Have you ever thought about what the world would be like if we could all communicate with no language barriers? In 1887, the language “esperanto” was invented with the intention of it becoming the universal language, today it is the most spoken “constructed language” in the world. But we are still a long way off having a universal language that would be native to man! It would be like a science fiction film!
Dogs continue to surprise (and teach) us for good reason, they have a universal native language that allows them to communicate with their fellow creatures all over the world. Calming signals are an important part of this language. Human beings use a multitude of signals to calm people around them down and thus avoid daily arguments. And like us, dogs also have to say every now and again: “I don’t want any problems”, “leave me be”, “I come in peace”.
Learn to recognise some calming signals
Dog owners often cause problems when dogs are communicating with each other. Many misunderstandings and confrontations between two dogs passing each other in the street are a result of our compulsion to want to “protect” them or make them interact with each other.
If you learn to recognise some of these canine calming signals, not only will you know and understand dogs better, but your dog will be more balanced and happy.
Sometimes, as a result of ignorance, dog owners discipline their dog’s behaviour when they are simply communicating with their fellow dogs the only way they know how. This can cause serious behavioural problems because they will stop communicating with other dogs and, little by little, they will completely cease acting like a dog.
Some calming signals
Licking their nose
Although you must learn to distinguish between situations when dogs lick their nose (when they are eating or want to eat for example), if they are walking along the road and another dog passes by, it could be that your dog quickly and furtively licks their nose. The important thing is that this gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by the dog that is passing by, they will know at all times that your dog is troubled by their presence.
Turning their head
We often find it amusing when our dog turns its head when we try to give it a kiss or a cuddle. We jokingly say that they have turned us down. We are not far from the truth. Turning their head is the way your dog lets you know that they want to be left alone and that they don’t appreciate you invading their personal space. This doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t love you, they will also do this or even turn around completely when you tell them off. They simply want to tell you to calm down.
The same gesture also exists in communication between dogs. If a dog turns their head a few times when facing another dog, they are letting them know that they don’t want their space to be invaded and are asking them to back away a bit.
Sniffing the ground
When a dog is walking calmly in a park and, out of nowhere, an over excited dog comes hurtling at them, looking for a friend to play with, it is common to see the calm dog sniff the ground, as if they are looking for something. The excited dog will change their behaviour and start to sniff the ground with their new friend. This means that they have understood that they were a little too excited and that they have time to calm down before introducing themselves.
Your dog might also sniff the ground when you want to go home and pull on the lead. They simply want you to understand that you shouldn’t be in such a rush and that you should relax a bit.
Going a round about way to get to you or another dog
We sometimes get the impression that our dog is taking an imaginary bend to get to us or another dog (sometimes while sniffing the ground) when a straight line would be the quickest route. By doing this your dog is telling the other dog that they come in peace and they want to get to know them or simply hang around in the same area and that they are not a threat.
When dogs are angrily called back by their owners and behave like this, we often think that our dog is mocking us. They simply want to tell us “I’ve understood, I´m coming, please don’t punish me”.
Turning away from their playmate
When two dogs are playing and one of them is a little brusque, it is common to see the other dog turn so that the playful dog is facing their side, or even completely turn away from them and face the opposite direction. This behaviour is telling the other dog that they are a little bit too rough for their liking and they want to play more gently.
When an excited dog is coming in your direction, it might be that your dog sits to let the other dog know that their behaviour and and excited state are not acceptable. Your dog will also sit down when you tell them off with a stern voice.
Except for the morning yawn, if your dog yawns in front of another dog, they are simply trying to calm the other dog down and tell them that “by their side, everything will be fine”. Yawning is also a sign of self-calming that allows them to relax.
Communicate with your dog!
Do you want to learn to talk to your dog?
Start by learning their language!
Turid Rugaas, dog trainer and author of the book “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals” explains in her book how she succeeded in rehabilitating a dog that had a real fear of train noises when they would pass by very close to their house, thanks to calming signals.
Every time a train would pass by their house, the whole family would sit around the dog not looking at it and calmly start to yawn. After having repeated this for a few days, the dog understood that the train noise was not a threat and that their family was there to protect them.
A few weeks later, Turid visited the dog and noticed that the dog was sleeping and playing calmly when the train passed by. Mission complete!
Now comes the fun part of learning, watching your dog around other dogs. From now on you will understand some of the signs that, before reading this article, went unnoticed. We invite you to discover even more by reading Turid Rugaas´ book; this will help you to better understand your dog and interpret for yourself the intentions of dogs that you pass in the street.