This is the title of a book written by Turid Rugaas a Norwegian dog trainer and behavourist. She calls her book “On Talking terms with dogs: Calming Signals”
Turid talks about yawning, lip licking, head turning and many other signals that dogs use to communicate with one another and their humans. These signals are also the basis for the Doggonesafe (a non profit organisation) presentation against dog bites for which I am a presenter.
If your dog is awake, it is communicating to you. Besides the obvious body language, the dog uses very subtle and almost invisible signals. Dogs have the same ability and the same social skills to avoid conflicts as wolves. Conflict solving is part of their heritage and nature. They do not want a fight. They will use the 'fight' reaction as a last resort.
Dogs use these signals at an early stage in any tense situation. They talk, using the signals to calm themselves, to convey peace, to calm others or to show goodwill. I teach children and adults to notice these signals helping them make informed decisions around familiar and unfamiliar dogs.
According to Turid there are at least 30 signals. Some are very subtle and some are so swift that you can hardly see them. It takes experience and awareness to pick up your dog’s signals.
Watch your dog at home, find these signals in the dog park (you will realise that most dogs are more stressed in the dog park than happy) or as you walk out with your dog. Notice, how your dog communicates with other dogs or how other dogs communicate in return. Here are a few signals.
Head Turning. Have you ever noticed that when you point your camera at a dog to take a photo … it turns its head! How frustrating!
The camera is equivalent to a direct stare with your eyes, so a dog will turn its head to divert the gaze, which is considered threatening in 'dog speak'.
Dogs off lead will stand facing each other but you may notice that one will look one way and the other will look the other way. This is 'Dog Curtesy'. Like a human shaking another's hand. Direct eye contact is bad manners in 'Dog Speak'.
Licking. Licking is a sign that a dog is thinking, unsure and watching. I see this signal a lot out in the street when i am walking a big confident dog. The smaller dogs lick their lips furiously in an effort to convey to the big dog that they are not a threat and please to leave them alone.
Sniffing. This may be used as a long signal, where the dog will put its nose to the ground and move around sniffing, or it may be a very quick movement, a dip to the ground and then the nose comes back up. This has been used on me! A sweet visitor to my flat picked up that i was a little frazzled and she started to sniff around the room! She was calming me down!
Yawning. A dog may yawn if there is a fight within the family, or if a person starts to hug a dog. Yawning can also be used when a dog knows that it is going into a situation that it does not enjoy. I have used this signal to calm a dog that is aggressive when i go to leave its flat. I yawn and yawn, and it stares at me in absolute calmness.
Curving. Look at dogs greeting each other in the street. Notice how they may approach each other in a half circle. This is 'Dog Courtesy'.
A paw lift. I walk a dog regularly every Tuesday. Before she comes to me she stands at a distance with her paw lifted. I signal to her that i am not a threat by sitting with my back to her. This is another signal.
Blinking eyes or the white half moon eye. If a dog is holding onto a bone and you approach it, you may notice the white half moon in the eye, or if you take a photo of the dog, you will see the white half moon.
Humans tend to notice the other more obvious body language like standing big and tall, growling, or that the dog has raised its hackles. But these are not calming signals. These are signals that tell of the dogs arousal or excitement. The calming signals are more important and indicate the subtle thoughts of the dog before the dog becomes aroused.
Also be aware that dogs may communicate using one signal more than another. For example a black dog may prefer to yawn or a little dog may prefer to lift its paw.
Take your time with your observations. Enjoy your increased awareness. Sit on a bench and watch. There is a silent conversation going on all around us.