Can There Be Better Communication with Calming Signals?
On a beautiful sunny day, you take your dog to the local dog park. Taking her off the leash once you close the gate, she immediately takes off. She comes to a complete stop when catching sight of another dog and approaches slowly, coming at an angle. The other dog stops and sniffs the ground and sneezes twice. Your dog finally reaches the other dog and they both lick their lips and go into a play bow. Greetings finished, they start to play by jumping and bowing.
What did you just witness? If Norwegian dog behaviorist Turid Rugaas is to be believed, your dogs acted out a complicated social dance with several behaviors she calls calming signals (Rugaas, 2013).
What Are Calming Signals?
Calming signals are behaviors observed in dogs when interacting with either humans or other dogs. Ms. Rugaas believes calming signals are to prevent conflict within a group. Basically, they are the grease that keeps a social interaction from going badly – such as when people smile at each other when first meeting.
This can include behaviors such as; licking the lips or nose, sniffing the ground, yawning, scratching, looking or turning away, play bowing, sitting or lying down, softening the ears to look more puppy-like, or any number of thirty or more behaviors.
When two dogs interact with a complicated display of nose licking, head turning, and yawning, Ms. Rugaas believes we are watching a complicated conversation take place. In order to best communicate with our dogs, she feels we have to interpret and adapt to this behavior instead of ignore it. By pushing a dominant and aggressive training behavior in people, dog behaviorists are disregarding the natural language of dogs.
What the Research Says?
While Ms. Rugaas has an avid following, and is well-respected in the community, some question whether calming signals are related to stress levels in dog communication or if they are a basic communication style. In a pilot study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, researchers studied these interactions in depth. Scientists wanted to test whether the behaviors mentioned by Ms. Rugaas were used by dogs to prevent aggression or were used for another reason altogether (London, 2017).
In the study twenty-four dogs were observed. The researchers concluded that dogs are communicating with the behaviors listed as calming signals, but all the behaviors observed could also be the dog expressing stress in a difficult social meeting (Mariti, et al., 2017). In over half of the interactions an aggressive behavior was followed by a calming signal, which resulted in over three-quarters of the interactions resolving peacefully. In this example; the first dog approaches aggressively, the second dog licks their nose and turns the head away, the first dog accepts the behavior and stops aggressive behavior.
This study is too small to draw any conclusions, but the question of whether calming signals are normal behaviors of a stressed dog or a communication of the dog to calm everyone down is still up for debate. Everyone agrees, though, that there is a definite cause and effect relationship when these behaviors are used in social interactions.
What Does It Mean for Dog Owners?
Knowing that there are behaviors to look out for to communicate better with your animal can benefit your relationship with your dog! In many training classes, owners are taught to be aggressive and dominant with their dogs. The focus is that if you are not dominant in your relationship, your dog will not respect you as a pack leader. With this approach, dog owners are only seeing half of the conversation.
When training a new puppy to come when called, a new owner is often told to be firm and vocal in their training. The new puppy might sense this aggression and react by coming slowly, turning their head away, or laying down (all calming signals listed by Ms. Rugaas). The owner might be instructed to correct and repeat the command, ignoring the dog’s nonverbal communication for peace.
By ignoring the natural language of dogs, owners may confuse unhappy pets who are using the only language they know. This approach is true whether the dog is using a communication method, like Ms. Rugaas claims, or is just expressing a stress behavior, as researchers believe.
Dogs are one of the few species that yawn when their humans yawn (Joly-Mascheroni, Senju, & Shepherd, 2008), showing that dogs already communicate without words. Recognizing these signals as dogs use them can benefit their relationship with humans. If a dog is yawning or walking slowly, trainers can gentle their approach or try to find out a way to make the training less stressful. As a result, training will be more effective and the relationship between dog and owner will benefit.
By Lauren Pescarus, Jan. 27, 2017
Mariti, C., Flaaschi, C., Zilocchi, M., Fatjó, J., Sighieri, C., Ogi, A., & Gazzano, A. (2017). Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): A pilot study on the case of calming signals. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 18, 49-55. Retrieved January 27, 2018, from http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878(16)30246-5/abstract
London, K. B. (2017, June). Should We Call These Canine Behaviors Calming Signals? Retrieved January 27, 2018, from https://thebark.com/content/should-we-call-these-canine-behaviors-calming-signals
Joly-Mascheroni, R. M., Senju, A., & Shepherd, A. J. (2008). Dogs catch human yawns. Biology Letters, 446-448. Retrieved January 27, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2610100/.
Rugaas, T. (2013). Calming Signals - The Art of Survival. Retrieved January 27, 2018, from http://en.turid-rugaas.no/calming-signals---the-art-of-survival.html