Reactive Dogs: Understanding Calming Signals June 21, 2011

Lip-licking is one of the most common calming signals. (Photo Credit: Dave Lindblom)

What is a calming signal?Calming signals are behaviors that dogs naturally exhibit when they are feeling stressed and are trying to diffuse a situation. Norwegian dog trainer and author Turid Rugaas coined the phrase “calming signals” and she has identified approximately thirty behaviors as such. These include: licking the lips, showing the whites of the eye, sniffing the ground, turning away (either just the head, or the entire body), lifting a front paw, yawning, full-body shaking (as if the dog is trying to dry herself off after a bath), and panting. These are documented in her excellent book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.

Clearly, these signals need to be taken in context. A dog that is panting on a hot summer day, or a dog sniffing a popular fire hydrant, is not likely to be stressed out. Look for these signs when there is a sudden environmental change, like a person or dog approaching, or if you are working on a particular training exercise and your dog doesn’t seem to be “paying attention” — someone or something may be stressing him out to the point that he is unable to focus on you. Take note if you see multiple signs at the same time, like panting and sniffing the ground.

Why do I need to know about calming signals? Dogs naturally use these signals to communicate not only with other dogs, but also with humans. Failure to read and understand calming signals stresses out the dog and that stress can result in the dog escalating his body language to the point of a snap or a bite.

On her website, Turid writes, “By failing to see your dog using calming signals on you, and perhaps even punish the dog for using them, you risk causing serious harm to your dog. Some may simply give up using the calming signals, including with other dogs. Others may get so desperate and frustrated that they get aggressive, nervous or stressed out as a result. Puppies and young dogs may actually go into a state of shock.”

How do calming signals relate to reactive dogs? It is very common for a reactive dog to offer one or more calming signals immediately prior to having a reaction. By watching for these calming signals, we can act to diffuse the situation.

One popular method of rehabilitating reactive dogs is called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). Pioneered by dog trainer Grisha Stewart, BAT training reinforces the dog for using appropriate calming signals in situations where they are fearful, nervous, or just unsure of how to act, instead of reacting inappropriately (lunging, barking, snarling, etc). (I’m going to address BAT and other training techniques more in-depth in my next blog post, so stay tuned.)

Regardless of the training method you are using, learning about calming signals will still benefit your dog’s rehabilitation process. If you notice your dog exhibiting calming signals, it is a cue to you to get the dog out of that particular situation and alleviate some of her stress.

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