous system are firing (this is the Orange Zone) and if not careful, a dog will quickly move into survival strategies (Red Zone) which could be fight, flight or freeze related behaviour. It's really important to pay attention to your dog's signals so they don't reach this point and never force them into a situation that makes them uncomfortable. 

When your dog is showing signs of stress, via calming signals, that means it is time to change the environment, situation or circumstances that they are currently in to provide them a sense of safety (and activate the Green Zone).

Calming signals are normal communication for dogs, as are aggressive signals. This is just simply how dogs communicate to avoid or resolve conflicts. Typically, in a dog-dog interaction I will allow these "conversations" to take place as long as the aggressor responds well to the calming signal of the other dog.

If a dog is using calming signals to indicate they are no threat by using calming signals and the aggressor continues to escalate in their aggression, humans must positively step in to redirect this before it turns into an attack and then immediately provide some decompression or reduction of stress levels. 

Here is a nice illustration by Lilli Chen of common calming signals that we often talk about in our work together. Lily Chin also has a wonderful book: Doggie Language: A Dog Lover's Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend with illustrations of canine body language. 

Now you can start to watch for these signals and note when they happen to have a better understanding of the situations your dog thrives in and which ones they don't.

Comments (2)



Jan 24, 2022 02:30 PM PST

Hi Niki, just rereading this blog on calming signals and I do have a question: When we go on walks and come across another dog, Tiko will lay down with his paws out front, which I've read above is considered a calming signal. He'll then get up and walk a few paces and lay back down. Often this repeats multiple times by the time we actually reach the dog. Sometimes he does this and he seems really excited to meet the dog. Other times he almost slinks - it looks like he is stalking... if he's nervous or scared he won't do this, but will stick real close and hide behind me. (This rarely happens. It seems he wants to meet all the doggies although we definately don't...) Are these signals showing that he is managing his stress? Or do they show that he is overstressed already? Thanks for any comments or insight, Gaila


Niki Perry

Feb 08, 2022 04:23 PM PST

Hi Gaila! It really depends on the situation. If there are clusters of other signals at the same time, I think he could be in a defensive state already, but it does sound like he is trying to manage his emotions on his own. I would encourage him to walk away and sniff if he is feeling too pressured in that moment and don't keep him there longer than a few seconds. Watch for a "shake off" after the greeting =)

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