Dogs live in social groups, and as such benefit from subtle communication signals to convey messages to one another. Conflict can result in injuries, and so dogs have become masters at communicating and diffusing situations so they can live in harmony.
Dogs communicate with humans as well. However, we may not be aware of their subtle signals as they are not part of our everyday ‘body language dictionary’. This can lead to humans misinterpreting the signals that are given by our dogs.
For example, signals which are meant to appease and calm us could be read by us as the “guilty look” (brought on by our own body language). For example, you return home to your 2 dogs, and walk into the kitchen where you find a urine puddle on the floor. You look over and one dog looks at you very “guiltily”.
Chances are, this dog had nothing to do with the urine accident, but he is reading your upset body language and responds by emitting “calming signals” to diffuse the situation. Similarly, we may ignore or not recognise threatening signals. For example when we intrude into an unfamiliar dog’s space and misread/ignore their warning signals, we may end up getting hurt.
In some cases, our dogs may even give up displaying some of the calming signals with us if we keep ignoring them. This is called “extinction.” Other dogs may become anxious and frustrated when they cannot predict our responses to their communication. Dogs that don’t signal properly can get themselves into trouble socially.
Dog body language involves all parts of the body, and consists of a large number of signals, using their body, face (ears, eyes, mouth and lips), tail, hackles, and using sounds, movements and expressions.
It benefits us to study and understand their signals, and we may even be able to use them ourselves to diffuse situations or calm a dog down.
Calming signals include:
This can be a swift head movement or the head can be held to the side for a while. It can be an obvious movement or a tiny movement. You may spot it when your dog is approached too fast or head on, or towered over (by another dog or person). The movement may be so subtle that only the eyes move and look away.
You can use this head turning signal yourself when you notice a dog getting worried when you approach. Definitely don’t stare into a dog’s eyes, this is rude and confrontational.
When dogs play you may see them turning their side or back to one another to calm things down. You may notice your dog doing it in the park when your dog is approached by another dog and he feels threatened. Again you can use this signal yourself if a dog seems uneasy with your presence.
Moving in a curve
Not approaching another dog or person head-on, but rather in a semi-circle is calming and non-confrontational.
Lip licking can indicate a dog is worried or trying to appease another dog or person. The flick of the tongue can be very quick so may be missed, but do recognise it as a calming signal.
This is freezing in place, i.e. standing or sitting or lying very still, without moving a muscle, as a way of trying to be invisible in the face of a perceived threat. Be careful if you see this behaviour in a dog, because if you continue to approach, the only two options the dog may perceive to have is either to flee or fight, which may result in injury.
Slow movements can be used as a calming effect on people and dogs. You can use this yourself if you want to calm a scared dog or approach a dog carefully.
Can be a true sign of itchiness but in certain situations it may indicate some nervousness and need to potentially diffuse a situation.
Sniffing the ground
Again this could be a true sniffing for information on a walk, but in certain circumstances dogs can do it to look away and appear busy. Commonly this is seen in a new situation or when they are approached by another dog or person on walks. You need to see the behaviour in context to assess if it is a calming signal or not. It can be a swift movement or can take several minutes.
If a dog lays down with its belly on the ground, this is a strong calming signal.
The “dry dog shake”
If a dog shakes like it would after swimming, but does so when completely dry, it may be a signal of nervousness.
You can yawn as well if you feel your dog is a bit worried or you want him to calm down.
Pawing, lifting paw, or play bow
Dropping the front legs on the floor with hind legs standing, may be an invitation to play but it can also be a calming signal. We can mimic this by stretching our arms (like when yawning) but direct the stretch downwards.
We may, without realising it, display to our dogs signals that are threatening to them. Examples include staring, approaching them head-on, and standing over them. Other examples of threatening signs in dog language are growling, barking (in certain contexts), baring their front teeth with a tight mouth, lips pulled back, and raised hackles. These signs do not mean the dog is trying to dominate, it more likely means he feels fearful or conflicted in a situation, and in certain cases he may see no other way out than to attack. He will then learn from this behaviour and may use the “attack” defence in the future.
Try to take the time to watch and observe your dog in different situations. See if you can recognise some of the signals used, or pick one signal and try to identify it in your dog and other dogs on your walks or park visits.
Understanding our dog’s language will ultimately make for more confident happy pets and owners. To learn more about dog communication and behavior, feel free to contact Cronulla Veterinary Clinic today.