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Calming Signals in Dogs

by Sally Sizer

A woman by the name of Turid Rugaas recently wrote a book entitled “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals in Dogs.” Calming signals can best be described as how canines communicate with each other through the use of body language. Turid believes that dogs, being pack animals, have a language for communication with each other. It consists of a large variety of signals, using body, face, ears, tail, sounds, movement and expression. If we study the signals dogs use with each other and use them ourselves, we increase our ability to communicate with our dogs. This in turn, will result in and maintain a healthy social hierarchy and resolution of conflict within the pack.

The signals are used by both wolf and domesticated dog alike, except in wolves the signals come over in capital letters due to them being in a life situation, in domesticated dogs they come over in smaller letters if you like. They are used to prevent things from happening such as avoiding threats from people and dogs, calming down nervousness, fear, noise and unpleasant things. They are used for calming themselves when they feel stressed or to make others around them (both dog and human) feel safer and understand the goodwill the signals tell about.

As Turid rightly says, "Wolves and dogs try to avoid conflict, they are conflicting-solving animals. It is usually US, the human species, who make conflicts between our dogs and us. Lets look at that communication within a scenario: Your dog comes up to you and fusses around you, you command him to SIT. The commanding tone makes your dog yawn before he sits down. You go out the door, he pulls a little and you jerk him back, he then turns his back on you and puts his nose to the ground. 

You let him off leash at the park and when its time to go home you call your dog. Was your voice a little stressed? Your dog starts moving towards you slowly and in a curve. You think he does it to annoy you and you yell at him. He sniffs the ground, curves even more and looks away from you. He finally comes to you and you scold him or, even worse, you shake him up. He turns his face from you, licking his nose or yawning.

Dogs use these signals as soon as there is anything to calm down. Often signals come in quick movements and you have to really look to see them. By experience you will learn to see them, just as other dogs see them, even other animals, like cats. All it takes is a little patience and practice. Just imagine being able to travel the world and everywhere you go you speak the same language!  No matter what size/sex/breed/color/shape all dogs inherited this language. Dogs and Wolves have strong instincts for conflict solving, communication and cooperation. Listed below are examples of calming signals:

1. Turning of the head - This can be swift, turning the head to the side and back, or held to the side. This is a sign the dog is not comfortable. Examples of this are often seen: His head may turn if you stoop over him, or if another dog approaches him too fast, or if she finds a camera being pointed in her direction scary. You can use the turning of your head to communicate to a dog that seems scared and starts to growl or bark at you. Sometimes it’s not the head, but the eyes only from side to side and look away to avert a direct stare. Your dog may use it if you stare at him or approach front to front.

2. Turning away - Turning the side or back to someone is very calming. When dog’s play and that game gets Wild dogs will start turning their side or back, just to calm the game down a little. Your dog may use it if another dog acts threateningly, or growls at him. You can use it when a dog shows signs of nervousness or aggressiveness to you. If he jumps at you, turn away and most times he will stop. If your approaching a strange dog and you see the dog getting nervous, turn your back and more often than not the dog will come to you.

3. Licking Noses - A quick movement of the tongue, so quick it is often missed. Your dog may use it, along with other signals when approaching another dog, if you the owner bends over the dog, holds him tight, grabs him or talks to him angrily. It is one signal we as humans cannot use, we are not quick enough!

4. Yawning - The most intriguing of the signals, at least people seem to enjoy using it. Your dog may yawn when you visit the Vets, when you fight or quarrel in the family, when you hold your dog too tight, when a child comes up to hug him, and many other situations. You can use it when your dog feels uncertain, a little scared, stressed, worried or when you want him to calm down a bit.

5. Shaking off - Not to be confused with shaking off water after a rainstorm or bath, this calming signal is used quite often with dogs. Here’s an excellent example: an adult dog that is not normally aggressive is playing with a young puppy that becomes a bit too rambunctious. As a result, the adult dog ends up getting accidentally bitten in the ear by the puppy. The adult dog, in turn, puts a big paw on the puppy, ‘pins’ him to the ground, ‘makes eye contact’ with him and ‘stares him down.’ The puppy sees these signals and stops the behavior. The adult dog then releases the puppy, backs up just a bit and ‘shakes off.’ By exhibiting this physical behavior, the adult dog is ‘diffusing’ or ‘shaking off’ the nervous energy around him as if to say ‘I’m sorry I did that to you, but don’t bite me again!’ Hopefully, the puppy will get the message and will be more respectful of the adult in the future.

If you would like to purchase Turid Rugaas’ book on Calming Signals, here is additional information (this book can be purchased through

Title: On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals
Turid Rugaas
: $9.95

This book is also available in video form.



Peaceful Paws AAT
Sally Sizer, President
179 Malabar Drive
Westbrook, CT  06498






Mystic CT
Holistic Resource

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